The Stone Heart's Lament

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Congress with spirits

They had not been travelling long before Fantel called a halt to their progress – primarily because they were making none. The forest pressed in around them from all sides, and massive trees towered above them. The sky was obscured by a thick canopy of branches and a tangled fringe of trailing moss. Phosphor bright toadstools with angular heads grew from the black and gnarled tree trunks and sprouted like lesions from the rotted carcasses of deadfall logs. The undergrowth was thick and treacherous; a bouncy cushion of moss and dead leaves hiding a multitude of unseen hazards. The air, redolent with magic, pressed close, filling Fantel’s sinuses like cotton and treacle. The darkness and the magic played tricks on the senses, distorting perspective and making it hard to judge distance. Objects that seemed close were actually several feet away, and obstacles that seemed some way ahead suddenly materialised right in their path. The curtain of black shadow draped over everything seemed to possess its own substance and form, less shadow and more a physical piece of the forest. It was impossible to break new ground through the undergrowth or track their passage because every inch of the forest looked exactly the same, even down to the quantity of mushrooms dotting the ground or the length of the hairy, dangling trails of moss hanging down from overhead branches. Even Fantel, who understood the vagaries of a miasma rich environment, was soon lost. The forest seemed unreal, like the painted backdrop to a giant cage. They could have been walking in circles or remined rooted to the same spot, for all the difference it seemed to make. Fantel remembred campfire tales of ogdegre lost in enchanted forests, walking and walking for year on end, their spirits eternally lost while their bodies rotted.

They stopped beside a long dried streambed. The dry silt looked like scale-plate. Fallen logs cluttered the streambed, and a patina of dead leaves was slowly melting into mulch on either bank. A hunch-backed willow wept into the dry bed, its trailing branches tangling in the muck. Fantel could sense a strain of melancholy hanging over this place, a current of dull misery that ran underneath the oppressive stillness all around them. “Wait here.” She said to Rashari and Smith, the automaton riding Rashari’s shoulder like a giant tick. She narrowed her eyes at her human. “Don’t touch anything.”

Rashari arched his eyebrows, the motion causing thousands of tiny cracks to appear in the drying mask of filth covering his face. He raised his hands in mock surrender. “I don’t plan to, believe me.” He winced. “Can you guarantee nothing is going to jump out and grab me?”

Fantel sighed. She could not. She had gleaned little from the forest so far, except a low hum of hostility. The spirit of the forest did not want them here. She could almost taste the resentment in the air. The darkness drew in tight, a noose for their necks, and the silence weighed heavily on her ears. No forest should ever be this quiet. Aashorum had never been silent, although in other ways this forest did resemble her long lost home. Aashorum had not welcomed intruders under her boughs either, but while the great jungle had been content to allow the chimeri to guard the sanctity of her dark heart this forest appeared to lack any protectors save its own inherent menace. Fantel did not relish the task ahead of her.

“I must try and reach the spirit of the forest.” She said, pointlessly, speaking only to prevaricate.

“The spirit of the forest?” Rashari queried, sounding marginally interested, his mild tone inviting her to explain, offering up an opportunity to waste more time despite the fact that he must wish for nothing more than to get out of this forest. At the very least he must long for a bath. He stank abominably.

“This is a magical place.” She explained. “It is part of the Steppes. The land here is alive in a way that you do not understand.” She knelt down to touch a rounded rock jutting out of the dried silt bed. The rock had been worn smooth by the flow of the stream. Once it must have stuck up out of the middle of the stream like an island in an ocean, proud and strong, resolute against the current of the water. Now it was covered in a cloak of reddish dust and plastered with rotting leaves. The rock was cool under her hand but she could feel a pulse of magic permeating the stone. This was a good place to reach out to the spirit of the forest. She could almost feel its belligerent, watchful presence in the obstinate coolness of the rock’s surface. “Miasma is raw anima – the breath of life and creation – nowhere in Aldlis is the magic of life stronger than it is out here. Further out in the Steppes anima gushes from wellsprings in the ground and rides the currents of the air becoming miasma. But in the soil, the stone, the water and trees, anima quickens within the living hearts of the plants and animals. All trees are alive, but the trees here know themselves and each other. The forest has a mind and a will. It has a spirit, just as you do. That spirit is angry. I can feel it.”

“And you are going to do what, precisely?” Rashari gingerly lowered himself down until he was sitting on one side of the stream bank, knees drawn up and his booted feet side by side in the silt. Smith had jumped down from his shoulder and settled on a flat stone jutting out over the dry bed.

“I am going to try and reason with the spirit. This stream was once a living channel. The water must have a source somewhere nearby. I shall ask the spirit where the water came from and why the stream is now dry.”

