Fal lay collapsed on his side. His Wufn was gone! The utter devastation of Wufn’s loss was impossible to comprehend. Greystone rubble on the floor of his cave dug into him, large enough for him to feel through his scaly flesh, and yet he barely noticed that discomfort. The pain inside was raging hot, burning and consuming him, eating a huge hole inside his chest. He could not understand it, how could Wufn possibly matter so much to him? He couldn’t allow it.
Wufn doesn’t matter. He never mattered.
Fal sought desperately for another reason for his agony.
It must be his failure that matters. It is failure that eats me up inside, like a forest aflame.
The Fallen dragged himself upright, sitting back on his haunches. He closed his eyes and felt the size and shape of the searing hole inside. It threatened to consume him entirely. He could not let that happen.
He filled that inner hole with ice, feeling the frigid cold enter and quench the flames, numbing that burned and shattered part of himself. He encased it all in thick, aqua blue ice, like the frozen rivers pouring over the far ends of the Mother, seen only in his dreams.
I will never feel that kind of agony again. Never. When I succeed in my quest, I will have the power and control I need to feel whole. Nothing will hurt me like that again.
He sat, cold filling him deep inside. He was almost there, when unwelcome thoughts crept into his mind.
It is written, Guardians protect the balance of light and dark. I have blasphemed. I have sought the death of a Guardian. I have turned my back on the One. I suffer for this.
No! I choose. I choose my own path. I choose the path of power!
Then the voices, always the voices, slithering, creeping.
You are weak, powerless, an insignificant crawling worm.
The ice filled him completely. He was protected. He felt nothing now, nothing but the cold. It burned almost as the fire had done, but that was right. That he could focus upon, center himself with.
The sun finished crossing the sky and sank to its sleep below the horizon. The moon rose and walked with silvery footsteps across the stones outside his cave. Still he sat, centered in the cold, his thoughts silent now.
As the sun woke once more, sending shafts of pale, morning light into his cave, shimmering on the deep green scales on his forearms, he knew what he must do.
I need another to be my hands and my voice.
Benumbed and determined, the Fallen sank deep into the blackness of the void and sought that small light he had taken note of before.
Tim walked along a wooded path. The boy’s slim legs moved easily, one long, black curl falling over his forehead. Green eyes, a startling contrast with his dusky skin, surveyed the trees he knew so well. He would often come, just as he had today, to spend time in the woods. To feel the sun on his back and sit upon his favorite rock and wait for the tight place in his belly to ease.
Sometimes the woods creatures came near, and he threw them crumbs from his morning cakes. The hoppers and the climbers didn’t fear him. Why should they? He wouldn’t hurt them.
Tim shuddered, remembering, and felt his belly tighten up. Six moons ago, in his twelfth change, his brothers had taken him hunting with them. He was so pleased and excited that he was big enough to go. He loved tracking through the woods as his brothers pointed out the signs of a large runner. Then they came upon the runner. Tim remembered the wonder he felt as he drank in the sight of its proud, antlered head and liquid, brown eyes staring at him from beneath the trees ahead. Then the terror and agony as the arrow pierced its side. His belly had tightened into a knot so intense he fell to the ground crying with pain. His brothers were disgusted with him, and called him a suckling, not big enough for the hunt. They sent him home in shame.
The next time, his brothers brought him along only at their father’s insistence. “Teach him,” he had commanded. Tim had gone reluctantly.
His delight in the woods, its sounds and smells had sidetracked him and he almost enjoyed himself, forgetting what was to come. Then the rooter they were tracking was hit. Again, he was doubled up with agony in his belly. He tried not to cry aloud, but the pain was too great. His brothers had refused to take him after that, saying that he ruined the hunt.
Tim reached his favorite rock in the woods and sat down, munching on a morning cake, tasting the oaten, nutty flavor he loved. He could feel the sun warm upon his back. His belly eased and he was able to think a little more clearly. It was getting so his belly was always in a knot when he was at the cottage. His brothers no longer treated him as one of them. He was shunted to the side, ignored, unworthy to be included in their jokes and banter. His father looked at him with irritation now, and something like disgust. He felt like a crawlie, something beneath their notice and it hurt badly.
A climber, tail down, moved along the ground toward him, hoping for a little bit of the cake Tim held in his hand. Tim looked at it absently, started to break off a piece of cake, then stopped. Bitterly he said, “You’re why I don’t belong. What kind of a man feeds a climber? Get out of here you!” He scooped up a handful of pebbles and threw them at the startled climber, who raced away into the trees. Tim slumped onto the rock, tears filling his eyes. I’ll show them, he thought.
He took out his knife, fingering the smooth blade and the sharp tip. He stood up, grasping the blade tip between thumb and forefinger. That grip felt familiar now because he had been practicing daily. He pulled his arm back behind his head, threw straight forward, holding his wrist straight, and released the knife. It flipped through the air to land in a nearby tree with a solid, satisfying thud. The tree was marked and deeply pitted from the repeated throws of his practice. Over and over he threw, his stomach easing with each satisfying impact of the knife. I’ll be big and powerful and then they’ll be sorry.
That night Tim lay on his cot, listening to his brother’s snoring and sighing around him. He drifted in that in-between state, almost asleep, but not quite. He heard someone call his name. Tim. That’s all, just his name. Then again, Tim. It startled him into full wakefulness. He knew he wasn’t hearing it with his outer ears. The voice was deep and resonant, filling his awareness and holding a promise of power. It beckoned him, and he started to think about traveling, being free of his brothers, his father, and their disdain.
The same thing happened the next night, and then every night for a seven day. By then he had laid his plans. His filled pack was hidden in the shed and he was ready to leave.
Early the next morning, instead of doing his chores out in the yard, he was striding down the road, pack on his back and feeling free.
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Introduction Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13
As Wufn entered the tavern in Greystone he felt every step of the moon of hard travel from Guardian Mountain through Darkling Forest. His thin shoulders slumped under a much worn and dirty tunic of indeterminate color. There was the look of hard living about his grey eyes and unkempt beard. He felt tired and irritable and ready to take it out on someone. He didn’t much care who. Someone in this One-cursed hole ought to know where that hatchling is, he thought. Guardians outside Guardian Mountain were remarkable enough to garner attention.
Sure enough, almost as soon as he entered, he heard loud boasting from a squat, youngish man sitting at the bar, gesturing with a mug, liquid sloshing over the sides. The smell of old hops, sawdust and something less savory assaulted him. The man’s head was covered with a short, stubble of hair. His neck was thick and muscular, his eyes small as he squinted at the barkeep, and gestured again with his mug, splashing drink on the bar.
“I tell’s you, it was a hatchling Guardian. Looked just like a big lizard it did. I thought it’d make a right fine meal, but Gareth, he stopped me.” The man looked down into his almost empty mug. “That Gareth, he always did know the right of things. We traveled together you know. Three years it was, and we was friends afore that too.” He snuffled loudly. “Guess we won’t be travelin’ no mores now. He’s gonna’ stay and protect that there Guardian, he is.”
The barkeep sighed, a bored look on his face. Leaning on one arm he listlessly wiped up the spills on the bar, gazing distractedly around the room as he did so. His eyes alighted upon Wufn standing in the doorway, staring fixedly at the customer at his bar, and the barkeep stood up straighter, a wary look on his face.
“Help you?” He inquired.
Ignoring the barkeep, Wufn stalked toward the customer at the bar and with an attempt at a smile looking more like a snarl, said, “Let me buy you another. I’d like to hear about that Guardian you saw.”
The man squinted up at him and held his mug out, “Barkeep, another, and one for my friend here.”
Wufn sat at the bar. He frowned at the drink placed in front of him, then picked it up and took a long pull. The barkeep moved away to the other end of the counter and busied himself using his stained apron wiping out mugs already dry.
Thumping his empty tankard down on the bar, Wufn wiped his mouth on a sleeve already much abused. “So, where was this Guardian?”
“I saw it. I did. No one round here’s believes me, but I did.”
“I believe you. Where was it?”
“That Gareth, he stopped me. I almost shot it you know. But he reaches out and shoves up my arm, and there I was shooting at the sky.”
“Where was it?” Wufn growled.
But the man was too far gone in his drink and his regret to heed the menace underlying the words.
