Chapter 18: Mystery of the Two Notes
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Chapter 18, part 1 appears
in this issue.
He began to shake despite his proximity to the campfire. They thought he was coming down with a cold. He knew better. The darkness was coming again. Except this time he was trying to fight it. He was trying to fight because if it conquered him again he might kill his two companions.
Then what of his mission? What of the note his lord had given him to deliver? That was another thing. He might not remember everything once the darkness lifted, but he wanted to solve the mystery of the two notes.
He remembered vividly when Palance gave him the note he was to carry back to Geamehn. But he couldn’t remember when he got the other identical twin he later found in his pouch. What if he got the other when he was under the darkness?
Both letters were sealed by Palance so he couldn’t open either one to check them out. Maybe they were both from Palance? If they were then there was nothing to worry about. But he was positive the darkness would not bring anything good about him.
Ivan couldn’t bring himself to tell the other two about any of this. He couldn’t. What if there was no darkness? What if he was just going insane? Could it be possible that he had committed some traitorous act in obtaining the second letter?
Twice he had shown Alguin and Aurin the duplicate letter. Both times neither man could tell they had a phony. But still Ivan couldn’t bring himself to tell them or to open one of the letters.
A rustle in the trees broke him out of his thoughts. Quickly dropping the broth, he reached for his sword as Aurin got to his feet.
No one said a word as they stared out into the dense foliage around them. The bright fire didn’t allow them to peer too far into the surrounding darkness. There was a moment of silence and the tension grew very thick.
Suddenly a burst of fire appeared less than half a mile away. The column rose into the air and then disappeared.
“It’s not here but over there,” stated Alguin pointing with a large sleeved hand.
Aurin Nubel slid his saber back into its sheath. He began to gather his things. “As I heard, you’re right. What we heard was an animal running away from whatever’s out there.”
Ivan Lustcrow got to his feet in an instant. The darkness was coming over him again. He didn’t put his sword away.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Ivan of the other man.
Aurin looked up at him with a puzzled expression on his face. “we’re moving, of course. What did you think?”
“No, we’re not moving,” he commanded. “As a member of the Iinnin Lodar, I’m in charge here. Not you.”
“What?” asked the man from Nomen. “We always move when there’s trouble around.”
Ivan shook his head. “Not this time.”
He looked over at Alguin who was staring out into the darkened forest. “Light Bearer, make yourself useful and turn off this fire.”
Alguin Sorrel didn’t turn to do as he was told. He continued to stare out into the darkened woods. “Someone is in trouble. Listen, they’re being chased. A woman... and a small child.”
“I don’t care!” roared Ivan. “I told you to douse this fire! Now do it!”
Aurin Nubel and Alguin Sorrel examined him with fury in their eyes. How he hated for them to look at him like that. It hurt him deeply. He was their friend and they were his! There was just no controlling the darkness.
“As you wish, Ivan.” Without another word the Light Bearer moved over to the fire. With a wave of his hand the fire grew cold and darkness surrounded them.
Aurin looked at him with a deadly calm, his hand resting on his saber. Moonlight filtered between the trees to spill softly on them. The woods grew very still and the sounds of nature ceased. The brand new darkness did wonders to accentuate the silence and they felt it.
They first heard the growl and then it was followed felling of trees and the snapping of twigs and branches. Below that, they heard a yell and then a scream. Both were from different sources: one sounded like a woman and the higher shriek belonged to a girl.
Somewhere closer than half a mile another column of fire bellowed into the nighttime sky.
“A mother and her child,” said Aurin. “We must help them, Ivan.”
Ivan Lustcrow shook his head. “No. We can’t. You know we can’t. It could be a trap. I won’t risk this mission on a trick.”
Alguin nodded slowly. “He’s right, Aurin. May the light be with them.”
There was another scream and another yell. Aurin bit his lip as the sounds carried to where he stood. He drew his saber and positioned himself next to a tree.
“If they reach us,” he said to Ivan and Alguin, “we help them.”
Ivan agreed with a curt nod. “Prepare to block the fire, Light Bearer. Get ready to defend us, Aurin.”
The commotion would have passed them but it shifted in their direction suddenly. The growls continued and the screaming followed. The three riders tensed. Then a woman with graying hair burst through the underbrush. Her robes were singed and her arm and face were covered with blisters. She looked wildly at them with red-rimmed eyes. Quickly she reached behind her and tugged and pulled a little black-haired girl along with her.
Aurin Nubel reached and pulled them behind him. The little girl was sobbing.
“What’s coming?” asked the Light Bearer.
There was a flicker of recognition across the lady’s face when she saw his green robes.
“A monstrous thing,” she answered. “The dead have awaken, good sirs. We should flee.”
Ivan Lustcrow was horror struck. The dead? “What nonsense is this? Are you insane, woman?”
As if in reply, a feral growl cut short her reply. She looked away from him into the darkness. The little girl began to tug at her.
“It’s Auntie Alma May!” she yelled frantically. “It’s Auntie Alma May!”
Ivan shoved the woman back. “Stay back. We’ll handle this.”
The woman shook her head. “It spews fire, soldier. Beware this thing.”
“I can handle that,” stated Alguin Sorrel. “The light is my friend and guide.”
