Tangled echoes

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To call it a forest was to be generous. The trees that covered the northern slopes, as they descended via a winding route between towering peaks, were torn and twisted; warped bastardisations of nature, branches and trunks sculpted as if by a constant, vicious wind, all ragged and disfigured. Yet there was no wind, no movement at all. A silence lay upon the forest, heavy and profound.

The incline was slight but the going was slow and tough, the ground crushed and shredded, as if a god's finger had raked it long ago. The forest lay upon a deceitful and unpredictable surface, with muddied paths giving way to dark pits with no visible bottom, overgrown with webs of interlinked branches. The rough path, such as it was, veered this way and that between sudden outcrops of rock, snaking up and down and back on itself until their sense of direction was entirely confused. Oozing moss covered everything, like a gangrenous wound spreading over broken skin. There were no animals scurrying in the undergrowth, no birds singing above. Some insects rested lethargically on leaves and rocks, lacking the will to move or pay heed to the unlikely group of humans working their way through the festering place. Spiders weaved uneven webs and a brown, sludgy sap dripped languorously in rivulets between the grooves of the tree bark.

Fenris Silt watched his footing carefully, wary of a twisted ankle, feeling the weight of the forest canopy pushing down upon him, as the rising, prickling humidity pressed on his skin. He wielded a broken, makeshift staff in one hand, pulled from a dead and rotten tree. There was a distinct sense that they had entered somewhere new and altogether different.

"What happened to this place, Stefan?" he asked, indicating the exposed roots of trees which teetered on the edge of clefts in the ground.

"Earthquake, I'm guessing," Seldon said.

Stefan looked over his shoulder, from where he led them at the front. "What is that? An 'earthquake'?"

Seldon looked him quizzically, then back at Fenris, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

"None of you know what an earthquake is? Maybe you don't get them in the valley. To the south they're quite common, depending on where you are. The whole ground shakes, tears itself apart. They can affect huge areas."

"What causes it?" Hatch asked.

"I have no idea," Seldon said. "Something big and geological and underground, would be my guess. I'm not sure anyone knows."

"Perhaps it was that," Stefan said, "or perhaps an unusual process of erosion. This area looks like natural cave systems, but they've been pushed up and out to the surface. I've never seen anything quite like it."

"Do you know which way we're going?" Kirya asked, brushing something stick from her arm. "I'm completely turned around."

Galisai laughed. "Don't worry, Stefan never gets lost. Right, Stefan?"

"If there's going to be a first time, it's likely to be here," he said. "But right now, I know where we're going, even if I don't exactly know where we are."

The mountains had never granted them a long view of the landscape to the north, always hiding it behind overlapping peaks, or dropping them into low valleys, or shrouding the distance horizon in mists and cloud. Fenris had been waiting the entire journey for a glimpse, a sign, a hint, that their endeavour was worthwhile - a far-off tower, or a chimney of smoke, or the hedge-lines of a farmed field. But there was nothing.

Waiting, always waiting, always hoping for a sign, never satisfied. Fenris had been playing this game his entire life, always believing that answers would come, that meaning would reveal itself, always disappointed. He had waited and, in the process, had transformed into an old man. There was only so much more waiting he could afford, that urgency driving him to leave Treydolain and take to the road with his companions: yet, still, he was denied. The future was there, out of sight, waiting to be discovered, resolutely hiding.

The enemy was there, he believed. Kraisa, the old god from the coast, who had been vanquished by Aera. So said the stories. So had said his parents, every night to him as he'd fallen asleep as a child. His bedtime stories had been of warring gods and nation conflicts, of grander and more mythic times when the fate of all hung in balance. When Aera, the saviour, had been driven from the valley she had taken with her Lagonia's best hope for a future. She had left the valley in the hands of mortals, who were demonstrably ill-equipped for the task. History had been retold; records altered; schooling changed. Scapegoats had been identified, and filtered out of society. Only the Watchers had remembered as the centuries ticked by, but even their conviction had wavered as the world had returned to normality and its facade of comfort.

Fenris looked at his companions - his friends - and marvelled at their existence. They were with him, some by choice, others by edict, some by fate, but they had found a common purpose of sorts. For the first time, Fenris had comrades who believed - to a greater or lesser extent - in his purpose and his mission. He was able to talk and think openly, and let the guise of Royal Protector slip away. That life, which he'd lived for decades, was diminishing, dissolving into the past, the lessening of its bright glare revealing the man he had once been, long ago, before this path. He regarded Kirya and Tarn, so young, and even Seldon, still considerably younger than himself, and wondered at their futures, still stretching out before them. Would their lives be defined by this journey or were their true callings yet to be found?

The trees creaked, branches shifting subtly despite the lack of wind. On more than one occasion Fenris thought he saw a snaking root shift in the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look it was mere wood, twisted as with everything else here but inanimate nonetheless.

Hours trickled by, the density of the trees hiding the passage of the sun and rendering the light to a constant, muted, sickly green-yellow.

Hachim Arondir has been a good man. Fenris had not known him for long, but it had been long enough. He had been the first to die: an uneasy sense weighed heavily on Fenris' mind that he would not be the last. They had sufficient supplies - by estimation - to cross the mountains, but not for a return journey. And if they did find a civilisation to the north, if they found a legacy left by Aera when she had departed the valley, that would turn the journey into a beginning, rather than an ending.

"I can see light," shouted Stefan, pointing ahead. The trees thinned, a bright, white glow beaming through the gaps between trunks.

They increased their pace, negotiating the tangled roots underfoot with the careless enthusiasm of people who knew their goal was within reach. Fenris pushed ahead, planting his staff, moving past Tarn and Kirya, and emerging from the forest alongside Seldon and Stefan. They stood atop a small mound at the edge of the treeline, looking out at the discovered landscape.

The trees ceased abruptly, replaced with a barren, unnaturally smooth and reflective obsidian that extended for perhaps thirty meters, before dropping away out of sight. Swirling mists enveloped the entire are, again barring them from seeing far. There were no features, only the black-grey nothingness of the ground and the empty sky.

"Fenris," Tranton said, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. His voice trailed off and he said nothing more.

Fenris took a stop forward, the ground crunching beneath him like shattered glass. He paused, looked back at the others standing at the edge of the forest, and felt their accusatory gazes, all of them turned toward him, rather than to the barren world in which they stood.

He had brought them here.

The edge beckoned him and he took slow, faltering steps towards it, leaning heavily on the makeshift staff. One foot after another, like always. The air was wet and thick, the heavy humidity of the forest having given way to a fine rain. Fenris' skin and clothes were damp, his thin hair flat against his head.

Reaching the edge, he leaned out, squinting against the diffuse glare of the mists. The ground dropped away into an enormous crater, which curved away to the left and right, disappearing into the murk.

There were no signs of life. It was a dead place. There was nothing here: no proof, no salvation, no future or last, best hope.

Fenris didn't dare turn back to see his companions. The shame kept his gaze fixed on the nothingness before him.

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