Darklaw – Episode 70

DAYS BLURRED INTO each other, but Kami had made a calendar with a stick. She put a notch in it for each day and kept the stick in her belt because she knew days would pass more quickly than she expected.

At first, she made fires and lived like a visitor to the forest. Progressively, she abandoned tools, along with her shirt and began to feel herself part of the world around her again. Then she lost track of her stick, her trousers, and the days.

Parts of the great Demonforest spread like fingers across the continent. Broad-leafed trees seized the banks of the Wealth River, intruding into the Trade Quarter, and at the other end, needle-leafed evergreens swelled into a boreal forest that reached out onto the steppes of the Dark Quarter. The interior of the Demon Quarter held mist-shrouded montane forests and cool bogs. Both hidden and networked villages stood amid clearings and valleys. Moose and wolverine roamed darkward, while many more creatures made their homes in the warmer tradeward climate.

Kami’s home was a coastal village, but a day’s walk inland from Featherwood brought her face-to-face with the diversity of forest life. When she was younger and unaware of her gift, she had maintained a cursory relationship with that diversity. Now, she passed through areas of forest she had never seen, perhaps areas no one had ever seen. She foraged with deer and slept beside them in their thickets. She swung through the high canopy with a bachelor pack of gray langurs until they began a war with another group. She followed a black bear as he plowed his way through trees and bogs to a hillside erupting with blueberries. 

Kami passed beyond the Wealth River and crept along a game trail before following the bear’s more direct route. Surrounded by so much life, she remained preoccupied with sensing and exploring it until she stumbled across a village.

She sensed a group of men some distance away and climbed into a tree, where she began to make her way to another tree and another. She stayed high and quiet, pausing frequently to reassess their distance. Without considering what she was doing, she called out to a pack of langurs and sent them to surround the village to be her eyes, but their appearance roused the villagers, who considered the monkeys a delicacy.

Kami pulled herself away from the langurs and let them go. They dispersed, but not before the village had feasted on a half-dozen of their members. She spent a few days watching the village from the high canopy, and then she moved on, passing through a high savannah and back into the trees, where it began to take on the quality of a boreal forest—firs replacing maples, the broadleaves giving way to needles.

Thoughts of Avestine came and went, and Kami occasionally wondered how far she had walked and how long she had been gone. She had nowhere to go, but she desired to go away from where she was. She came to a ledge. The sheer drop was at least two-hundred feet. The pine trees around her grew along the edge, some leaning out over the emptiness as if the land below them was rolling away and taking their roots with it.

She could see for miles across a valley. The distance and crowded blue spruce made it appear furry, and it was then she noticed the sun to her right. She sat down, interested to watch it set.

She had taken a deer pelt from a kill, and it kept her warm against the chill, but she decided to make a fire anyway. The trees dropped their needles all around, and twigs were within an arm’s reach, so a fire would be quick to start. When her pile was ready, she realized she had lost her trousers and with them her flint. The delicate work of fire-starting required fingers, anyway.

She meditated for a time before she was able to assume the body of a monkey, but when she did, the arrival of fleas annoyed her. She became herself and donned the fur pelt and boots again. She stirred the pile with a long stick as she watched the sun.

Closing her eyes, she reached out and found moose below. Behind her, birds chattered, including pheasants, the thought of which made her mouth water. She would have liked to roast a leg, but she would settle for the raw meat. She opened her eyes, expecting the bird to find its way to her anytime, but what she saw made her forget about the bird. The sun’s glowing orb continued to fall below the horizon. It appeared larger than she remembered, and half of it was now behind the distant line of trees. She watched until the orb was entirely gone.

The Trade Quarter knew only the Unsetting Sun, sunfall bringing it to the horizon but no lower before it began its travel and rise toward evensun in the seaward sky. Likewise, across the world, the heavy cloud cover of the Dark Quarter rarely allowed her to see the Blue Sun, although it did set, leaving the already dim land in utter darkness. But now, as she sat on the ledge, she saw more stars than she could remember.

