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Sorry for the delay. My college started so might have to shift releases to sunday-sunday. Sorry about that.xd
Chapter 22 : Surviving Cliff-Hangers
“The first dwarf crafted the world out of Komiergral rock, the seed of the world. Twenty six days and twenty seven nights did he toil to craft the world out of the unforgiving rock. After his ordeal was over, the first dwarf renamed himself Alinahzl, which carried the cadence of ‘Worldsmith’ in the tongue before tongues”
-Myth from Fahlrhen, author unknown.
“And why is there a convenient uh”—what the heck is this? Break? Gap? I dunno, I ain’t a climber, doe. I flailed my hands to find the correct term, “this, this break in the cliff”.
Faeve scanned the deep gash in the bone-white cliff that extended all the way to the jagged top. Plants and trees grew on the gap, breaking the monotony of the otherwise bare cliffs. Well, not exactly bare, shrubs and bushes grew sporadically on the cliff wherever they found purchase. Like they say, life always finds a way.
She crouched down, scooping out some of the soil at the foot of the cliff. White, chalky soil born of the massive cliff in front of us sifted through her fingers.
“What are you doing?” I asked her. Choppy sea-wind blew at us from behind, making our clothes flutter.
“Checking where we are”, she mumbled, inspecting the soil in her palms.
“You can do that?”
She turned her head towards me, blinking. “Of course. Elves are one with nature, so this is just elementary”.
Right. I stared at the cliff again, its layer upon layer of rocks a massive behemoth in our way. The green trail of overgrown shrubs and plants extended like a deep wound on its white, crinkled surface. I pointed towards the green swath, “So, did you—”
“Kaloptris”, she said while standing up. “We are probably at Aggrazhen, the site of the Third Landing”.
“The what?” I walked up towards the base of the gash enveloped by the greenery. Tall, green grass extended in a gentle slope upward, following the contours of the break in the cliff. Reed like pants with red pustules swayed in the wind. Fighting the unforgiving, are you? I sighed. These plants were a lot like us. I turned my head back at Faeve, arching my eyebrows.
Her eyes were scanning the jagged rock face. She jolted up as if electrified by my stare. She cupped her hands over her eyebrows. So as not to get blinded by the sun.
“What?” her face crinkled, “stop staring at me”.
Irritated much? I put my hands up, “I was just asking, what is a Kaloptris or a Third Landing. Why so salty?” Well…given the developments, no wonder she is in a bad mood.
She blinked again, as if not comprehending. Her eyebrows drew together, “How…hwo could you not know what a Third Landing is? Where actually did you come from?”
Oh shit. “I am very ignorant, unwise of the ways of the world”, I splayed my hands. This is why I could never ask people questions, in fear of asking the wrong ones. Dammit, you bloody gods! At least give me a crash course on general knowledge of this world!
She shook her head, “You really are”. She brushed past, stalking towards the cliff, “Let’s talk while we climb, We need to make some headway before the sun goes down”.
The terrain extended before us in a slight slant, the edges of the gash a sloping wall on both sides. It was like climbing a slightly steep ramp, overgrown with weed. I tore apart the third bloodsucking conchicle plant from me, its tiny sucker like tendril left a faint red mark on my skin from where it had wound around my arm.
“Oi, Faeve! Can’t you do some nature magic to keep these things away?” I hailed her loudly. Ugh. I flung my other hand as another of the tiny, slender tendril wrapped around it. You little—I snapped the tendril, it fell on the grass, still twitching. White ooze escaped it like blood.
Faeve stared at the whole exchange in tactful silence. Stop looking at me like that. She turned her head again, her body twisted away to resume walking the trail. I kicked at the main body of the conchicle plant, making its tendrils tear away from the nearby plants it had snagged. Trembling green appendages hung from the trees, dripping white. Fucking plants.
I rubbed my forehead as the slow dull pain crept up again. Ugh. Of late, the headaches have been growing worse. Planting my feet firmly on the slope, I climbed after Faeve. Take a deep breath, like the counsellor taught you. The deep exhale came out like a long drawn sigh.
Faeve’s petite frame parted the thick greenery, her dark green clothes almost melting into the leaves. Her soundless footsteps were a sharp contrast to the heavy lumber of my own. Metal clinked against my clothes as Thirst hung awkwardly beside me, jangling whenever it hit the soil. I need to make a proper harness for it. I promised myself on the ship deck, that I would.
The sun now beat down on us stronger than ever. Oppressive heat rolled off the plants. I wiped my hands on my clothes. No use, my clothes are soaked through to absorb any more sweat. With every step, the slope grew more inclined and the shrubbery, denser. I looked up at Faeve again, chopping the low growing plants with her dagger. The same dagger that takes lives, eh?
I slapped my neck loud enough to make her jolt. She craned her neck back at me, her eyebrows a furrow. I spread my palms before her—blood smeared my fingers, along with the smudge left by the gnat—one of the many that kept buzzing around us.
