The elves destroyed another shrine. It wasn't one that I'd made, but it didn't matter. Archdruid Benzir sent me to repair it as fast as possible. It was to the east of Temple Might, where the Rey-Goor creep is the worst. I'm not sure there are any beasts left there to honor, but I kept my mouth shut and did what I was told.
Benzir provides for me and Kio-Father, who is getting on in years. It wouldn't do me any good to point out the futility of building yet another shrine in an area that is quickly rotting away and watched by elves who seem to have nothing to do but destroy things.
Foolishness, if you ask me. But no one really cares about the thoughts of a neo-shaman who's less than a decade beyond childhood. I am a daughter of the Vanished, which earns me respect I'm not sure I deserve. Benzir teaches that the souls of my family line—indeed all the Sylvoks who vanished with the rise of the New Sun—now inhabit the creatures of the Tangle. They are the honored vessels. I just wish I were skilled enough to shape copper without nicking in my hands the way I do. I'll have to ask Kio-Father to show me the ritual again. But I haven't mastered the rune-making he was teaching me last time. And I don't want him to think himself a bad teacher.
When I finished with the shrine, I hurried to the Temple Hall to report the progress. But when I got there, the doors were closed tight. I knew better than to interrupt, so I waited outside even though I was hungry. I sighed. By this time, the elves had probably smashed it to bits again. I sat down by the wall to wait. The afternoon sun was slanting through the open doorway, and I got drowsy. The next thing I knew, someone was shaking my foot.
It was a young man I'd never seen before. He had scorch marks marring his face and his hands, which made me startle and recoil from him. Thinking about that now makes me sad, because he was a nice man, just trying to do what was right for his kin.
"I'm Camik," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's all right," I replied. "I didn't mean to fall asleep."
Just then the heavy metal doors swung open, and Benzir himself strode out.
"Benzir!" Camik said, standing up and racing after the archdruid, as if he knew him like a close friend. But when Camik grabbed his arm, Benzir shook him off angrily. I scooted behind the door so Benzir wouldn't see me. Everyone in Temple Might loves Benzir, but he scares me sometimes. I think it's strange that he puts his personal rune on all the shrines now. We never used to have to do that, and doesn't that mean we're worshiping him, in a way?
"Get out of here, Camik," Benzir said. "I won't listen to any more of your lies. Neither will I permit you to pollute the minds of my people."
"They're not lies," Camik said. "And they're not your people."
"I'm giving you one last chance to leave the grounds, or you will be detained. Do you understand?"
"I've been to Oxidda. The corruption is there as well, only worse. Entire mountains are simply gone, just turned to rotten slag. The Vulshok have lost scores of people. And the creatures . . . the ones I told you about. They've been seen as far off as the razorfields."
"I told you. The Green Sun mutated life. Things are simply different now, and we're seeing it for the first time."
"It's not that. And you know it."
"Get out of my temple. Get out of my sight."
I saw Camik hurry down the steps and along the raised walkway toward the village gate. I waited until Benzir disappeared inside the hall and then hurried home where Kio-Father would be wondering I had been. Camik's words chilled me.
Just after dawn, the commons was packed with people. This wasn't unusual; many people gathered there before the heat of the midday sun. But this morning they were clumped around the south end of the commons. Someone was making a speech, his voice echoing loudly off the copper-stalls. I circled around the edge of the crowd and through the heads of the people I saw Camik. My heart lurched. Benzir himself had told the man to leave the temple grounds. When the archdruid found out about this, he would be very upset.
"Listen to me, brothers and sisters. I have traveled far from the Tangle. I have seen the Quicksilver Sea and the spires of Lumengrid. It is the same there as it is here. Something is amiss in our world!
There was a murmuring in the crowd. We all had seen things that made no sense, especially the spread of the Mephidross. But other things as well—things that people were scared to talk about for fear of bringing bad luck into their houses.
"It is worse in Oxidda. The mountains are literally sloughing apart. Vulshok men and women are disappearing at an alarming rate."
"What then? What's the cause?," someone called.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of men moving toward the crowd from across the square. I knew the big one from the Temple. He was one of Benzir's favorite warriors, and I thought him to be a brute. This was going to bad for Camik.
"I have discovered evidence of . . . " Camik continued.
Benzir's warrior seized Camik, taking hold of his arms.
"No! Let me tell the people what I've found. They have to . . . ."