“And how will that help us?”

“The stream is part of the forest; nothing happens here that the spirit does not will. If the stream is dry it is because the forest spirit has let it die. Perhaps I can persuade the spirit to fill the stream once more.”

Rashari looked impressed, if his arched brows were any indication, but he sounded sceptical. “While a sip of spring water would not go amiss, and the prospect of a bath is certainly not without its attractions, I think getting out of this bloody place takes precedence.”

Fantel shook her head. “You do not understand. We are within the forest’s grasp. It will not release us until it wishes to.”

Rashari almost laughed. “You make it sound as though we are prisoners.” Fantel said nothing. Her look was eloquent. Rashari lost his smile. “Oh.” He said after a moment. “Well then. I suppose you had best get on and introduce yourself to our esteemed host. Be sure to send my regards. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality on offer so far.”

Fantel nodded. “Move back from the stream edge. You are human. Wild spirits do not usually care for your kind. It would be best if you were not too close while I do this.” This was only a partial truth at best. It was true that humans did not tend to fare well in Battlan, but truthfully Fantel just did not want the audience. She had spent twelve years in exile far from Battlan and her powers had waned almost to extinction in that time. There was a good chance she would not be able to summon the spirit at all and her pride balked at the thought of Rashari (and Smith) witnessing her failure.

Rashari studied her for a moment, his gaze assessing, but eventually he shrugged and rose to his feet. “Very well,” he said helping Smith climb up his arm to his shoulder. “How far away do you need us to go?”

Fantel looked behind her to where a young sapling had fallen across the bank further down the stream. Half the sapling’s roots had ripped loose from the ground and the sapling would have fallen down completely except for the Black Oak growing beside it. The sapling leaned drunkenly against the Black Oak. Over time its spindly branches had tangled and mingled with that of the oak. The angle of the leaning sapling and the proud but ugly oak had created a triangular archway. A fringe of grey and furry vines, thick as a man’s forearm, hung like a beaded curtain from the oak’s overhanging branches, obscuring the view of the dry streambed.

“There,” she said. “Wait for me by that fallen sapling.” Rashari eyed the lopsided tree with distaste but didn’t argue. Fantel waited until he slipped through the curtain of vines and only his legs from below the knee were visible before she turned her back and settled on her knees in the middle of the dry stream. She placed her hand on the rock.

The dried silt under her knees crackled, the scent of salt and decay rising up in a cloud of dust. Fantel released a slow, deep breath and tried to let go of the tension knotting her shoulders. She attributed the dull pounding headache, centred at the back of her skull, to the rigours of their escape from Aramantine and all the physical trials and tribulations she had faced since meeting Rashari. Yet as she forced herself to relax for the first time since awakening in this forest, and finally took account of her aches and pains, she realised that she felt odd. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what was wrong, only that she knew that something was wrong with her. The pounding in her head made her feel like there was something trapped inside her brain, putting pressure on her skull. She felt like whatever it was, was trying to force its way out. Fantel shook her head, a quick impatient motion, and shoved such thoughts away. She had to focus on the task at hand. She could not afford to allow any weakness to show. She was at enough of a disadvantage without giving way to her own nerves.

Releasing another slow breath she leant forward and stretched her hands out over the cracked stream bed, digging her fingertips into the ground. The dry silt flaked into powder under her hands and tiny pieces of stone and grit scrapped her palms. The streambed felt dead against her skin; all she could feel was dust and earth. Fantel gritted her teeth, driving her clawed fingers deeper into the muck, reaching for the magic she knew ran just under the surface. Yet she could feel nothing. It had been so long that she feared she had become deaf to the rhythm of life, and the voice of Mother Aldlis singing deep under the ground. Once, years ago, she had longed for nothing more than to hear the Mother sing to her, and her failure had haunted her long before she had run from her home in disgrace. Chimera were born to be the Mother’s echo, to sing the song of magic deep in the heart of Aashorum, and for many years Fantel had been nothing more than a mouthpiece for the magic of nature. Then Fantel had fallen; in one moment of hubris and blood madness she had lost her home, and her entire reason for existence. After twelve years Fantel could almost admit that what she had gained –her freedom to think and be as she chose - balanced out the loss. Not now however, when she knew that magic flowed all around her but she could not reach out and touch it.