She had always wondered about the small lights, ones the Demon Quarter had more of than any other place she had been. Her mother had told her stories that explained their patterns, but some of them conflicted, so she wondered if her mother had told her the truth. She looked for the Maiden and wondered if the twelve lights were really the spirit of the girl who had resisted an evil king and received immortality from Adonja, the Sky. Then she saw it. A pattern of bright stars in the shape of the Great Fish like the chart in Sahrdon.

She recalled the esoteric knowledge hidden in the symbols and the handwriting. The chart described the Sea giving birth to Bala, god of Chaos, apex of the Axis of Body. She thought she understood why the Architect changed the ancient tradition, transposing Bala with Sahrot and Chaos with Wild. It made the truth not so frightening and his control more complete.

Avestine and Rook had accused her of irrationality, but their need for duty was a desire for safety. Avestine was fond of saying men without fear were also men without hope, but Kami felt neither emotion. She didn’t need a future to give the present a purpose.

And still, she was less animal than she had suspected. The Wild was her preferred home, not because it was chaotic but because what order existed was imposed, not presumed.

Rook had accused her of being cold, but that was because he knew no appeal could breach her imperative. What she did not wish to give must be taken not bargained for. Her last lesson in that had been under Avestar’s ax.

She returned to the trees, where a chill had set in. She wanted a fire, so she made her way back along the trail. She skirted a village, studying its layout. At the center was the community fire with a keeper tending it, an old man sitting near the hearth. He was staring at the ground perhaps sleeping.

She crept close and snuck behind the huts. When the man stirred, she reached out, found a snake nearby, and sent it toward the man’s feet. He leapt, and she reached into the pit and seized a stick between her wrists. Holding onto it without burning herself was difficult as she ran from the village, but the darkness of the forest didn’t slow her down. Her boots protected her feet as she made her way through the dense underbrush. Still, she could sense where every tree and rock lay and avoided any falls.

After returning to her ledge, she kindled her fire. The stick had a good burn with a ball of pitch on one end. She set fire to her pile of dry needles and twigs, and soon small branches of hardwood glowed with a steady warmth. She added more dirt and stones to contain it.

She thought about Avestine again and found something calling her “home.” The pull that had drawn her away from the Trade Quarter felt like freedom. The pull drawing her back felt like a leash. She didn’t like it and tried to shake it off. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The sweet scent of burnt wood and fresh pine eased her mind. She began to drift to sleep when something startled her.

She glanced around, reached out with all her senses, and found only a few foraging animals about. The flames were dying, the pine consumed quickly, and she regretted that no hardwoods grew nearby. She went to gather a few more branches and when she returned, she propped them within the black-and-white ashes. She poked at the fire with another stick and thought again of Avestine.

She saw Avestine’s icy stare. Pride wasn’t such a bad thing. Pride was a sign of intelligent life. She thought of Avestine’s firm shoulders, her eager kisses, and her strong body. Arousal surged through her, and she shivered. She closed her eyes again, but the thoughts were intrusive. Her mate was far away. Her mate. She couldn’t control the thoughts coming or going. She let her senses take hold again, hoping they would distract her.

Her awareness roamed from the circle of her campfire, to the stand of pine behind her, to the village beyond that. Her senses prowled beyond the village, beyond the boreal forest, and into the temperate region from where she had come. She took note of the beasts hunting and those sleeping, as well as the orgy of plants that left no part of the world empty of life. Even the smallest fingernail of soil held life.

Then her mind’s eye came upon a dark spot. Her thoughts called it “dark,” but it was simply a place without the light of life. She thought at first that it was an area burned out with her bestial army. She circled it, breached it, and found a man.

She didn’t experience all people as lifeless, though in the past she couldn’t sense human life at all. Living things existed at different levels of awareness and connection, asserting their lives in various ways. Avestine was the most fiercely alive person she had ever met, but this one Kami recognized for his emptiness. The walking dead. Avestar.

He was somewhere iceward of Featherwood, moving deeper into the forest. He wasn’t alone, although Kami couldn’t tell how many traveled with him. Her initial alarm faded into curiosity.

Published in Darklaw |
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