“Let us hope it is enough, good one,” she said softly.
All three men turned away from her as they heard the thing charge their way. Its glowing red eyes gave it away before it actually reached them. The Light Bearer was the first to act. He began to whisper fiercely to himself and stepped forward as the thing lunged.
The monstrous thing gave a yelp of pain as it met a small shimmering wall of resistance. It bounced away immediately, dug its black nailed hands and feet into the dirt and lunged again.
Every hit resonated with a loud thud as it tried to forcefully break through. It yelled like a dying woman and growled in frustration but Alguin held on to the force field he had conjured.
“It’s going to release its fire,” yelled Ereen.
Alguin was ready. Two jets of flame flew towards him from the thing’s eyes. With great pain at his choices, Alguin let his force field down and lifted his hands. He did everything as they had taught him at the Sun Cathedral. He let the pains of this world filter away and felt the goodness of the world fill him. In the Light, there was no darkness in the soul. Miracles had a place in the Light. The teachings paid off.
The two jets of flames struck him in his hands and fizzled out. But the maneuver left him exposed with his shield gone.
The thing almost reached him but Aurin was faster. The young man from Nomen cut in front and met the charge head on. It happened very fast and Alguin was able to spin away. By the time he had completed his spin, the thing’s arm lay on the ground.
It wheeled away in pain as Aurin stepped in and slashed it across the back. Tumbling away into the darkness, the thing shot a jet of flame into the surrounding forest.
It sped away on all four limbs and the five unwilling companions watched in horror as the forest around them began to go up in flames.
“By the light,” gasped the woman. “It’s trying to herd us.”
“I want my daddy,” cried the girl.
“It’s okay, girl,” soothed Ereen.
“We must get out of here,” said Ivan. “This thing is going to burn the forest down around us.”
“No, it’s not,” Aurin said pointing. “Look.”
Around them the forest was burning. It would take several minutes for the flames to get hotter and higher. The only way to go was north where they could see the thing running from them.
“What’s it doing?” asked Ivan. His head hurt. It hurt real bad. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t helped Aurin when the thing attacked them. He should have helped them.
“It’s herding us,” said the Light Bearer. He turned to the lady, his green robes glinting with the fires around them.
“What leads north, woman?” he asked softly. Sweat was beginning to form on all their brows.
They could all see the pain in her eyes. “A village,” was all she said.
“Oh, my god,” whispered Aurin. “How many of those things are there?”
“Many, I believe,” she explained. “This young girl’s father woke the village. Apparently, the cemetery is no longer a place for the dead.”
“We can’t help them,” stated Ivan. He needed to get to Geamehn with his two notes. Maybe then he could find out what exactly it was that he held.
“We can’t,” he said again more forcefully when he saw they were all looking at him aghast. He didn’t mean to snap. He really didn’t.
“We must go north and then northeast,” he continued. “If you left a village behind full of those things, I think it’s obvious that village is no more.”
Aurin moved away to finish packing their things. “Are the horses hurt?”
Alguin shook his head. “No, they’re fine. Let us get away from those flames.”
Together the new company moved out of the encompassing fires. They felt the cool night hit them like a splash of fresh water. The sweat on their skin cooled and dried and the night held a slight chill that pricked their skin like soft kisses.
Aurin pulled a blanket from his saddlebags and gave it to the lady and child. “Your name, ma’am?” he asked her as she took it with a quiet thank you.
“Ereen,” she replied. “This is my new daughter. I believe her name is Ventra Palilas.”
“Is she resting?” he asked. They traveled in a half diamond with Ivan taking the point. Alguin took the left side while Aurin covered the right. Lady and child went in the middle of the triangle.
She looked down at the form in her arms. “No, she’s awake. I believe she is going into shock. She was hurt badly. When I found her one of those things was clawing at her back. Her father lay dead and another was quickly getting there. He, too, was trying to protect her.”
Aurin inspected the forest around him. It was very cool out here and lonely. Behind and beyond him, the forest was beginning to catch fire.
“You are badly burned,” commented Alguin as he came over to them. “You must let me treat those wounds before the rotting disease can set in.”
She shook her head. “I can wait until after we pass the village.”
“How far ahead is this place?” asked Ivan as he turned in his seat.
“A few more miles ahead,” she instructed.
Something caught Aurin’s attention. Aurin looked up ahead. He knew he had seen something there. They rounded two more hills and he saw it again.
It was a huge flame.
“It seems as if your village has been burned to the ground,” he commented nodding in the direction.
They all stopped to witness the atrocity. There, among the trees, burned the brightest bonfire they had ever seen. Screams floated up to them as they sat dumbfounded on their horses.
“The king needs to know of this,” said Lustcrow. “If the dead have risen, then Acrene Tarrynth and all the Nations are in trouble.”
He began to get off his horse. “Aurin, find a defensible place to make a camp. We will rest the horses and let the woman and child stay behind. Then we can proceed to the edge of this village and see what we can find. We will wait until daylight to go into this town and witness what has befallen it.”
Everyone agreed with his plan and later that night he found himself holding his two letters in his hands. Slowly the chirping of crickets and other insects came back to life. He sat in the darkness, alone and sweating, trying to figure out was going on with his head. At least, for one more night, he had held off the darkness once more.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler