Chapter 22: Moss and Magic
The boat glided silently up to the warf on the island Abbot Sextus called The Place With No Name. I stod when the craft came to a stop and, though I doubted that I needed to, I tied the mooring line to a rusted iron ring on one of the pilings. I took up my small bag of tools and the waterskin and clambered up onto the wooden warf.
A broad sandy shoreline extended in both directions as far as I could see. The waters of Saphire Lake lapped gently at the beach creating a gentle rhythm. It was the only sound to break the stillness of the place. Beyond the beach, a wall of gnarled trees stretched up to embrace the sky. The ancient forest covered the island and gave it the imposing and spooky appearance that I noticed as the boat drew nearer. By far, however, the most imposing feature of the place lay at the island’s heart; a jagged spire of stone jutted up like an angry knife to threaten the azure heavens.
A sudden breeze stirred, sending a chill through me. “What I wouldn’t give for my cloak,” I muttered before leaving the pier and trudging across the sandy shore.
At the forest’s edge, I found a path leading into the green maze and set out to follow it. The world beyond the shore was both beautiful and eerie. Ancient crooked trees stood like the ranks of some long forgotten army, brandishing their gnarled branches in defiance at the sky. The canopy was so thick above me that sunlight hardly reached the forest floor.
The shady environment was also quite moist, and the combination of low light and dampness gave rise to a carpet of shaggy green moss. It covered nearly every surface and hung like hair from the lower branches of the trees. Massive ferns, whose fronds stood taller than my head, broke through the unending green carpet here and there. In places where the moss didn’t cover the tree trunks, bracket fungi, bigger than a silver serving platter, jutted out from the rough grey bark.
After walking a little way into the forest, I could no longer hear the lapping of the lake against the shore. Here, the only perceptible sound seemed to be that of my breathing and the beating of my own heart as it thumped in my ears.
Oddly, I noticed, there seemed to be no animals here. Abbot Sextus said the island was uninhabited, but I expected to find at least a few birds, small mammals, or perhaps a reptile or two. With the exception of the fantastic plantlife, the island seemed barren.
“How strange,” I whispered into the silence as I walked on.
By late afternoon, I found myself at the base of the island’s solitary peak. The path dead-ended at a large plunge pool created by a waterfall that cascaded down from the mountain. The water in the pool was the color of strong tea, likely due to a combination of tannins from rotting vegetation and minerals carried down from the rocky mountainside.
My feet hurt from walking and my stomach growled in protest against the Abbot’s imposed fast. I decided that I’d had quite enough for one day and that I would make my first nights camp here, by the pool and waterfall. There wasn’t much to do to make camp; no Argo to look after or bedroll to arrange. I found a spot near one of the hulking, moss-draped trees that looked comfortable and claimed it as my own.
“Well that was easy,” I mused as I hung my water skin from a low hanging branch. “What now?”
The answer came to me almost immediately,“I could have a campfire.” But how, my mind immediately questioned? My fire kit was back with my other belongings and the use of magic was forbidden on the island.
“Maybe there’s something useful in the sack the Abbot gave me.” Wonderful, I thought as I finished the statement, I’m talking to myself.
I sat down on a rock near the edge of the pool and opened the satchel for the first time. Inside I found a small hatchet, a draw knife, a farrier’s rasp, a small sheath knife, and an assortment of woodcarver’s tools.
“Not exactly helpful,” I sighed sourly. Then I remembered reading in one of Balthazar’s many books about other primitive methods of fire starting.
I pulled the small knife from its leather sheath and touched the spine of the blade to my tongue. The distinctive taste of steal registered in my mouth. My eyes then turned to the rocky banks around the pool. A plethora of flat stones lined the water’s edge, but I had something specific in mind. I doubted that I would find flint here, but a piece of quartzite would do. I didn’t have to search long before I found a large brownish chunk about the size of a hen’s egg.
“Now for some tinder and firewood,” I told myself. My eyes turned to the moss-covered woodlands around me. “This should be straightforward enough.”
To my disappointment, the more I looked, the more I realized yet another odd fact about the island. Deadfall, which abounded in most forests, was strangely absent here. Not a single dead branch or fallen tree could be found anywhere.
“What kind of forest is this,” I murmured. Not only did I not find any dead trees or branches laying on the ground, but there were no conifer cones, pine needles, dead leaves, or any of the other detritus one might expect to find scattered on a forest floor. Just the unending carpet of green moss as far as the eye could see.