Benzir's men strode through the crowd, muscling Camik through the startled people.
"He's a madman," Benzir's men told us. "Don't listen to a thing he says."
The crowd dispersed quickly and I made my way toward the Temple. Instead of going through the front door, I followed the path along the side and entered through a small door. Once there had been a basement level of the Temple. But the metal-ground began to corrode, so they brought in Neurok mages to construct tanks filled with quicksilver to keep the temple from sinking into the ground.
I knew where they would take Camik: the holding pen where they used to tame beasts and mounts. Benzir had converted it to cage for people that he didn't like, which seemed to be a lot these days. I slunk along the corridor hoping I wouldn't run into any of the warriors. This was reckless, I know. But I was curious about this man Camik and what he'd found out in the Oxidda.
When I reached the cage, all was silent. A body lay face down on the floor in the center of the room and blood trickled from him. It was Camik, no doubt. I recognized his clothes. It had not been more than 20 minutes since he was standing in the square, his heart beating. I stepped closer and saw that his hands were tied behind his back. However he died, it hadn't been a fair fight. I hurried away with the feeling that no Sylvok was safe in the hands of Benzir.
Two days later, I was heading home through the Tangle when fear doubled me over. A sick feeling still lingered in my belly as I searched the glade for signs of life. But there was nothing to be seen.
I slipped between the ridges at the base of a tree and crouched down, trembling. Kio-Father always said I had a special perceptiveness, like the time when I knew my aunt had taken ill before the messenger ever reached our door. I listen to Kio-Father. And I listen to my fear, because it usually doesn't lead me astray.
But still I saw nothing.
I waited for a few minutes more until my heart slowed. There was no sound but the singing of the wind. Just as I was about to continue on my way, I felt the ground change beneath my feet. It felt as if turned to mush even though I could see no change in the coppery surface.
Something bad was about to happen. I knew it as sure as I knew the old face of Kio-Father. I scrambled up the trunk. Even though "up" was not a place a Sylvok was permitted to go. "Up" was the realm of the elves. Still, I left the ground not a moment too soon. The patch of ground where I had stood dissolved into sludge. A bubbling mass rippled away from the tree and across the pristine floor. I would have to cross the clearing on the branches. From there, I could make my way back to Temple Might.
But as I climbed, one of my hands caught on a rough spine of the tree and split the skin. Above me, I could see a notch in the trunk where I might be able to rest and wrap the wound. But as I pulled myself up, a rumble shook the forest and nearly toppled me off the tree. And once I'd recovered successfully from that, a voice in my ear nearly sent me tumbling down again.
"You're out of your element, Sylvok."
I reeled back in surprise, but a hand steadied me and helped me onto a platform that was not natural as I had first thought. Rather, it had been cut into a tree. A Viridian watchpost. I should have known. I stared at the black-haired elf crouched beside me. He stared back, and then scowled in annoyance.
"Quit gaping like a vorrac," he chided. "Haven't you ever seen an elf before?"
"Of course," I retorted. You couldn't walk from Temple Might to the Outer Altar without seeing one or more of them glaring at you from the heights. "Thank you."
"Thanks for what? Not shoving you off the side?"
"I didn't mean that," I said, although that's exactly what I'd been thinking. "I didn't mean to trespass—"
"I don't care, human," he said roughly. "Our people must forget our squabbles. There's much more at stake than that."
"What do you mean? —," I began. But he slapped his hand over my mouth and dragged me down so we were lying side by side on the platform.
"Do you see that?" he whispered in my ear. I shook my head, startled by his quickness.
"Did you even look?" he whispered, gesturing across the clearing. A spasm of shock ran through me as I stared at the beast below us. Twice as tall as a man, it shuffled on two legs although it had four. Black ichor oozed from the sores on its skin, and it was hunched over so that its head—I think it was its head—was nearly dragged along the ground. Long strips of its flesh trailed behind it as if it had been flayed and left to die.
"What is . . ." I found I couldn't even finish the sentence.
"That is why our people must stop fighting each other. If we don't, soon there will be none of us left at all."
Once the beast had gone, I thanked the elf again and cautiously made my way back to my home. Kio-Father was waiting for me at the door, as if he knew something was wrong. He made me sweet tea and put a blanket around my shoulders. He busied himself with chores until I was ready to tell him what had happened.
"How could a beast like that be here in the Tangle?" I asked, shuddering at the thought of the loose tendrils on flesh leaving a trail of black ooze along the forest floor.
"There have been rumors for some time now," Kio-Father replied. "But I have no answers for certain."
I glanced nervously at the walls and doors of our home, which now seemed thin and easily destroyed.
"Are we safe, Kio?" I asked. In my heart, I knew he didn't know the answer. But I wanted him to reassure me the way he could when I was a child. When just his words could make me feel safe.
He smiled gently and laid his aged hand against my cheek. "Why don't you sleep, little one? I'll work some extra strength into these walls, how about that?"
I feel asleep to the sound of his warm voice, chanting a familiar song while light flowed from his fingers into the copper walls and strengthened the home I'd lived all my life.
A banging on the door woke me and the nightmare began.
Benzir's men dragged me and Kio-Father outside and shoved us to our knees with dozens of our kin and neighbors. Roughly tying our hands behind our backs, they gagged anyone who called out or tried to speak. Everything was happening too fast. I couldn't get my wits about me.
Suddenly Kio-Father was shouting and they tied a cord around his head and in his mouth so he couldn't say anything more. There were other figures—not Benzir's men—lurking in the shadows. These were humans, sort of. Lanky with exposed sections of red flesh and strange yellow-white plating that looked like bone. Their faces were emaciated, and their hands like cruel talons.
Benzir's men tied us in a line like pack animals and handed us over to the talon-men. Those who could keep up stumbled along in the darkness. Those who could not were dragged along the ground, skin sliced on the rough shards of metal. I could not see Kio-Father, but I feared he was too old to stay on his feet. I was already weeping, though anger would have been a more useful state of mind.
Then the arrows began zinging through the air, puncturing our captors. I was never so happy to see the handiwork of elves. But they were not quick enough, and the talon-men began killing those ahead of me in line. In seconds, they were upon me. Their talons clawed at my throat, the sound of arrows sliced through the air, and I was lost to the world.
The black-haired elf was beside me when my eyes opened. I was lying under a soft blanket on the hard floor of a narrow corridor.
"I'm sorry for the lack of comforts," he said. "This is one of our havens."
"Havens?" I asked, my tongue felt thick with thirst.
He handed me a flask of water. "Yes, in the hollow center of the trees. We have them throughout the forest."
"What happened? Where is my father?"
The elf looked grim. "We weren't able to save all of you. I'm sorry."
"I know," I told him. "Any idea where they took the survivors?"
He shook his head. "Can you stand? Walk?" When I nodded, he helped me to my feet.
He led me down a series of corridors, crafted with perfect magic that reminded me of Kio-Father's handiwork. The corridor opened unexpectedly into a great hall at the heart of a massive tree. The hall was packed with people, mainly Vulshoks and Aurioks. Most looked injured or ill. Others were huddled together with gaunt faces filled with fear.
"Who are these people?" I asked. Far above me I could see sky and a sliver of the green sun.
"Refugees," he told me. "From them, we're starting to get a picture of what's going on. Something is invading our lands."
"No, nothing that we have seen before. The Vulshoks say they are coming up from inside the earth itself."
I knew nothing about that. Kio-Father and I had talked once about what might be underground. I said it must be solid, like a rock all the way through. But Kio-Father had other ideas. He believed the inner earth to be soft and pitted, like a rotten fruit. At the time, I'd paid him no mind.
"What's going to happen to them?"
"Those who are able will fight."
"I'm able!" I said.
"Good," he replied. "What are your skills?"
"Shaping metal," I told him.
"Then you are very useful, indeed."
During the next sun cycle, the elves intended to attack the talon-men's fortress in what the elves called the Cambree Garden. I'd never heard of it, as it was hundreds of feet in the air. An odd place for a garden, but I would have liked to see it before it was corrupted by our enemies.
The next few days I spent shaping arrows. I was happy to do this task. I imagined piercing the eye of every monster that had stolen and murdered my kin. Then my elf friend began to include me during his turns on watch, which gave me a chance to feel the sun again.
We were on watch in the tower-tree. From this height, the world still looked beautiful and untouched. As often happens now, a dark creature shuffled into sight in the glade below us. It was part man, but with no flesh on its chest. I could see the branches of its rib cage. Its legs were mutilated, just spikes of rusty metal roped on with flesh strips. Its hands . . . I can't fathom how they did that to its hands. When it turned to me, its mouth was gone with sewn, rotted skin in its place. But I recognized the shape of the face, or what's left of it. Oh, Kio-Father, what have they done to you?
"Get in and get out, Kessla," my friend told me. The black-haired elf who called himself Nee had become all that was left of my family. His black eyes looked at me with concern. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
I grinned at him to hide the sick feeling in my belly. "We've talked about this. I'll leave the Vulshok weapon and be gone in a flash."
"We have others who can— "
"Nee, I want to. You saw what they did to Kio-Father."
"All right," Nee said reluctantly. "But I expect to see you back here. Quickly and safely."
Before the invaders came Cambree Garden had been the elves' largest fortified garden in the Tangle. Nee described it to me as a high-walled fort built high in the canopy near Tel-Jilad. Its copper walls were engraved with delicate patterns, but no word-runes like they had in the old days. Constructed around sprawling stands of gel-fruit, it had been a peaceful sanctuary, and Nee's favorite place as a child.
Now, it was the homebase of the intruders, an evil, corrupted sludge-pit where the leadership of their deranged armies made their home. In the dark of night, Nee's scouts brought me to the very edge of it. Alone, I was to make my way through the entrance, leave the Vulshok weapon, and get out without anyone noticing me.
Now, I stood just inside the walls, surrounded by silence. When Nee and I devised the plan, I had little hope it would be possible. I couldn't imagine that the rotters wouldn't have a guard watching for intruders. But all was quiet. I realized that they weren't concerned about intruders. They did not fear an assault. They did not fear us at all.
When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that the garden was oval shaped with railings shaped from copper of the trees itself. There was no glow of gel-fruit—the stands must have been ripped out when the elves lost this ground. I glimpsed bulky shapes along the edges of the walls. But there was no movement, so I gathered they must be inanimate rather than threats.
I had been tasked with leaving the weapon on the central altar, which had been converted into some kind of vat. I approached it, and the smell of death turned my stomach. I pulled the weapon out of my cloak. It was a small hand-held device pulsing with reddish light—courtesy of the mage who had created it. Using my metal-shaping spells, I was supposed to "spark" it and still have time to run before it exploded. There hadn't been time to get the details on how it worked, but I trusted the Vulshok mage when he told me that it would.
I crouched beside the foul-smelling vat, and sounds of sloshing inside the vat made me shudder at what sort of life made its home in the disgusting broth. I shut my mind and began the ritual to spark the device, but then I heard movement behind me. I spun around to see an elf, or at least what had been an elf. She was altered, but unlike the Kio-father, her elf-nature was recognizable underneath the unnatural distortions.
She might have been beautiful at one time with long dark hair and fine features. Now, gaps in the skin on her face reveal a latticework of metal. Her hands been shaped into grotesque proportions and distended blade jutted out of her elbow. She gazed at me as if I were little more than an insect. In the shadows my fingers continued to work the metal of the weapon into place.
"A little human?" she mused. Her voice was a low, metallic growl. "So high in the trees? And in my fortress?"
"You're with them?" I asked, feeling the weapon warm beneath my fingers.
She lunged toward me then, quicker than I thought possible. I rolled away into the darkness and tumbled behind a row of vats by the east railing, covering the red glow of the weapon under my cloak. I heard her laugh softly.
"Do you know who I am, daughter of Benzir?"
I cursed her silently. I was no daughter of Benzir, in blood or spirit.
"Benzir has seen the truth," she continued. "It has been etched in blood on his skin."
Her voice sounded farther away, and I had a faint hope that she had crossed to the opposite side of the garden. I slipped out the weapon, still sheltering its glow with my cloak. I tucked it in a hollow at the base of the railing. My eyes searched the darkness, but there was no sign of the elf.
As soon as the weapon was lodged, I darted for the exit. If only I could clear the gate, I could disappear into the branches until Nee's scouts found me. But a blinding light and an impact across my face sent me reeling backwards. Dazed, I wondered if the weapon had exploded. But no, something was gripping my arms painfully. I had been caught.
Still blinded by the sharp, hot light, I struggled against my captors. Then, the haughty face of the elf appeared before me, her features like a black smear across my damaged vision.
"Rip her arms off, and take the rest back to Benzir's lab." The elf said dismissively her minions.
They did as they were told. Just before the pain robbed my mind of sense and purpose, I felt an instant when I was free from their grasp. I hurled myself blindly in the direction of the Vulshok's weapon, just as it exploded into shards of fire, copper, and steel into my flesh.