Here is chapter 2 for anyone still interested. This took a while longer to write because I went through several attempts to edit out grammar and tense mistakes. Once again, critiques and other goodies are appreciated.
â€œButâ€¦thatâ€™s not possible,â€ Fenris said as she backed away from the other woman. The ghostly woman had a soft amber glow, but it did nothing to illuminate the room. The orange light from the brazier that burned outside barely crossed the doorway, yet something bathed the room with daylight. Fenris jerked as her back touched the rear wall. As she pushed herself away from the wall her hands came away with a thick layer of dust.
A perfect aqua-hued eyebrow rose on the womanâ€™s face. â€œHardly impossible, dear girl. Really, I would think living this close to the Wyld would broaden a girlâ€™s perspective on reality.â€ The woman sighed at Fenrisâ€™ wide eyed stare, â€œWell I can see that this isnâ€™t going well at all. Donâ€™t you have to be someplace right now, little Fenris of clan Valâ€™Cera?â€
Fenris blinked. â€œHow did you-â€œ she started to ask but stopped when she caught her reflection in one of the golden sarcophagi. A disk of gold shown prominently on her forehead, the top filled while the bottom half remained empty. When she looked up again the apparition was gone, as suddenly as she had appeared. She felt for the mark with a dirty hand, but felt nothing except for comfortable warmth.
â€œWhat did he do to meâ€¦â€ she murmured, recalling the soul-drinkerâ€™s hands upon her and the hungry gaze that made her feel like a ship caught in a maelstrom. She prayed that she wasnâ€™t going mad, for that was what her clansmen would think of all thisâ€¦
â€œThe lodge!â€ she exclaimed and spun on her heel towards the rough walls. Her feet kicked up a cloud of dust that had not known movement for centuries. She swept her hands across the tombâ€™s unadorned walls. Deep finger thick marks covered the room in neat columns and perfect rows.
She found no pressure plate, no slight draft, nothing that could hint at an escape from the burial chamber, except for the door she fell through. She forcefully blew a stray lock of pale hair that had fallen across her face and marched back into the lobby. The walls, though covered in frescos, also bore the same claw etched construction.
Fenris eyed the chute warily, but it seemed to be the only way in or out of the tomb. There was room enough for her to climb comfortably without it feeling too claustrophobic. Whatever burrowed into the tree to make this tomb was man sized. The slope was steep, but it was not impossible. She took a deep breath and reached up. Dust swirled around her pant legs and a small pang of regret settled in her stomach as her soft fur boots dug into the carved relief to gain a foothold.
She brushed those thoughts aside as well. There was a dread that festered in her heart that she had to quell. The lodgeâ€™s wards had kept them safe for generations and her clanâ€™s warriors were fierce, but she needed to see them with her own eyes.
As she climbed, she discovered that the chute formed a spiral. It quickly doused the ambient glow from the brazier, but the light from her forehead did not fade. To her amazement her muscles no longer ached, from the fall or her blind run before. The climb quickly became an easy and pleasant distraction.
It reminded her of the collection of support pillars and beams in her clanâ€™s lodge. There she learned to climb under the stern eyes of her father. Her hands and feet moved with experience as she continued her ascent. The wall of the tunnel was rough and resembled a long burrow rather than a proper tunnel. Minutes ticked away but there was still no sign of when the tunnel would end. Then the light from her brow faded and vanished, and left her in the dark. Just how far did she fall?
When she reach the top and pulled herself onto the heavy branch that concealed the chute she saw that the perpetual gloom had darkened to night. She grimaced. One did not want to be away from the lodge when night falls. She picked at the thick patches of dust that covered her white wool shirt and brown pants. They were torn by her flight through the forest canopy. At least they kept her modesty. There was dust in her long hair as well, a sweaty mess with bits of twigs and leaves stuck in it.
She looked into the gloom to try to gain her bearings. An owl darted between the trees and she spotted the occasional lemur hurrying along the upper branches. She was still a hundred and fifty feet above the Tangle, the level where her clan lived. The canopy towered above her for fifty feet or so, but she could not see where she had fallen from. The soft blue-white glow of the bright moss that grew below was her guide as she began her climb down. The thick and gnarled bark of the ancient trees which provided convenient ledges and handholds, coupled with years of practice, allowed her to make a smooth decent.
The boughs of the Tangle were the thickest of all the Eastern Woods. So thick and knotted, they resembled rock formations. Very few leaves grew here, unlike the forbidden canopy high above known as the Green. The touch of the seasons did not reach this deep in the woods. Instead, bright moss covered the landscape ranging from patches no larger than a footprint to literal fields among the wider branches. Rain water from storms above the treetops also trickled down the web of cervices and grooves over the course of weeks, which formed the intricate network of streams and waterfalls that fed the massive forest.
