A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 1, Line 9) Taking Flight - Part 1

“The Kareshian Plateau was a hub of life before the Tears of Dealth fell. Now, all that’s left are skeletal remains of civilisation.

“The ruins of the temple of Al Karesh that haunts the centre is the most famous. Many theories exist concerning its origin and use throughout the ages, but no one has tested them because of the unnatural layer of ice and fog that covers the ruins year-round.”

- Excerpt from ‘A Manual for the Koryn City Deadlands.’

Nothing gave Esther purpose like the hunt. It required a clear mind and all of her concentration. Hunting left no room for fear or doubt; it stripped her of everything she pretended to be, and for the brief moments she spent as one with the deadlands, she was her true self. Her best self.

The same couldn’t be said for escort duty. Protection wasn’t her forte - she much preferred to seek and eliminate that which hides in the shadows, not hang back and wait for it to strike. But Esther told herself that so long as it lined her pockets with metal, she could bear it.

The mixture of alpine and deciduous trees, deformed at the trunk and warped in the limbs, observed the party with their unnatural awareness. The host of celestial events the night before had thickened the foliage, raising the bushes and reeds like the hackles of a wolf. Eyes glowed from the underbrush and canopy, blinking out as they approached, only to appear further down the path instantaneously. Shadows flickered where the primal magic pooled, giving the human interlopers a keen awareness they were being followed. Esther struggled to tell whether the shadows were real or merely visual echoes, a phenomenon she’d long since given up trying to understand.

She took them along the Olde Road, which connected Koryn City and the heart of the Kareshian Plateau. Grasses and moss of all hues licked the edges, leaving the cracked cobbled road a single foot wide in some places. Ancient metal braziers adorned with lichen and stringy vines lined the road where the original edges were. Once upon a time when Gardaran’s believed they stood a chance against the encroaching deadlands, the braziers burned with matari and rurik day and night. They had long since turned cold.

On a usual hunt, Esther and Esvian rarely used the Olde Road. It left them exposed to the mercy of ambush predators, but Esther couldn’t justify leading the others into the heart of the deadlands. Lord Nazari struggled to move quietly, and while Edyta had once hunted in the area, the lands had forgotten her. The branches longed to taste the strangers Esther had led within their grasp. Far-off animals howled, cried, and croaked when they tasted the strangers through the magic in the air.

“How fascinating,” said Lord Nazari. Esther turned and saw a flower tilting in his direction, dribbling spores along the ground. The Duke’s condor, who’d been waddling beside him, lowered its bald, wrinkly head and screeched at the flower. The plant slunk back, closing its petals and retracting its leaves. The forest swallowed the condors screech, replaying it several meters away a few seconds later.

“My lord, you need to remain quiet,” Esther whispered in the huntsman way - loud enough for the others to hear, but quiet enough that the deadlands wouldn’t pick it up and whisper it between the trees.

Lord Nazari bobbed his head and waggled a finger at the bird. “You heard her, Hethshaw: no screaming. See if you can fly overhead.” The comically big bird struggled to find a gap in the canopy for his ten-foot wingspan to fit through. When he took flight, the power in a single beat of his wings amazed her.

They trekked on in silence. Esther remained at the front, loaded crossbow at the ready, followed by Lord Nazari with Edyta begrudgingly acting as the rear guard.

Esther felt oddly naked being without Esvian. When Lord Nazari’s sinuses reacted poorly to the rurik and matari she’d stuffed amongst his make-shift armour, Esther felt uneasy leaving him in Edyta’s care while she harvested the medicinal herbs to staunch his running nose and eyes. She would have trusted Esvian to care for the duke. She didn’t feel the same about Edyta. And sure enough, the pair had moved twenty feet away in her absence, despite her order for them to keep still. Esther scolded Edyta for that, and the woman’s only reaction was a snide remark about no one being dead.

They trekked, they were silent, and an hour passed without incident. Hethshaw flew lower to investigate the canopy, and each time he passed overhead, Esther’s sight twinged. It had been restless since they left, yearning to escape her control and clamp onto any living thing that moved. It pulsated with the stirring primal magics of the deadlands, creating a discordant tune that made her head feel swollen from within. When it flared up for the third time, Esther grew wary. Maybe agreeing to accompany Lord Nazari had been a mistake.

