A New Kind of Warrior - The Blighted Land

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I topple over, clawing desperately at the elusive rockface. My feet strike out to slow my descent, tearing holes in their woolen leggings. The rope tied to my wounded arm wrenches. Pain floods me. I reach out and grasp the rope with my other hand.

The Dark One is above me, half crouched on a precarious ledge, the sapling sliding over its head and the makeshift harness pulling its torso downward. Its arms are extended and holding onto the rope tightly. I look into its eyes. It pulls on the rope and with my one good hand, I am able to grip the rockface and lean against it in relative safety.

We stay in position for a moment, catching our breath. The Dark One slips back into its harness.

Is there any gratitude forthcoming? it asks.

You acted out of self preservation.

It laughs between pants. I sense you searching for a name, though.

I briefly cast my mind into its thoughts. What I draw out confuses me. I see a vision of ice that does not melt. The ice moves like liquid at first, but more solid than water. It exists in intense heat and I see it taking on a shape before it fully solidifies. Shaper of ice. Iceshaper? Is that your name?

The Dark One laughs. It is close enough.

I do not understand why you would not simply take your name from what you are. I am called Lindal because that is who I am. You invent a story for your name. It is inherently a lie with no bearing as to your nature.

My mother would say that it does.

The creature is trying to lead me astray with its talk of mothers.

Are you rested enough? I say. We need to move.

Despite our exertions, we summon enough energy to leap across the crevasse and pull ourselves up the other side.

Even as I strain not to expose any thoughts about the precious cargo it bears on its back, I steal a glance at the sapling. It grew from a seedling of the Great Old Tree of the Blessed Scion, the one that gives Him His holy power. It is with this piece of His very divinity that we shall one day overcome the Dark Ones. So the High Priestess has foretold.

The slope beyond the gully grows steeper as we ascend. We stoop down and use our hands to make our way, grasping onto rock forms, tree roots, anything that can support us. Iceshaper's pace slows and it groans.

Why do you persist in this folly? it says. You are out of danger now. Flee.

Your unblessed mind cannot possibly fathom the wisdom of my God.

I question the wisdom of sending girls to fight for a doomed cause.

Blessed Scion sends a warrior. You know nothing of us. There are womenkind among us who have fought since generations immemorial. I feel as if I am chiding Egrin once more. Even when we were children, he and other boys could scarcely understand why I played as Stollof the Wolfslayer, rather than Jennis the Blue Hyacinth.

Controlling my emotions once more, I sense that the Dark One is more focused on my age.

The future of a people rests with its children, Iceshaper says. They shouldn't be sending you out to die. You will not prevail.

I defeated you, I feel I must say.

While thousands of others fall.

Quiet! I order it, not in objection to what it says. I can sense another presence nearby. Something follows us.

I look over toward the wooded ridge to our left.

A bird? Some kind of rodent? says Iceshaper.

Most of the animals have been driven off by the war. This is something larger. It is a predator.

Iceshaper glances back and forth between me and the woods. Your senses are better than mine, it says anxiously.

Keep moving, I say, directing it toward the right, away from whatever is stalking us.

We take nervous steps upward, stumbling and slipping occasionally as the grade rises. The presence has grown distant, but it is still there.

Iceshaper has trouble clambering around a large boulder and I have to brace it from falling.

The trees grow thick again, but there is something wrong with them. They are half dead, stripped of any leaves or needles, bark greyed and flaking. The colour of the soil is grey as well. The very earth is sick.

The Dark One pretends not to be affected, but it notices my distress.

Blighted lands are too a common sight in this age, I say.

It only grunts.

I kick out one of its legs, forcing it to its knees then hold its head up.

This is your handiwork, Dark One.

The trees are diseased, it says. These are of no value to us. You think us so foolish to engage in such waste?

You have no souls, only malice. It is in your nature

It laughs, You speak to my soul at this very moment.

Nothing about you makes sense. A Dark One and yet not a Dark One. A lesser race, perhaps? A slave?

Why did you spare me, it asks, when you held the blade over me the first time?

I needed to use you.

You have not killed before, have you?

I let it peer briefly into my mind, so it knows that I have killed, and I am serious.

But it is not the same as hunting, is it? it says.

Killing a Dark One is easier, I say. When an animal is trapped, it is defeated. Its soul gives itself to its hunter. A Dark One has no soul. I have slain Dark Ones before I met you, Iceshaper, and I felt nothing.

Then why did you stay yourself from slaying me?

I prod it to keep moving. If it has a soul, then it can feel for its fallen brethren as I feel for my comrades. I must be wary of its vengeance.

I grow disoriented. This diseased land was a poor choice, despite being the shorter path.

You have a chance, it says. Before, when I faulted your people for sending children to fight, I could sense that you are special. You are a girl when all the other warriors are men. You are different. It is because of your difference that you have a chance to see that the world is changing. This land is dying not because of us. It is because the time of your god is passing.

How can your understanding of us be any more than an ant's? I say, my fists clenching.

I wait to see if it continues to blaspheme, but the movement I sense in the woods is too great to ignore. The sound of brush being trampled soon confirms the predator's approach.

The level ground of the plateau is not far now. We could reach it with a quick burst of running. I scramble past Iceshaper, climbing past it. We are not far. If we can reach the copse, we will stand a better chance of dealing with this creature.

A thunderous roar announces the predator as it crashes through the treeline. A silverfiend. The Master of the Wilderness. It rears and readies to charge.

Continued in Part 5 . . .

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