It was night when she reached the Tangle. Luckily, the bright moss was plentiful and it guided her steps as she started her run back to the lodge. After she crossed her seventh street-long mesh of branches, she came across a narrow stream. As she crossed it with a hop she spotted a deeply pitted tree trunk. It was there where her cousin Hakon taught her to use a bow without the knowledge of her father.
Flowers, vines and fruit of all shapes and colors thrived near the streams. Vines as thick as a manâ€™s forearm extended their tendrils far from sources of water, some painting elaborate nets around whole tree trunks. From these vines soft, orange colored fruit grew in tight clusters. The vines also held blooms of every shade, which drew upon the prolific dark green ropes for sustenance.
Fenris recognized many of these for their medicinal and other uses as she hurried through the area. The women of her clan were required to know and understand what the forest had to offer. So when she spotted the Butterfly Blossom, she knew the bulbs were used to soothe wounds and the petals made a fragrant and heady tea. She knew that Skimmerâ€™s Favor was a tiny white bloom whose tough stalk has saved many a lost clansmen from starvation.
The stream collected into a small pool near the fertile patch before it snaked down hundreds of feet into the darkness her people knew as the Evergloom. She recognized this place. The women from her clan came here often for herbs and fruit. As a child she had often played near the poolâ€™s pure waters with the other girls. The lodge was not far. Her pace picked up at the realization. She could not stop now. Minutes passed with only the rapid thump of her soft hide boots against wood for company.
Five more house-wide trunks passed by before she started to see her lodgeâ€™s runic crest etched into the passing tree trunks, which marked the clanâ€™s holdings. Three parallel slash marks split by one vertical slash. They were boldly etched into every tree in a wide circle around the lodge. As she passed through the markers, a moment of red on white appeared at the edge of her vision. Unwilling to dismiss it, she changed her direction and sped towards the out-of-place colors. As she neared, she spotted the armband that carried her clanâ€™s crest. And the redness was blood.
The man looked young and had a build that was used to exercise and labor. He was propped up against the side of a tree in a pool of blood. His arms were lying limply at his side. A discarded bow lay several yards away. His white shirt was torn open, as was much of his right shoulder and arm. A nasty gash poured his life down his face, making it almost unrecognizable. But oh gods she did recognize him.
â€œHakon!â€ she called out and knelt by her cousinâ€™s side.
She felt him stir under her hand, and then he groaned but did not move. His eyes did not open. But his breast expanded for a strained breath. â€œFenâ€¦risâ€¦?â€ he said through clenched teeth. His left arm shot up to clutch at the wound on his chest and shoulder but she held him back. It looked as though an axe had almost cleft his shoulder in two. She could see the bones of his collar and shoulder, splintered and horrible.
â€œDonâ€™t move,â€ she pleaded. His blood washed her hands red. She pulled away after she settled him down. Her hands shook uncontrollably.
â€œPlease save your strength,â€ but her cousin shook his head in minute motions. Panic choked her from within just as surely as the tears that welled up in her eyes. â€œWho did this to you?â€ but he did not answer. She needed to stop the bleeding or he was going to die. â€œI-Iâ€™ll be right back, Hakon. J-Justâ€¦stay awake! Okay?!â€ She heard her voice crack.
She ran towards the patch of vegetation she had crossed through earlier. Everything was wrong. Self-accusations filled her mind. Why did she have to go up to the forbidden heights? Why did Hakon have to suffer as he did?
Of all her friends and cousins at the lodge, Hakon had been the one to teach her to hunt, to safely explore the Tangle. He was everyoneâ€™s favorite son. He was the only one to buy the fanciful explorerâ€™s journals from the few merchants that traveled to their lodge every few months. He bought them just so he could sneak them to her under her fatherâ€™s nose. He was the kindest man she had ever known. Why did he have to lie, bleeding to death in the middle of the forest?
Her body seemed to move with agonizing slowness. The boughs themselves seemed to stretch out farther as she dashed down them. Tree trunks took longer to near her. There was a stillness in the air as though the forest held its breath. One tree. Then later, a second. Finally the third came into view and she saw the stream glittering in the bright mossâ€™ illumination.
She sprinted through the length of the last two trees. In her rush, she sent clumps of bright moss into the air as she plowed through to the center of the moss patch. Feather Clot. It was an herb that grew in small mounds in the middle of larger sized areas of bright moss. She needed the sticky filaments that grew around the stems. They stung like liquor on a gash but nothing staunched bleeding better. She ripped the plants apart, ignoring the old rule of maintaining the herbs for future harvests.