I returned to where I’d hung my waterskin and took a sparing swallow to wet my throat. I found myself staring at the ground and, for some reason, I knelt down to examine the ubiquitous moss more closely. I ran my hand over its shaggy surface, only to find it much softer than I expected. It felt more like the fur of some great green dog that it did a plant.
Compelled by curiosity, I dug my fingers into the moss and pulled a handful of it away from the ground. To my horror, a sticky crimson liquid oozed to the surface. A familiar metallic scent filled my nose as I watched as the liquid pooled over the wound I created.It seemed to congeal after a few minutes and then it formed what I could only describe as a scab.When I examined the chunk of moss in my hand, it had gone from vivid green to a sickly brown. More of the crimson liquid coated the underside of it and dripped from between my fingers.
“Blessed Unity, what have I done?” A sick sensation filled the pit of my stomach and I felt the sting of tears burning my eyes.
“That hurt,” a familiar voice spoke from behind me.
The sudden sound and strange familiarity of the voice startled me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I stood quickly and whirled around to face the speaker. For several moments, I thought insanity had finally seized me. I stood slackjawed staring at ... myself.
“Excuse me,” I whispered.
“You hurt me,” the other me insisted. “Why.”
“Who are you,” I asked.
“Who are you,” the other me replied.
“This island is supposed to be uninhabited,” I insisted as I opened myself to Unity and Light. According to Balthazar, my own essence pulsed with the dazzling splendor of Light. The other me thrummed with the same green and copper fire that shimmered in the valley’s protective veil.
The other me pointed to the tool bag beside the tree. “You’ve come here to hurt me,” she said flatly, “They always come; they cut and I bleed. It hurts, but they don’t care.”
I realized that the other me must be referring to the Journeymen coming to cut wood for their staffs. They cut and I bleed; I couldn’t shake her words. I looked down at the withering chunk of moss in my hand and felt another wave of nausea grip my stomach.
“I’m Kerri,” I told her as I took up my things. “I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you ... I didn’t know that I could hurt you.”
I started on the path that would take me back to the beach. Having a mage’s staff wasn’t worth the price of hurting ... the other me, the island ... I wasn’t sure exactly what entity I’d wounded. But one thing I was sure of, I wasn’t going to do it again.
“Wait,” the other me called from behind me. I stopped but didn’t turn around.
“I am ... Aahna.”
I turned then and faced her, “You’re the guardian of this island?”
She shook her head. “I am the island.”
So the Place With No Name had a name after all. “I’ve come to make a mage’s staff, but I don’t want to hurt you Aahna. I’m going now.”
“Don’t go,” she insisted before settling herself on a rock. “Please sit,” she gestured towards a second rock, “please.”
While I wasn’t fearful, it was a bit unsettling to hold a conversation with an entity that looked hauntingly like yourself. I suppose it wouldn’t bother me so much if I’d always had a twin. After a few moments consideration, I sat down on the rock beside her.
“Do you appear like this to every mage who comes here?”
She shook her head, “I try to discourage all who come here, but for the most part, they ignore me. They do not care that their quest for an article of power causes me great pain,” she answered sadly. “I appear only to some ... only to the ones like you ... to the ones who glow.”
Glow, I thought as a questioning furrow creased my brow. Perhaps she meant the glow of my magical aura. But then any Journeyman would have such a glow about them. Unless, of course, she meant only the glow specifically associated with those touched by Light magic.
“It is not the glow of your magic, Kerri,” she answered as if she’d been reading my thoughts, but she didn’t elaborate.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m still an Apprentice and technically, I shouldn’t even be here. Balthazar never spoke about any of this ...”
“Balthazar,” she whispered his name fondly, “I remember him. When he cut his staff and he saw the blood welling from the stump, I felt the pain in his heart. He wept ... he is the only one to ever weep for wounding me.”
"Did you speak to him?"
"Not at first," she replied, "I appeared to him after I felt his pain and saw his tears."
"Does he ... glow ... too?"
She laughed then and the sound of it filled the air with a beautiful brightness. "Very faintly," she finally answered, "not at all like you."
I stood then and took up my bags. "I would love to stay and talk more Aahna, but I really do need to get back to the boat."
"It will be dark by the time you reach the warf," she spoke as she stood and took my hand. "While the boat can carry you across the lake, day or night, to cross at night is dangerous."
"Why," I asked.
"That which dwells in the lake hunts at night," she answered. "I do not dare speak its name, but it is all teeth and insatiable appetite." Then she added, "Stay, I want to help you."