She would not wallow in self-pity when she had a task to complete. Taking a fortifying breath Fantel closed her eyes and drove her claws deeper into the ground still, reaching out with her mind as she did so, driving tendrils of thought into the soil as her fingers dug furrows into the streambed. She knew there was magic here and even if she could not hear it she was determined to make that magic hear her. Stretching out her mind she reached down into the ground, imagining dark sedimentary layers pressed against each other going down toward a throbbing, pulsing core so far below the surface the distance could not be fathomed. She imagined heat so intense blackened carbon became hard and brittle diamond, and iron ore ran like lava between cracks in ancient stone. She imagined mountains piercing the sky, and the depths of the ocean floor, lost under the weight of the sea. She imagined limestone caves dripping with the purest of untouched spring water and clustered stalagmites growing inch by inch over thousands and thousands of years, buried away from the sun.

She pictured in her mind the majesty of a great pine, growing tall and straight from a single kernel. The pine was joined by others in her vision until a forest of silky evergreens covered an entire valley, marching up the slope of a craggy mountain, standing firm like an army in the face of the elements. She pictured the creatures that lived and died within the forest, the hunting birds and the scavengers, the bees and the scurrying ants, the burrowing mammals and the slithering snakes –and connecting all these things – the mountains and the abyssal plains, the birds and the trees and the predators stalking the earth – was the magic of Aldlis. Like blood, magic ran hot and fast under the surface of the land, and beat in the hearts of every living creature. Fantel may no longer hear its echo but that did not mean she was not still part of that rhythm. She lived, she breathed, and that magic connected her to the greater magic of Aldlis, no matter what choices she had made years ago.

It was with this knowledge that she reached out again with her mind, her questing fingers massaging the dirt. Her thoughts called to the spirit of the forest she knew was watching her. The blackness behind her closed eyelids flared dull yellow and she felt something, a spark, run through the tips of her fingers. Under her palms the ground seemed to quiver, barely a rumble, but she felt it all the same. Something stirred, sluggish and resentful, deep under the ground. Fantel reached for that presence, imagining she could reach into the blackness behind her eyelids and pull the spirit into the light of day. The spirit resisted her, squirming away from her grasp with a flash of silver behind her closed eyes. Under her fingertips the dirt and stone started to warm.

“Come out. Speak with me.” Fantel reached out again for the spirit. She could feel it now; surly and resentful, like a petulant child. The spirit’s presence was sour; bitter. It flavoured the air and stung her nostrils with the odour of curdled milk. Through her knees she could feel a steady vibration rising up from the ground. Her palms were growing hot, her fingers tingly in the dirt. The spirit was stronger than she had imagined. She felt it turn lethargically, twisting and squirming like a giant earthworm just beyond her reach. It did not want to hear her out. It did not want to deal with her at all. It wanted her gone. The spirit’s displeasure brushed against her mind, leaving slimy trails of resentment and apathy in its wake. It wanted to kill her except it did not want to bestir itself to make the effort. No wonder the forest was so dour and lifeless, possessed of a spirit like this.

“I will not leave until you come out.” Fantel pushed with her mind, grasping for the spirit, plucking at its slimy tail. “If you want me gone then show me the way out.” The spirit writhed, suddenly angry. Its power crashed over her, pouring forth in a scalding hot wave. Her eyes flew open and she threw herself backward. The streambed erupted in a geyser of dirt and sharp splinters of stone. The spirit of the forest materialised in the form of a massive, undulating worm, towering over her some ten or twelve feet. It had no eyes, no limbs, only a lipless puckered hole for a mouth drooling thick lines of slime. Its body was slick and fleshy, white as a maggot.

Fantel rolled out of the way as the forest spirit lunged for her, its teetering body dropping like a tonne of bricks, its puckered mouth smashing into the ground where she had been only a second before.

“Stop this.” Fantel demanded as the spirit reared back, shaking dust and stone from the edges of its mouth. “I did not come to fight you. I only wish to leave. Open a path out of the forest and you shall be alone once more.”

Fat and squishy the spirit’s body scraped over the shattered streambed as it turned, somehow managing to follow her movements despite having no eyes or ears. Waves of hostility rolled free of the worm with each undulation of its body. Its hatred was unreasoning, unrelenting, and Fantel realised with a sinking heart that she would never be able to reason with this spirit. It was clearly insane. Once she would have been able to dominate the spirit easily – its rage no match for her will– but those days were long passed. Now it would take all her wits and reflexes to simply survive.

Despite its size the spirit was fast. It manoeuvred its boneless body into a number of ground shaking lunges. Each lunge smashed holes into the streambed sending showers of stone fragments and grit into the air, creating a low lying cloud of choking dust that stung Fantel’s eyes as she darted and rolled out of the way of each whiplash fast lunge. Running wasn’t a possibility. The spirit controlled the forest. Every blade of grass and lone pebble along the stream bank was a weapon it could use against her. The spirit dived under the ground, burrowing under the surface. The ground split, the streambed rupturing. The spirit burst forth on the other side of the bank, cutting Fantel off every time she tried to put distance between them. Her feet gave way under the loose scrimshaw of broken soil, and her ankle turned. She fell heavily onto one knee, palms pierced by dozens of tiny pieces of stone.