“A good thing too. I mighta’ been eatin’ Guardian for my end-day and never known the wrong I’d done. It’d been awful.” The man’s eyes started to tear up. “But Gareth, he knew. I didn’t mean to do no wrong.” He looked pleadingly up at Wufn as he leaned over him. “I didn’t mean it.” He whimpered.
Wufn reached out and grabbed the greasy front of the man’s tunic, pulling him up so that he looked hard into the man’s tear-filled eyes. “Where?”
Three suns later, Wufn stood silently at the edge of a small, sun-dappled clearing in the wood, hidden from view. He wasn’t happy about the task his Guardian had given him. Not happy at all. He wondered what the punishment was for such blasphemy, and not for the first time. Did the One even concern itself? He thought. He didn’t know. He did know that he had to do this for his Guardian. His Guardian needed him to do this. But Wufn was tired and he wasn’t getting any younger, and he wanted to get it over and done. Still, he was being careful. He had watched and waited for these three suns. He had a plan. A runner-skin bag now hung heavily weighted from his shoulder.
It was just past dawn. The air was cool and whispered of change. Grey clouds with pink underbellies scattered in ridges across a pale blue sky. Sunlight trickled into the clearing, flowing over the ground and through the branches of trees waving in a freshening breeze. The beauty of the morning went unnoticed by Wufn, he was too focused upon his plan.
He saw the Guardian emerge from her cave as was her daily habit since he’d been here, and make for the flat rock in the clearing that was flooded in morning sunlight. She’ll sleep now. He stared at her. She sure is beautiful, came the unwelcome thought. The Guardian lay belly down, head on forearms, wrapping her shortish tail about her abdomen, all of her gleaming, carmine on olive and rust in the sun. She closed her eyes. Almost immediately he heard the sonorous, rumbling breath of deep sleep.
He saw the flyer folk that always seemed to be around her, hovering and darting about. They didn’t concern him.
The man, Gareth, did concern him. Just lucky I’ve been able to stay hidden from him these last three suns. He’s a wary one, thought Wufn.
This morning the man was rustling about gathering what he’d need for a morning of hunting. Wufn knew he would be gone several hours. Usually the man waited for the girl to appear on the path from the cottage, but not today. Wufn studied the sky and understood why he was leaving earlier than usual. A band of dark, gray clouds sat menacingly at the horizon. Just the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, he thought.
He waited until the man’s retreating footsteps crackled through the underbrush and faded away. Wufn had no desire to make this harder for himself than was necessary.
Wufn crept around the edge of the clearing, staying well hidden. He cringed as a twig snapped underfoot. Waiting, sensing no response, he silently removed a heavy stone from the bag slung over his shoulder, abandoning the bag on the ground. Cradling the weighty sphere in one arm he noiselessly left the cover of the trees and stole closer to the Guardian.
He heard wind rustle in the shrubs behind him. He ignored it, intent upon his objective now. She lay before him, shining head resting on thick, gleaming forearms. Sunlight dappled her short, rusty muzzle which pointed toward him. The morning light warmed the winter dried leaves scattered upon the rock about her, giving off their dusty scent. The hatchling’s eyes were closed, movement apparent under her eyelids. He could see slitted nostrils flaring and contracting with huffing, deep breaths and noted the unformed, orangey-red ridges on either side of her head. He had the sad thought that they would never grow into the proud spines that graced his own Guardian’s head.
Over and done, he thought. Forgive me little Guardian. Then, he lifted the stone in both hands, raising it high above her head.
Suddenly a hurtling, green flier darted into his face and grabbed at his eyes. Startled, Wufn dropped the stone and ducked, reaching with both hands to swipe away the pest. As he did, he heard the unmistakable sound of an arrow whizzing over his head and the thud of its impact somewhere in front of him. Realizing his danger, he ran back under the cover of the trees, dodging this way and that as he heard a large body crashing through the woods behind him. Another arrow passed by his ear, imbedding itself in the tree just to his left.
The flier, undeterred by Wufn’s flailing hands, aggressively darted at his face and head. Looking huge in his vision, Wufn saw a green-skinned, snarling face with a halo of moss green hair, as it came right at his eyes. Swiping wildly, running blindly Wufn never saw the up-thrust root that caught the toe of his boot. He splayed forward, arms outstretched, his head landing in a crushing blow on a large rock jutting up from the ground in front of him. Wufn lay still, over and done.
