The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 17: EL-ON-AH

The dark silhouette of a small dragon shadowed the first rays of the dawn sun as they sparked out from behind the distant Fyre Mountains. The animal’s pearly grey scales glinted, dipped in morning gold. Frantically the creature flapped its tiny purple wings as if the doors of Erebus had opened up their fiery jaws and were about to engulf him. He plunged down, dipping erratically over the tree canopy of the Treymaneor forest, which skirted the Mapledale Plain. Hanging from the animal’s feet was a slim, dark-robed, female. The pukis grunted, struggling to raise its mistress’s feet above the needle-sharp foliage of the sticky, sweet-smelling pines.

As the full splendour of sun’s rays finally emerged, they illuminated the robed figure of the female Blood ascendant. El-on-ah’s long, red hair trailed out behind her like a cloak of crimson flames, blazing gold in the early morning sunlight.

The Blackfyre River stretched out before them like gigantic black python winding its way across the landscape. El-on-ah released the grip of her right hand, and her body began to swing wildly in the air as she pointed towards the bank on the far side of the river.

“There Puk,” she groaned, straining to hang on, “Over there.”

She would not be able to hold on much longer. The pain in her arms had become unbearable, she was sure that they would give way at any moment and then she would plummet to the ground.

Swinging around, she grabbed the animal’s hind leg, gasping as she caught sight of the scene below. Ferrum’s Mapledale Plain was not as she had remembered; its once rustic beauty, the lush green prairie and quaint, wooden Ferrish homesteads were gone. They had been replaced by a vast area of scorched, barren earth and lines of blackened ashes that defiled the landscape like giant festering scars.

Realising immediately what must have transpired, El-on-ah could imagine the scene as Phlegon’s army of winged Djinn pursued the Hydrargyrum refugees as they attempted to flee across the river to Ferrum. It was the only explanation for such absolute devastation.

As they descended, the pungent smell of ash mingled with the sweet, sickly aroma of charred flesh. The stench seemed to congeal into an unpalatable globule that lodged at the back of her throat, heralding her growing desire to vomit. El-on-ah gagged, and then spat it out onto the blackened grassland, now a grotesque necropolis littered with the seared twisted corpses of her people, many of them children. Doggedly, she pushed her emotions aside, as she had been taught to do, but she could not stop her heart from twisting in her chest. Another wave of nausea hit her, and she felt relieved that it had been so long since her last meal. Her weakness embarrassed her. What is wrong with me... this is not the Blood way.

Once clear of the trees the exhausted Pukis lurched down steeply, flying so low over the river that El-on-ah’s feet skimmed and bounced off its surface. The hem of her robe soaked through with water, weighing them down. The Pukis’s tiny wings finally gave way, folding behind him like an inverted parasol and they plummeted down onto the muddy bank.

They lay still for a while, their strength returning painfully slowly to each quivering, exhausted limb. Finally, El-on-ah struggled to her feet, stumbling as she was pulled back down by her sodden, black robe.

The morning breeze was cool. Shivering, she clasped her arms around her body. Dragging each foot in turn from the squelching mire, she fought to climb the riverbank. Once she reached the dry rocky ground above the basin, she sat on a large boulder, took off her pumps and laid them out to dry in the sun.

Clasping her arms around her knees, she looked out over the charred landscape, only to be tormented by images of parents attempting to shield their infants from the deadly fyre of the Djinn. They never stood a chance. Burying her head in her hands, she sobbed.

After a while, Puk waddled up the bank, shaking the mud off his feet. Then, as if to confirm that his wings were still in working order, he opened them up, watching intently as he jiggled them about this way and that. Seemingly content, he cast a glance towards his mistress.

“Don’t look at me like that!” El-on-ah’s words were punctuated by sobs. “I know… I know… Bloods don’t cry - only they do, I do…”

Muddy tears streaked her cheeks. Angrily, she wiped them away. This is why they teach us not to feel. She mumbled the Blood mantra under her breath, “logic makes you strong, emotion makes you weak, emotion makes you weak…”

Through blurry eyes, she regarded the broken landscape, peppered with hundreds of small black figures, the charred remains of her people. Then the scene before her faded, dissolving into a mist of faces; Rose, Tu-nek-ta, Che and Arjan. In her chest, her heart felt like lead. She knew that the genocide laid out there on the banks of Blackfyre was not the sole cause of her despair. No, it was because a few hours before, she had taken the life of another ascendant.

El-on-ah played the scene repeatedly in her head. She had been tasked with banishing Rose, casting the descent upon her and in doing so ensuring Lord Ka’s triumph, but it had gone terribly wrong. She saw herself casting the spell, looking on helplessly as Arjan dived between them, throwing himself in front of Rose and taking the full force of her spell. Arjan, a young Gold ascendant, who had offered El-on-ah nothing but kindness and yet she repaid him by taking his life.

A buzzard squawked on the riverbank, flapping its wings aggressively as it fought another for a scrap of burnt flesh pulled from the corpse of a child. El-on-ah looked on with numb resignation. We do what we need to survive. I tried, and I failed.

A fathomless gaping chasm was all that was left inside her now, as if someone had reached in, wrapped their hand around her heart and ripped it from her chest. Che and Tu-nek-ta were almost certainly dead, and it was her fault.

El-on-ah pictured Che’s rakishly beautiful face with its stubbornly determined jawline and recklessly sardonic smile. She clenched her numb, weak hands into fists, beating them down on the rock until they bled. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I failed them, and I’ve failed Lord Ka...’

The consequences of failing the Great Lord Ka El-on-ah knew only too well but, with a degree of dispassion of which any Blood would be proud, she realised that she no longer cared.


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