Her mouth formed a tight line as she stared at me. “What in the world are you doing?” her voice was a low growl, laced with irritation. “Do not annoy me—”
“Elf nature magic please”, I spat back, “I am annoyed as well, because of these things”.
She sighed while chopping at the next plant that blocked our way, “your mood is affecting me. I need full concentration to climb this difficult path”. She hadn’t stopped to reply, continuing her climb instead. “Besides, if you want you can do it yourself”.
“DO what myself? I am not an Elf”, I burst out, “stop being—”
Her dagger stopped midway while cutting down a tangle of vines. Her voice strained, “Eridan”.
“What?” I thundered. Again, this fucking headache…
“Eridan”, her voice was a low growl that reverberated between the sides of the cliff.
My legs froze for a second. Right…this isn’t her fault. Who am I getting angry at? My body ached from the climb. I have been getting hurt too often these past few days. The continuous headache wasn’t improving matters either. My hands clenched on the nearby vine I was using to support myself.
“Sorry”, my voice was a low mumble. The Voices in my head…I can barely think straight now.
She started her upward climb again. Wait…she heard my apology? My hands tightened on the vines she had just cut through, white liquid still oozing from them. I looked up to see her doing away with more trees, a little far from me. She doesn’t need to…she is always there in my mind, listening.
Faeve trembled again as my thoughts passed into her mind, the dagger in her hand shook for an instant. A sigh escaped me again, well…she isn’t responsible for that. I tightened my grip to pull myself up, panting. Sorry. This time, I said it in my mind. I don’t need to say that out loud, anyways.
“What’s for lunch?” I whimpered as I pressed my face on the cool earth. The thirsty soil soaked up my sweat, muddying my clothes in return. Even Faeve was panting lightly while leaning on the tree trunk opposite me. Her porcelain-like skin was flushed, the tip of the pointy ears dyed a deep, deep red.
I rolled onto my back and gasped like a beached whale, eager for the cool air to rush through my system. The trail had gotten much steeper, requiring us to use both out hands and feet to climb. The wide crevice we were climbing through had gotten narrower, and denser with plants. Now trees of deep green bark—no, moss-encrusted on their barks slanted outwards from the crevice floor in search of the sun. That made for a blessedly cool floor.
“Did you pick anything?” Faeve said while catching her breath.
“No”, I groaned. Fuck…my leg muscles are burning. I’d be long gone if my body wasn’t strengthened by the core and the gift of might. I held my sides as it ached in dear agony, pain like raw fire washing over it.
Faeve clutched her sides too, mirroring my pain. Ugh. I hate the shared senses at times like these.
“Stop…sending pain!” She growled.
“I didn’t ask for a contract, you damn Elf!” I spat back at her as I held my head down. If only this cool soil would stop the headache…
Faeve went silent. The only noise was of gnats buzzing over our heads. I slapped one sitting on my wrist. “Forty-Six”, I mumbled.
“I picked some mushrooms growing on the rocks”, Faeve sighed. “I knew I couldn’t count on you—”
I didn’t answer. I could sense the rising irritation in her voice. If I gave in to the feelings that crept into my mind from hers…we will be at each other’s throats. She caught herself in the middle of her angry tirade.
I sat up, facing her. Her face, taut with tension revolved to face mine. Her furrowed brow shot up as she searched my face. Her thin-lipped expression quirked…and transformed into a smirk.
“You have soil all over your face, Eridan”, she chuckled.
“Very funny”, I answered, a light mirth in my own voice. “Now bring out the mushrooms, Mario is starving”.
“Mario?” she asked while her hands rummaged a little pouch made of leaves string together with vines. When did she make that?
“Humankin joke”, I grumbled while stretching my hands, “food. Now”.
She put a few bulbous red mushrooms on my hand. Bigger than my thumb, those things had a rather large head. Tiny, black spots spread through the entire cap, extending into the white stem.
I twirled them into my hands. Are these…safe to eat?
Faeve went stock still. She looked into my eyes for a second, the mushroom hanging from her slender fingers. The previous laugh vanished from her face, as her lips pursed. Her hands shot out and grabbed my wrist, upturning my palms. The mushrooms tumbled down, rolling on the soil. She picked one up in slow, deliberate movement and put in inside her mouth as she chewed. Her jaws chomped down on them with unnecessary force as she swallowed them bit by bit.
What is she doing?
Her eyes bore into mine. “Satisfied?” she spat out.
Oh shit. “I didn’t mean that, Faeve”, I sputtered.
Her shoulders slumped back as she sighed. “Sorry”, she mumbled at me. “I would have done the same thing, it is just that the connection…” She picked up the rest of the mushrooms and exchanged them with the ones in her hand. “It…I…I couldn’t take it when you thought I could poison you”.
I held her gaze as she fidgeted. A pang of guilt ran through me. She…she is torn up, between her old self and how she is changing. “Sorry”, I mumbled again, “Old habit”. I reached over and grabbed her hand. She stiffened as I came close, her hands shot towards the grip of her daggers. Faeve relaxed when she saw me picking up the mushrooms she had originally given me.