© Holly Hildreth 2019
Fal, known to those unlucky few as, the Fallen, rested easily on the rocky ledge in his cave hidden deep within the foothills of Guardian Mountain. His crystalline cave was a small version of Gran Bryl’s own. He had chosen it for this reason, to focus him upon his goal.
His long neck arched gracefully, shining emerald and sapphire as he moved in the fingers of sun stretching into the cave, and relaxed his powerful jaws on his chest.
He had just eaten, a fine, grass-fattened cud-chewer, he hunted that morning.
The foolish beast ran, he thought, as if it had a chance. It did not willingly give itself as is my due. He had enjoyed the chase though, prolonging it a bit. After all that was really the point wasn’t it?
It wasn’t as if he needed to consume meat. Though he was still young, the crystal frequency, even at the base of Guardian Mountain, was enough to sustain him. Still, he did enjoy a good chase, and the kill.
He wrapped his elegant, gleamingly scaled tail around massive foreclaws, licked clean of any sign of his morning’s entertainment. Then he settled himself upright on haunches, such a deep green they were almost black.
Closing golden, round pupiled eyes he sank deep into the blackness behind his eyelids, searching. He wouldn’t be here long. The voices were too strong here.
Opening his mental eyes, he noted that he no longer saw the accursed light of the web. That One-blasted Unity, he thought. He had left that behind when he chose to pursue his own plans. His thoughts scattered back to well-worn pathways. I will never bind myself to the web of the One like those weakling Guardians. I will never undergo the Ritual of the One, nor will my Contracted. I will create my own Ritual of Power when I am Elder!
And the voices began.
By what right does Gran Bryl continue to be Eldress? She wastes her power. You have the blood! You are of the Chosen! But we forget, you are only a pathetic worm, a cowardly lizard. There is no power in you, only weakness. We waste our time.
Anger surged through him. Great claws ripped at the rocky ground beneath him. The grating of claw on stone jolted him to full wakefulness.
I will be Elder, he promised, and this world will know my power!
The Fallen vented his anger with a series of loud, grating roars, head thrown back, teeth bared, black-edged wings lifting, mantling. The flapping lifted him backwards, out of the sunlight, back into the thick darkness in the depth of his cave.
The power of the display was most satisfying.
He settled himself once more, shaking out his wings and folding them to his sides, and willed himself back down into the inky depths to find the one he sought.
He allowed himself to sink deeper and deeper into the void. Pathetic worm. Cowardly lizard. He ignored the voices.
A slash of brilliant light to his left momentarily blinded him. He knew this was Guardian Mountain, and that accursed Gran Eldress, and turned his attention quickly away from it.
Other lights sparkled in the darkness. He bypassed them, floating onward until he was distracted by one particular, small light. A light he had been keeping track of for several changes now. The light was turning a satisfactory shade of grey, muddy at the edges, but still a clear aqua toward the center. This small one will be of use to me, he thought with satisfaction.
We’ll meet soon boy, he promised.
Again, the voices. No power, only weakness, weakness… He shrugged them off, and cast his mind’s eye out looking further.
Finally, drifting further into the darkness, he found that which he sought, a cobalt-blue blaze of light. Ah, the Guardian, Ell. She awakens to her Self, but she is a mere hatchling. My Wufn, will have her by the time she grows to her second skin.
He felt that familiar sense of possessiveness and delicious control that came to him whenever he thought of his Contracted now. Not like it used to be, he thought, back when I was a weak hatchling, so dependent upon his unthinking cruelty.
The anger that thought engendered brought him fully alert. He never lasted long in the void, too many distracting thoughts. Too many feelings. And then there were the voices. The voices that whispered to him constantly, but especially here in this dark place.
Enough! He thought and returned to more satisfying musings. Wufn taught me well, but now he is the learner. Now he knows what fear is. He felt the spines raising along the ridges at the crest of his head, his wings lifting and spreading as the desire for power filled him.
I will have Ell. I will have the control! There will be no coming together into some One blasted Unity, he thought with satisfaction. All will know the strength of my will, my power!
The Fallen roared with the intensity of emotion and gave his wings a flapping surge of strength, hind claws squeezing, crushing the rubble beneath him.
Then, pleased with himself, he relaxed and mind-thought, Wufn, I have need of you.