“Stop,” Fantel threw up one hand, palm up, infusing her command with as much conviction as she could muster. The spirit froze above her, dripping slime from its toothless mouth. It did not attack. “Stop,” Fantel repeated sitting up slowly. She could feel the spirit’s fury; it pressed against her like a solid wall of heat. The insistent pounding at the back of her head grow louder. The rhythmic pounding seemed to spread outward and upward from the base of her skull in tingling waves, sending tongues of electricity through her brain. Something was building inside her mind. A sense of pressure mingled with a laser sharp intent. She could feel that intent expanding through her thoughts, fighting to break free. Fantel had never known anything like it before. It wasn’t part of her. It was something other; something alien. And it was angry. Power flowed through Fantel’s body, coursing like cool water. It numbed her mind and swept her away on a wave of pure strength.

Enough spirit; bow to your better. The words were not Fantel’s yet they came from her mind, delivered on a current of power. She felt that power spill forth from her body and flow through the air toward the spirit. The command was inescapable, impossible to ignore. Fantel tasted mint and ice on her tongue and caught the ghostly, almost sickly-sweet aroma of midnight roses on the air.

The forest spirit recoiled, undulating back from Fantel. She rose to her feet against her will. She was, Fantel realised with muted dread, no longer in control of her body. Her body approached the spirit, her clawed hands outstretched before her. The spirit tried to stand its ground. Its belligerence undiminished even as it physically cowered away from her advance. A wave of heated rage crashed down on her. The forest spirit’s anguish was as wild and unbridled as it had been before, and inside the cage of her own mind Fantel gasped and writhed as that power lashed against her. The other presence directing her body barely seemed to feel the sting. Fantel saw her own hands move, pushing outward from her body as if shoving that wave of stinging wrath back on the spirit.

You dare match your power to mine, sprite? Submit. You cannot best me. I am far beyond your ken, little wood.

The forest spirit howled soundlessly, a shrieking wail Fantel felt more than heard. It threw back its head, body lashing from side to side, puckered slobbering mouth mauling the air. Just as the Alraune had lashed at the empty air as it died. Another inferno blast of rage hit Fantel only to be swept aside by the presence controlling her body.

Very well, the entity said. This gives me no pleasure, spirit. But you have given me little choice. Fantel saw her right arm lift, her fingers loosely hooked in a fist. The cool, relentless power rushing through her veins swelled, flushing her mind. Fantel felt powerful, strong, utterly assured of her superiority –except it wasn’t her at all. She tightened her fist. She squeezed as if she was slowly, painfully, crushing the life from an invisible foe. The forest spirit wailed again, its body quivering and shaking. Gouts of slime poured from its lipless mouth. The ground shook beneath her feet, thrumming with energy. Fantel could feel the magic coursing through the forest now, running under the streambed like an artery pumping life blood to the forest’s heart. She could feel it because she held that artery in the palm of her hand, choking off the flow in agonising increments.

If you will not submit then you must die.

Fantel watched as the forest spirit’s body began to dissolve, melting away like tallow wax; its worm-like body collapsing in on itself in fat, bubbling globules. The whole time the spirit screamed and the ground shook. Fantel would have stopped if she could. She would have tried to save the spirit -the heart of the forest -had she been in control of her own body, but it was as though she had simply forgotten what it meant to have a body and control her own limbs. She could still see and think and feel, but she could not retake her body from the other presence. She did not even though how to begin to try, so thoroughly had the presence taken over.

Soon the forest spirit was no larger than Fantel herself, and diminishing rapidly. Its flesh dripped away, spilling down into the streambed and turning into water. More water bubbled up from the fissures and holes the spirit had torn in the ground. Water flowed over Fantel’s feet, climbing up her calves and licking at her knees. The narrow stream burst its banks, icy cool water gushing up from the ground. The current grew thick and turgid as it mingled with the muck and filth littering the streambed. The ground shook one last time and Fantel heard a distant roar. She looked down at her feet, but could see only muddy water. It was then that she realised the water was up to her waist and she could not move. The stream banks were completely submerged, the forest floor flooded, the brush ripped up and swept away by the current. Fantel was now standing in the middle of a river in full flood and she could not move a muscle to save herself from drowning. The full force of the rushing water hit her straight in the chest and she fell backwards, instantly submerged by the press of the river.

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