“You don’t need to do that”, she whispered, her hands picking up the rest.
“I don’t need to. But I am doing that anyways”, I smirked.
Her voice was a cold chill, “Remember. I am dragging you on a journey you don’t want to. I am always there, invading your mind. All you need to do is hate me”.
I trembled as her voice cut deep into me, ice spreading through my insides. That’s right. She trembled as she spoke those words, her knuckles gone white. Her red lips parted voicelessly. After a while, she mumbled, “It is not easy uttering those words under the influence of the Tree. The closer we get, the stronger it’s control becomes”.
I leant back to my side of the crevice-edge. Sharp rocks pushed against my back as the gnats continued in their buzzing. My outstretched leg touched the trunk Faeve was leaning against. The crevice is growing narrower as we climb. Too narrow, in fact.
“For a pair that hates each other, don’t you think we apologise too much?” I asked Faeve. Her eyes went wide at the question. I slapped my neck again. “Fifty-three”, the dead gnat was a smear on the leaf as I rubbed my palms on a nearby plant.
The mushroom exploded in sour juices inside my mouth. Tch! The liquid stung the insides of my mouth. When had I bitten down to get so many cuts? I bit down on the fleshy stem, the rough texture leathery to my tongue. A bit different than the mushrooms back on earth, eh? New pain spread inside my mouth as the juices found more wounds.
I would be lucky if I don’t bite my tongue off in my sleep. I ran a mushroom smeared finger through my hair. The dreams…I need them to stop.
Faeve’s outstretched legs shuddered for a moment as my thoughts washed over her. Her hesitation for just for a moment as her lithe fingers resumed their ravenous assault upon the mushrooms.
Dappled sunlight played over her form while her eyes were set on the food. She wolfed down every morsel without taking a pause to breathe. Just…how hungry is she? She grabbed another mushroom without stopped, ripping it apart without stopping. Of course, using so much magic to heal me take a lot of energy. It’s not like Aurora can alone sustain our bodies. Faeve’s jaws were clenched hard on the food while I stared at her. Her green eyes flit towards mine for a moment before flinging away again.
“I am trying to keep my mind off things”, I ranted between bites. “My thoughts aren’t exactly comforting”.
She didn’t say anything, not even stopping for a moment. Her disarrayed hair bobbed with her savage bites. Her hair…it has grown a bit, hasn’t it?
Her hands trembled for a moment. She took a sharp breath in.
Oh shit. That’s a touchy subject. I tore my gaze away as I spat out some of the mushroom. This bit is just like rubber, and bitter., ugh.
“I know”, she mumbled, “I am always there in your mind”. She pointed towards my hand, “Let that bitterness ride out, its is the most nutritious part of the mushroom. And it gets sweeter a few moments later”. She unslung the pouch from her belt, taking out that blue lizard.
I squinted my eyes as I watched her squeeze that little animal to divest it of the water. Some of the water trickled down her chin into her shirt as the lizard deflated visibly. Beads of water glistened on her red lips—Stop it! I slapped my hands on my head. Stray thoughts again! At this point, I couldn’t even understand whose thoughts were these, mine, the tree’s or the demons—
“I apologise for the incident before”. She looked towards me—no, everywhere but my eyes. “I don’t know how much time is left before…before you takeover”. Her hands holding the lizard dropped beside her, the lizard squealed and wriggles itself free, making a beeline towards me. My hands shot out, almost by reflex.
I cringed as my hands closed around the wart-ridden surface of the animal. It’s body squirmed between my palms, the rough skin rubbing against my own.
“Not so hard, it will die”, she admonished, “And thanks”.
I passed the lizard into her outstretched hands, cupping my hands so it didn’t escape again. A strange warmth passed from her fingers so mine as they touched, breaking apart almost as sudden as it had emerged. She opened the leather pouch to deposit the animal back into her when she tossed her head towards me.
“You sure you so no need any water?” she trilled while tucking a golden strand of hair behind her ears.
The hair that I had cut. A slight pang of guilt ran through me. “No, I still can’t stomach milking a lizard”.
Her mouth quirked up in a suppressed smile, “Take care not to get dehydrated. I am not about to lug you all the way through this crevice”.
I nodded towards her. I tracked her gaze again, “I know you know what’s in my mind. But I need to say it. It makes things a little bit normal”.
Her smile didn’t waver, rather it contorted , “Normal?”
I snorted, “I know”.
I bit down on the mushroom. I didn’t spit the bitter part this time. I let the bitter juices run down my tongue. She is right. The flavour does get sweet after the initial shock. I looked at her again to watch her resume her tear into more mushrooms. But she already knows what I am thinking, eh?
As we finished our meals, I stared up at the top of the cliff. The plants…no, towards the top, full-fledged trees obstructed my vision. The thick green canopy made it hard to see even the position of the sun.
“A few hours till sundown, at most”, Faeve interjected, “we need to move fast”.
“You know, have you really thought how do we get down the other side?”