It did not take long for her to gather two handfuls of the sticky substance. It felt like a misshapen ball of feathers and honey in her hands. â€œIâ€™m coming, Hakon,â€ she whispered into the wind and began her dash back to her cousin. The small mound of Feather Clot plants destroyed and forgotten.
Trees flew by as she crossed from bough to bough. As she ran she felt a strange warmth spread through her body, soothing her muscles with gentle heat. The frantic beating of her heart slowed to a steady rhythm. It filled her with strength. Her movements were faster, surer. Her jumps and dashes were made with less effort than she ever remembered them to be. Had she noticed, she would have been amazed to find herself able to run on branches no wider than a toe without slowing.
She returned to discover that the bleeding had stopped. In the places on her cousinâ€™s face that blood did not mask, she saw skin as pale as incense ash. The shallow rise and fall of his breast was gone. A choked sob escaped her lips. â€œNo. No, damn it. Youâ€™re going to be okay.â€ She fell to his side and rubbed the Feather Clot into the wound. Hakon did not even flinch. His only movements were caused by Fenrisâ€™ shivering hands. â€œThis will help you. Youâ€™ll be fine.â€ She tried staying calm, and pressed the herbs in the wound just as she had been taught, but her vision blurred. Her head swam and her slender frame shuddered with sobs. And finally, she let all the grief out of her lungs.
Fenris knew that she had to get up. Her knees hurt from being hunched over for longer than she cared to recall. She needed to get back to the lodge, if nothing else but tell her father about Hakon. The thought sent another stony pain up her throat, but she managed to stand. A strong gust rustled the canopy above. The soft crackle of the leaves just a soft whisper. An owl hooted, and the forest continued on.
Her hands and clothes were caked in dried blood and Clot residue, though she did not notice. She gingerly took her cousinâ€™s left hand and kissed it. â€œForgive me, Hakon. I didnâ€™t know it would be like this. But the one who did this will answer for it. I swear it.â€
She then laid the hand on his lap. The soul drinking demon would pay for what he had done. She felt her body burn from the shame of her actions. If she had never succumbed to her curiosity Hakon would still be alive. She had dishonored herself and her clan, and her cousin paid for it. He had to be avenged, and it had to be by her hand. The honor of the Valâ€™Cera clan demanded nothing less.
She burst into a run, slowing only to scoop up her cousinâ€™s hunting bow. Soon every tree, every branch became familiar. She passed through the network of trees that made up the field of moss and flowers where she and her many cousins used to play tag. There were no children there now. But that was not strange, night had already fallen and everyone would have returned to the lodge by now.
The young treeskimmer cherished this belief. They were all safe. The warriors of clan Valâ€™Cera were bold and strong. They would have surely driven the soul-drinker away if it had been foolish enough to have attacked the lodge. They will be waiting for her to return. And she would be punished for her actions. And she would gladly suffer whatever punishment her chieftain, her father, decided to inflict.
The first thing she noticed when she neared her home was the lack of sound. The many birds and animals that played a constant symphony of noises were silent, and a cold chill fell across the grounds. It was not a cold caused by weather, but a sinister thing that attacked the will. It made the light appear dimmer and the shadows more oppressive.
She passed through the forest goat pens. They were empty save for several near black pools of blood on the ground. The two warriors that normally guarded the clanâ€™s livelihood were also missing. In the direction of the lodge, she heard inhuman shrieks and guttural roars. Her hope had been shattered.
Her body was numb as she traveled closer to the lodge itself. She saw more drying pools of blood. But there were no bodies, only the occasional discarded handaxe and tattered bit of upturned moss. Her legs felt weak as she walked on past several patches of blood soaked moss where she used to lay and dream of exploring the skies above.
It did not take long to reach the lodge. Perched on a mammoth bough with its back against the trunk, the lodge of clan Valâ€™Cera was a place of refugee in a strange world that warped those that stayed too long. Her ancestors discovered long ago that living among the vines drove men to madness and women to birth infants that were misshaped and foul.
Those that lived within the confines of a strange fence however, were spared from the madness that infected the woods. The fence was really just a series of wooden poles a handâ€™s length across and four feet tall. Writing that no one could decipher was etched into each pole with ink that glowed like the moss it surrounded. Her people called it the Foundation. It encircled almost four acres of field of bright moss with the lodge built beside the one tree trunk that stood within the fence. That tree brought water and with it, the promise of survival.
Forward she walked. One foot before the other as the shame and cold dread pressed down upon her. There was blood here too, splashed on the bright moss like spilled wine. Even the script on the Foundation glowed weakly. Her grip on Hakonâ€™s bow tightened. She took a bit of comfort from its presence, pulled an arrow from her quiver and kept her bow at the ready.
The lodge was a single imposing building of weathered wood built on a platform of polished timber. It towered over her with a roof that resembled a capsized canoe made of sturdy beams and thick thatch. Like an elongated cabin, it stretched backwards for fifty yards, almost back to back with the central tree trunk. Her clanâ€™s crest, three horizontal and parallel slash marks crossed by a single cut down the middle, hung proudly over the large double doors in the front. A wide set of steps led up to the main doors into the building.
The pair of braziers that flanked the doors had been snuffed out. Wisps of smoke still lingered near the base like ghosts before fading into the night. And standing in the middle of it all, with arms outstretched like a scarecrow, was the soul-drinker from the Green Sky. And to her, he smiled utter triumph.
Iâ€™ve done it, my love!
Blue flames burst forth from his shoulders down to his wrists in a mighty corona. Fenris stopped a dozen yards from the base of the steps as the soul-drinker made his way down. He moved as a lord appearing before his court, his head held high. Hawkish turquoise eyes stared down his sharp nose towards her. The flames then transformed into hundreds of tiny motes, which danced and finally exploded into scarlet flower petals.
â€œWhat have you done, monster?â€ she said deliberately, glad that her voice was calmer than she actually felt. â€œWhere are my clansmen?â€
His broad shoulders bobbed as he let out an inhuman giggle. Monster? Not I, my love. I am your Prince, and I killed them of course. It is what the hero does for his love, is it not? To slay her oppressors and rescue her from her evil parents?
â€œNoâ€¦â€ She shook her head in denial. â€œYouâ€™re lying!â€ She knew he did not lie. In her heart she prayed that they are inside the lodge, waiting for the demon to leave. But with a single look at his crazed eyes she knew that they were dead.
I have no reason to lie to you, my love. Now come to me, let us leave this place and retreat to my castle, where you and I shall live forever in utter bliss.
She drew her bow, her eyes stung as tears streamed unchecked down her face, falling from her chin. â€œWhy,â€ was all she could muster, yet her aim was steady. She would not let him touch her again. Her body shuddered at the memory of his hands upon her.
Princeâ€™s face looked genuinely confused, but the broad smile quickly returned. Why? What a silly question. I did it for you. Everything Iâ€™ve done has been for you. This was what you wanted most.
â€œYouâ€™re wrong! I would never wish harm on my clan!â€
But you did, my love. When I first gaze upon you dancing among the trees, I peered into your heart of hearts. Do you know what song it sang to me? Of a princess who reached for the sea and stars through bars of duty, honor, obedience. I knew that I would give my heart to you, my love. I vowed to set you free. And I have! Oh, is this not the greatest thrill? To be free!
Her knees lost all strength. She had to slap her bow and palms to the wet ground to keep from falling over. No. She loved her clan. She loved her father. She only wanted to see what lay beyond the great forest before being given to another clan. She just wanted to have seen it once.
â€œI would neverâ€¦â€ But it was true wasnâ€™t it? Hadnâ€™t she wished, in the dark hours of many a sleepless night, to be free of her duty, if only for a day? Oh gods, it was her fault. All of it. Hakon, the clan, everything was her fault. If she hadnâ€™t been so willful and curious, then everyone would be safe. Her heart, held together only by her resolve, shattered. â€œForgive me, father. Hakon. I didnâ€™t know.â€
Prince took a deep breath, as if savoring a crisp spring morning. Your grief is soâ€¦intoxicating. And the shameâ€¦the despairâ€¦they add such sweet spice. Such pure emotions. I knew you were my princess. My true love.
She heard the soft thump of his armored boots as he neared her. There was a finality in the sound. She needed to stand. The honor of her clan demanded it. It was her duty to avenge her clan.
But her head felt so heavy. Everything was gone. Everyone was gone. Her Honor? He had stolen it from her in a moment of weakness. Her Duty? It had been her duty to be a model woman, worthy of her clan. She had cast it aside to venture into the Green Sky. She deserved her fate.
Come, my love. Forget your chains and embrace your Prince.
She tensed under his voice. But what of clan Valâ€™Cera? No. She would not shame her clan any further by cowering. Her clan would not fade quietly away. This she swore.
Fenris drew her bow. The strange warmth enveloped her body once more as the feathery fletching kissed her cheek for a fraction of a heartbeat before she released. The missile flew true, truer than she would have expected.
The demon barely managed a look of shock before the arrow buried itself into his chest.