“We have to find a way”, she shot back, her fingers tightened on the dagger at her waist “no matter what”.
Is she winging it? What the…
“There is no other choice. Where we are, no matter where we go, this cliff will stand in front of us. We have the luck of the goddess to land so near to the Site of the Third Landing”.
Goddess? quite close to the mark. The sensation of water filling my lungs as Astria pulled us up was still fresh in my mind. “Oh yeah, I keep forgetting to ask”, I groaned as I held my throbbing head again, “what is this Third Landing? Also, what goddess? The Moonlight one? But it was a Dark Elf goddess, right? Why are you invoking her name?” Shit. How much does she know of Astria?
“Uruth is the goddess of Luck and Chance. She is one of the gods that is revered by both Sun and Moon Elves”. She reached over me, “The headache is passing onto me too. I need my wits about me if we are to cross this crevice”.
My shoulders slumped as the muscles that had clenched without me knowing relaxed. Good. She doesn’t know I am an otherworlder yet. I slapped my head as soon as I thought it. Dammit, I need more control over what I think!
I hung my head as she pressed her soft palms against my temples. Soft pricks of AP rushed over my skin as static electricity crackled.
“Don’t fry my brain. I need it”, I grumbled while I took deep breaths. I still haven’t got used to this sensation… I chuckled lightly as I noticed my strain of thought, ‘used to’ huh? When did I start to take Faeve’s healing as something granted?
Her hands tightened on my temple as if to counter my thought. A soft, numbness crept through my skull dulling the pain. Why hadn’t she done this before?
“Because I can’t afford to lose too much magic, especially for what lies before us”.
“Huh?” I broke in, “You can just absorb AP—”
“Oh no. Elves don’t use magic the same way as humans. Why do you think we live in forests and worship a big tree?” She scoffed. “KEEP STILL!” she boomed while healing me.
I groaned while I clapped my hands involuntarily on my ears, “Don’t shout so close to my ears!”
“You know every living thing in Sangraal absorbs and uses AP, right? Same goes for plants. But, instead of casting magic, the plants use it to grow, and in the process, refine it, making it richer”, her voice trilled softly beside my ears. “Elves and other Sithern like the Fae creatures use that enriched AP given off by the plants to cast magic, not the one used by humans”.
“So the Voice you keep talking about is that…that plant AP? And I probably said this before…you really sound all stuffy when you speak about your people”.
“Yes and No. Voice is what the AP is called in general”, She paused, drawing a breath, “I was taught to speak proper for the Court”.
“When you meant you need to conserve AP for what is to come, you meant—Wait what? The Court?”
“I doubt there will be much greenery on the other side of the cliff. I am only healing you because I can recover from the plants around us—and I do not like talking about…the Court”.
Should I keep asking? Or not. The look in her eyes told me not to broach the issue again. I mean I am not exactly forthcoming either, right? “Okay”, I leant forward, popping my knuckles. “What the hell is this place? Tell me before I forget again”. I flinched as I realised something else. Something damning. This…this wasn’t good. Not good at all. My thoughts have started to unravel. A cold chill ran down my spine. I didn’t even realise that Faeve never answered my question about what this place is. And…and….
My left hand trembled as I pondered the implications. The souls in my mind…I clasped my wrist hard to stop the shaking. They…they are interfering with my thoughts. A deathly silence enveloped Faeve as her face drained of blood. And I thought she couldn’t get any paler— I slapped myself on the cheek. Not again! I took deep breaths like I had been taught to. Or was it the tree? At this point, I don’t know anymore. What I do know however is…I have little time left.
I nodded towards Faeve for her to proceed with the explanation. She rolled her shoulders while her voice strained due to the exercise, “What do you know about the Heretics War?”
I leant back again, the sharp rocks behind my back had become a bit more tolerable. “You mean the war that the mortals fought aginst the gods, right?”
She nodded before pointing a finger, “Not all mortals. But most of them, yes”.
It wasn’t easy to find records of that war. Partly because most literature pertaining to that had been outlawed and burned, but mostly because it was almost fifteen thousand years ago. Actually, I always wondered how the hell did they have any records from that long ago?
“The Lost Generation”, Faeve picked up my train of thought, “I mean the ones that fought that hundred year war belonged to the Old Empires. It is said that they had magicks and metalworks much, much superior to ours. Ancient powers flooded their veins, that is how they fought the gods in the first place. Their knowledge, their creations still baffle us”. She paused to catch her breath, “The records they wrote…the ones that endured the gods’ wrath are nigh indestructible. That is how we are able to know of those times”.
“I kind of guessed that might be the case”, I mumbled. Can she not pick things up from my mind like that? It’s…vexing.
“You didn’t say it out loud?” Faeve mused, genuine surprise colouring her voice.
What? I stared at her, unable to suppress the dread in my mind. Don’t tell me…
“I…It just”, her eyes went wide, “I thought you spoke it out loud”.
My jaw clenched hard. Fuck, she is too far gone.
Faeve took a sharp breath as her hands clutched at the soil. Her fair fingers were a sharp contrast to the almost black dirt. A deep sigh escaped her lips as she looked at me. The terror in her eyes was palpable, but she fought to tame it.
Heh, we both are learning to tame our fears, are we?
She regained her breath, “The Lost Generation and their ancestors before them boasted of immeasurable strength, born of strange contraptions and magick itself. Legends say they made cities that rivalled Cielt’lan, the abode of the gods themselves. Their arrogance knew no bounds as they aimed to unseat the gods, in a bid to become such themselves”.
“They wanted to become gods?” I hissed, “why?”
“Do you think we are the first people who were made to dance in their palms?” Faeve answered, her eyes downcast. “There were people who desired that power and those who wanted to divest the gods of it. It was like any other war”. Her little knuckles turned white, “a bid to satisfy their greed”.
“You seem to know an awful lot considering most of the records have been lost”, I wheezed. This was NOT what the Rolsberg Order had told me.
“Aren’t wars always the same? Besides, not all records were lost. Bits and pieces of that history remain in the ruins of the Ancient Empires. Legends about that dark time swirl about in the children who escaped the destruction of the First Cities”.
“Only legends, nothing concrete”, I spat back. I need information dammit. Not heresy and fairy tales.
She arched her eyebrows at me, her lips parted in a smirk.
“What”? I asked in a dry tone.
“Did not you say it yourself a while ago?” She answered, “all history are legends, woven by storytellers”.
“Very witty”, I remarked. “What after that?”
She nodded, the grin still plastered on her face. “Theologists and Historians can bicker about their motives all they want. What the legends are all united about is how they sought to bring down the Cietvalheim, what you humans call the Immortal Plane. Their Iron canons and Thunder Drakes shook the chains holding the world together, ripping apart the fabric of both this world and the god’s”.
I have heard of those weapons before. Where are those now?
“Lost”, Faeve said in a grave voice. “All that made the First Cities the powerful entities they became were lost when the gods came down in their fiery vengeance. No species were spared. All who went against the gods were razed to the ground, and their cities devoured”.
Her voice reminded me of the young woman the Rolsberg Order had sent to recruit me. Myrthe…was her name, wasn’t it? She had spoken a tale much like this in the mired in the shadows of Kraus’ underground chamber, leaning on the jury-rigged Infuser machine. Myrthle had spoken how the Black Spires rained down from the skies turning the First Cities into wastelands, their people vaporised without so much as a resistance.
Kraus’ pained shout when the woman had slammed her hand into his Infuser still rings in my mind. “If only the First Cities had succeeded…the despicable gods would have vanished by now. Look at us! We have resorted to extortion and sold ourselves as mercenaries to scrounge by. If we still had those weapons…” She had lamented.
“No excuse ta’ break my Ahrecht Infuser fa’ dat, ya cow. Get ya’ breasts off my machine. Now!”, Kraus’ thunder was a match for the fanaticism that had lit up her eyes. I honestly hadn’t seen Kraus get so angry ever before. Even Myrthle, who made her living blackmailing the nobles looked visibly shaken. She had looked at me, her violet eyes bore deep into mine, “The Rolsberg Order will take revenge on the—”
“A descendant”, Faeve’s steel like voice tore me into the present, “that woman in your memories is a progeny of the First Cities, her violet eyes are a proof of that”.
I really hate it when she does things like that. My jaws clenched when a slight pang went through my heart, passed on to me by Faeve. Right. She has it worse than me.
“That woman…Myrthle told me that the Betrayers, the ones who rose up against the gods wanted to free themselves of the yoke that the gods had put on the mortals. In name of guiding, they wrought total dominion over all races, their tyranny paled even the most atrocious of despots”.
Faeve didn’t say anything, quietly chewing her lips.
“And seeing what your Tree God is doing to us…I’d say they were right”, I accused.
Her answer was a pained smile, the kind of smile that made people remember every heartache they ever had. My stomach felt hollow. That smile reminded of another girl who had smiled when the flames devoured her. ‘I love you, Rigel’. Bile ran up my throat. I spat out the greenish liquid, the bitter taste a match for my memories.
Faeve flinched, her hands covered her face as she quivered like a leaf. “Stop it!”, her cries pierced the dark forest, echoing endlessly in the narrow ravine. The stone walls spat the words back at us, exchanging it among themselves till the whole mountain resounded with it.
I sighed. “I am not exactly having the happiest of times remembering her”, the scorn in my voice assaulted her like a whip.
She removed her hands from her face. Her cheeks were flushed red while her green eyes rippled like water. We were both silent for a while. Quietness ruled the ravine as if the sudden violation from our throats was a lie.
My hands ran through my unruly hair. Ugh, it is sticky from all the sea air. I didn’t know what to say. What can I say to a girl whose mind I keep corrupting?
“The gods assaulted Sangraal Five times”. Thankfully, Faeve had chosen to break the silence herself. Her soft silvery voice fell like a sigh upon the unforgiving rocks. “This crevice we are on is probably Aggrazen, where the coalition of Moon Elves and Humans brought up the Southern Wall to stop the gods of the high seas”.
Wait, wait, wait. “You mean”, my voice faltered, “this—”
Her eyes traced my fingers pointing at the white cliffs. “Yes”, she confirmed. “That is probably the Southern Wall and this crevice—”, her own fingers traced the sight of the deep gash against the bone-white cliffs, “is where the Metal Puppets of the gods broke through”.
A sudden burst of wind howled through the ravine, sending dry leaves skittering away. Sun-rays broke through the thick canopy overhead. The yellow beams made our weapons gleam, sending fractured sunlight everywhere inside the forest. The gust made the dappled sunlight shift, sending light and shadows skittering over Faeve’s small frame.
‘Komorebi’ a small child had called this play of light and shadows through the leaves. Yuki had seemed so wise, so big when she had taught me that word. She had smiled like only little children could when I fumbled repeating it. I mean, I was just starting to learn Japanese. She was always unfair, trying to show off to her little brother. It was odd how I could still remember the feel of her hands when she had ruffled my head with her little palms, “Yuki…t…teach you well”. Her English was as bad as my Japanese, I chuckled inadvertently. Everything seemed to wondrous when we were small. Small and innocent.
“Komorebi”, I gestured towards the shifting shadows playing hide with light, “they call it that in my mother’s country”.
Faeve’s voice was a strain as her voice faltered. “Wh…who was that little girl in your memories?”
“Yuki, my little sister”, my voice tightened. “I wonder how she is doing. I haven’t seen her in years”.
Blood drained from Faeve’s face as her mouth opened and closed, much like fish out of water. What the…Her eyes had gone wide as she struggled to talk.
Why is she—“You okay?”
“A…aye. It’s just that I have a little sister too”, she sputtered.
“Why are you surprised if people have sisters too?” I mused. That is exceedingly weird.
“Nothing. I am just surprised you have one”.
I decided not to press the issue for now. That wasn’t the reaction of being just surprised. She was…shocked out of her mind. Why? “What were you telling me about Metal Puppets?” I offered as a way of diverting the conversation.
“The gods, being gods had wondrous inventions of their own. The brought down their own armies, and at their helm were the Metal Puppets. It is said that the Dwarven gods, infinite in their crafting created those beasts of metal. They possessed Iron hearts made of ancient magicks and metalworking. Their skin of metal withstood even the thunder canons of the First Cities, their claws of steel sundered the sea and skies—”
“They were made of metal?” I sputtered.
“Aye. There is an account of it in the Sun Temple of Olyelnore Ur’van—I think. It says how their metal skin glinted in the sunlight, burning the eyes of the legions of the Lost Generation”.
Metal? Puppet?. Don’t fucking tell me…those were fucking Automatons.
“How did the humans even fight the gods ? I mean they had these monstrous machines” I heard myself speak as my brain went into overdrive trying to connect the pieces.
“Not just humans. Factions from almost every species in Sangraal banded together to fight the gods, I am sure you know that at least”. Faeve wiggled her eyebrows as if to challenge me. She nodded her head sideways with a sigh, “Then again, considering how little you know…”
“Hey!” I shot back, “I might be a country hick but I do know at least that! Elves and Dragons had their powerful magic but humans, how the hell did they fight back?”
Her smile faltered for a moment. “Humans”, she said while her head snapped upwards to scan the top of the cliff. “Were not always this weak. They had their own War Machines that could almost rival the Metal Puppets. Almost”. Faeve stood up with a languid motion, her body stretched like a cat bathing in the sun.
I swear this woman has extra vertebras.
She brushed her clothes, small specks of dust showered down on the underbrush. Her voice continued, “It is said that they had uncovered the secrets of the Aurora, making it bend to their will. The people of the First Cities, and as a whole the First Empires—could unveil the inner work—”
“We already manipulate Aurora to our desires, right?” I broke in. “I mean magic is reordering the world through commanding the Aurora, isn’t it?”.
“The Human arrogance”, Faeve snorted. “We merely request the Voice to grant our wishes and bless us with their grace”. She stretched her hand towards me, “Trying to ‘order’ the voice is foolish, something only the humans could think of”.
I took her hand and pulled myself up. Faeve faltered but kept her feet planted to the ground, taking a sharp breath as our bodies collided lightly in the momentum. She flinched back from the contact as if my skin singed hers.
“What is the function of Aurora then?” I asked to dissipate the mood.
She tightened the straps on her shoes as her voice strained, “It is possibilities. All the things that could be and not”.
“What the heck does that mean?” I grumbled, “it barely makes any sense”.
Faeve started walking again, her head turned away from me as her voice dropped low, “I do not know. This is what I was taught. As for whether I truly understand it—I do not”.
I followed her footsteps. She had taken out her daggers again and chopped at the vines blocking our way. The climb is getting steeper. So this si why she took a rest here. I groaned as I saw the steep climb before us. At least 60 degree incline. Fuck.
She tilted her head back, “And you know what? I do not know if I want to know. The stories say that the Lost Generation went mad…because they uncovered the secrets of the Aurora”.
The Rolsberg Order would kill you if they heard of this, I chuckled inwardly.
Faeve snorted as she tugged on a strong vine extending from the cliff face. She wrapped it around her petite waist and took her feet off the ground, planting it on the incline. “The misguided children of the First Cities are fools. Still stuck in their—” she rolled her eyes, “glorious rebellion that destroyed the world once, all they can do now is flail in meaningless futility. Fools”.
I tightened Thirst on my waist as I walked towards Faeve. I really, really need to make a back-sheath for it. She still hung on the vine, trying to gauge its strength.
“Can we really climb using this?” I grumbled as I kept my hands on the rough rock that formed the sudden incline. Layers of white limestone peeked under the moss-ridden cliff-face. The rough surface was oddly cool as my hands came away wet with water. Dew?
“No other choice”, Faeve panted from all her jumping, “besides, I think this is strong enough”.
I followed her in the rappelling using the vines. Thankfully, the vines weren’t wet, the sun had evaporated most of the dew by then. We climbed silently, the only sounds came from the shush of our feet and our laboured breathing. Just how long was this vine?
“Valperi”, came a strained voice, “you will see lots of them in Oylelnore Ur’van”.
“You should…start teaching me Elvish”, I answered, my reply coming in gasps. Fuck.
My limbs burned with dear agony.
Ugh. No more.
I’d have surrendered long back if it didn’t mean falling down to my death.
I can’t… I can’t go on.
Fire lanced up every muscle in my arm. Each time I pulled myself up, they creaked and complained.
How…How much more?
I looked down, the forest down below was enshrouded in darkness. The setting sun cast long shadows, making every tree look twisted, monstrous. Something chirped in the bushes. Hisses rose from the underbrush. It would be night soon. I don’t want to be stuck climbing till nightfall.
My head churned. My hands shook. Oh shit, oh shit! This is not the time to develop vertigo! I gulped down warm air. I looked up to see Faeve dangling from the vines. Her lithe frame rappelled fast. Appalingly so.
Should I…use my black arm? My jaws clenched. Every…every single time I use it…the souls would just get stronger, won’t it? More than that, I didn’t want to use it. My stomach turned at the thought of using something that took people’s lives as its price.
I looked up again. We were almost there. I can’t give up now. I had faced worse, right? my hands gripped the vines tighter. My teeth gnashed as I planted my feet tighter. I must—
A yelp broke my train of thought. Waves of panic assaulted my senses. My head snapped up. Faeve! She fell, her arms flailed. Time crawled as her body hurtled towards me, only infitesimally slowly. Terror, deep terror from her heart wrenched deep into mine. It was answered by the terror that rose within me.
I can’t let her die. Not now.
Pain exploded from my left arm. Black shadows along the length of my arm. Claws tore through the darkness that coiled around it. Waning sunlight glinted off the black scales that could rival iron.
I didn’t need to look at her to know Faeve was almost upon me. The connection between us made me aware of her. Painfully so. My brain almost exploded with the information relayed, from both her mind and mind. Bestial howls ripped through my throat as I let mt feet off the cliff.
Just one chance.
My right hand shot out as my heightened senses discerned Faeve’s falling form. There!
I caught Faeve with an awkward vice made of my legs and my one human arm. Aaaaaaaaargh! My throat went sore with screaming. Her momentum had ripped my hand out of its socket. Faeve wailed too, as my pain touched her mind. I choked on my own howls, coughing out spit. AAAAAARGH! Fire lanced up my arm. My tongue went bitter as bile ran up my throat.
Fuck, fuck, fuck! My mind hovered in and out of frenzy. What? My mind reeled back as my eyes ran over Faeve. She was holding onto my waist tightly. Tears ran down her eyes, as she screamed too.
Her fingers dug into me tighter, almost painful. Panic still made my stomach flutter. Faeve mumbled and ranted in an unknown language, her body quivering. Calm down, I sent a mental command to her. She looked up at me, her forest green eyes rippled like a pond.
Faeve’s little lips quaked as she held onto me tighter. Her breath still fell in pants. She rested her face on my stomach, just above—“Climb”, I commanded her, my voice rasping. This isn’t good! The connection is fucking us up. Even in this situation—
She took a sharp breath as my thoughts crossed into her. She looked up at me, her jaws clenching. Her hands clutched onto my gear as she tried to pull herself up.
She slipped. Shit! I locked my legs tighter around her to arrest her movement. We dangled dangerously from a cliff. The only thing keeping us alive was my black arm, still clutching the vines.
My hands had grabbed around Faeve’s collar when she fell. With a humongous effort, I pulled her up. Her eyes went wide as the sudden movement surprised her. Fuck, fuck, fuck! My arm now displaced further, grinding against bone. AAAAARGH, I howled into the cliff surface before me as I flung Faeve in front of me. Her body slammed against the rock and settled as she frantically grabbed the vines.
I gazed into her eyes. Her eyes lay centimetres from mine. I trapped her between the cliff face and my own body. She rearranged her fists to settle on the gaps that my own palms had left on the vine. With this…she is safe right?
Faeve shuddered. I don’t care. I don’t know—is it the connections? Is it me?I don’t care. What matters that she is safe. My muscles relaxed. I slumped like a puppet cut off its string. Faeve flinched as I simply let go, my face rolling on her shoulder.
My arms still burned like liquid fire. Each of my muscles were still screaming, but my mind…it was blank. Like a bow-string suddenly torn, my mind reeled back from the release of tension. My mouth tasted of copper…Or is it Iron? What does blood taste like? Copper? Iron? Actually, when did I bit down?
I felt my mind wander, but I didn’t care. We were alive, and it was all that mattered. Right? Yes, all that it was. Faeve is so…warm. Her contours pressed up against mine in a perfect fit as if parts of a single puzzle. Ever smelled wet earth? The word…yes, moist. Moist is the word. Her hair smelled like a rain-drenched forest, where the soil soaked up the water in its sensuous hunger. I let my right hand wander down her back as I pressed her close to me. Hah…she really smells so nice. Wet earth, moss and…sunlight.
Her warm breath played along my nape. An ancient hunger was rising in my depths. Faeve shifted under me, her breath quickening. Is she…is she saying something? Hah, I don’t care, I need to—
Faeve’s warm thighs wrapped around me. Oddly enough, it was reassuring.
“I appreciate you saving me”, her voice was like a bucket of cold water, “but I don’t appreciate being molested. Again”.
Right. What the actual fucking hell was I doing? I knew it was dangerous so close to her, yet I…Dammit! This is what fucking happens every time I use the black arm! These bloody souls always trying to— I sighed. At this point, I wasn’t sure. No, I wasn’t. Not at all. Was it the Tree? Was it the souls or…was it just me?
I stared blankly as blood ran down my right palm. The vine was getting slick with my own—actually, when did my fingers clamp down so hard?
“Now, you clumsy Elf, get your ass moving”, I grated. Ugh, lashing out at others. Funny things people do when they are powerless.
Faeve chewed her lips. In a small voice she declared, “I can’t”.
“What?” I bellowed, making her wince.
“I twisted my ankle on the climb, that is how I fell”.
Oh great. When it rains, it pours.
“Support me” I sighed as I planted my feet on the steep walls. Her eyebrows shot up as she scrambled to tighten her legs around me. I took a deep breath as I detached my black arm from the vine. I can’t detach both my arms…any more than this, and we would fall. I grabbed my right shoulder and—rammed the displaced joint back into place. Even if I was ready, the movement still wrenched a cry from me. It wasn’t like this was the first time. I had to learn things like these the past year. But it still hurts every single time!
I took a few deep breaths to calm myself as I looked up at the cliff. Ninety, no hundred metres more, maybe?
“Grab tight”, I rasped, “it is going to be a bad climb”.
Faeve said something. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I was pissed. I had to climb a cliff, displaced a shoulder, probably torn a few muscles and carry a girl on top of it.
“Shut it”, the frigidness in my own voice surprised me. “For fucks sake, shut the fuck up and let me climb. Please”.
She went still. I knew she was agitated. Her heartbeat resonated against my chest, as if an answer to my own.
The most damning thing? I knew what I was really pissed at. Myself. And my powerlessness.
Faeve’s eyes tracked my face as we climbed. She knows all that goes inside my mind. Right now, though, I don’t know if I should be vexed at it or…thankful.
The sun had gone down when my hands touched the summit. The forest was had come to life while we climbed the last few metres. The hisses and caws in the trees were an accompaniment to our frantic breathing. I heaved like a beached whale as I just dragged Faeve on the rocky top and collapsed atop her. My face fell flat on the ground. Dust and soil scattered as I exhaled loudly. Faeve squirmed underneath me. I rolled away from her, falling to the ground with a soft thud. I waited for my heart to wind down as our breaths misted up the night air. Cool air played on our legs dangling off the edge. Sensing eyes one me, I turned my head to see Faeve staring at me. A grin split across my face. In a moment, she let go of her own hesitation as her face mirrored mine. We both grinned at each other like idiots.
It didn’t last long. Bitterness ran up my throat. I…I ned to. I dragged myself away from Faeve. My body felt like mush. Bones creaked as I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I heaved down the sides of the cliff. There goes my lunch. My body wracked up again and again as I puked. Dammit, I hadn’t even eaten this much.
Well, at least it didn’t end in a cliffhanger, eh?
I pushed myself away from the edge to look at the other side. The sky was an upturned bowl, decorated with glittering stars. The Ring looked brighter than I had ever remembered it seeing. And under that…Oh, seven bloody fucking hells.
The moonlight was enough to let me see what lay on the other side of the cliff. And it wasn’t good news, not good at all.
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