But with everyone sleeping off a hangover courtesy of Edyta’s purse, she had little choice. As Duke of Koryn, Lord Nazari had the power to demand the excursion take place regardless of the Shack’s lack of staff. If she’d declined, Lord Nazari would have suffered under Edyta’s singular protection, and Yarvier would take the fall for it.

Was it all by Edyta’s design? Esther wondered. It was clear her goal was to escort Lord Nazari to the ruins on her own, but the ‘why’ was more elusive. Perhaps she sought his favour in the name of social advancement, hoping to lead him through the deadlands like a hero to secure it. “The others are drunk, my Lord,” Esther imagined her saying, “but I am a professional and never drink!”

Esther reigned in her thoughts and did her best not to feed her suspicions. She had no interest in politics, aside from knowing who she needed to avoid to stay safe. Let Edyta impress Lord Nazari, she decided. The only thing that mattered to her was her duty of seeing him safe.

Hours passed. Despite his short height and inexperience, Lord Nazari kept up and slowly learned how to blend with the deadlands. He moved not too dissimilarly to a cat, and as a result, it didn’t take nearly as long as Esther thought until the top of the Kareshian Plateau came into view above the canopy. The edge of the plateau was sheer, with the occasional knot of thick, stone-like tree roots bursting from the escarpment like diseased tentacles. When not observed directly, they moved and took on the appearance of faces. Esther saw Marca, her cousin. A few minutes later, she saw an old woman with sagging skin. Then a young man with a soft face and power-burdened eyes.

But it was the ruins visible from the forest floor that dominated the vista. While they wouldn’t see Al Karesh until they reached the top, there were plenty of old watchtowers and castles to see on the edge of the plateau. Most seemed half-built as if the ancient architects designed the outer rooms to have an uninterrupted view of the lands below. The truth was more sinister. When the Tears of Dealth fell, one landed directly on the old temple of Al Karesh. The impact not only destroyed the temple and the surrounding town, but raised the land surrounding it. The once-proud castles and watchtowers broke as half of the buildings soared five hundred feet into the sky, sending those on the fault line hurtling to their doom. The Kareshian Plateau had been born amidst death and fear, and it was within the weaving of such qualities Esther felt at home.

Seeing her hunting grounds gave her confidence. “We’re going to leave the road now,” she told Lord Nazari. Edyta had trailed behind and didn’t hear, perhaps trying to prove the deadlands still remembered her and that she didn’t need Esther’s protection.

Lord Nazari instantly brightened and bounced on his toes. “By Tern’s heart, am I excited!” he whispered. “What should I expect?”

“Danger,” she said morosely. It did little to dampen his spirits. “Follow in my footsteps. Don’t breathe a word. When you move, do it smoothly and at a consistent speed - anything less and you draw attention to yourself. The last thing you want is the deadland’s attention.”

“So it is conscious,” he said with a touch of awe. “Can it understand what we’re saying?”

Esther shook her head. “Its bioconsciousness can’t understand language unless it experiences it through a…” the word stuck in her throat.

“- through a human host,” Lord Nazari finished grimly. People didn’t exaggerate when they claimed the deadlands swallowed people whole.

“Correct.” Esther’s left hand unconsciously checked her crossbow and the position of her swords’ hilts. “But even without one, they can sense emotion and intention. As long as your one and only intention is to follow me without causing a disturbance, it will ignore you in favour of me.”

“And then you’ll blend for the two of us?” he asked.

Esther nodded. “So long as it sees the three of us as a cohesive whole with no intention of doing harm, it will hesitate to send something to investigate.”

Filling her mind with thoughts of harmony and oneness, she took her first step off the road when Edyta caught up and hissed: “Wait! Why not follow the road and take the caves? I may be a lowly journeyman,” she said with a lick of spite, “but even I know it would be safer for Lord Nazari.” She put her hand on Lord Nazari’s left shoulder and he politely shuffled away.

Esther’s body stiffened and her stomach grew hot. “Don’t question my authority,” she said tightly. “Especially when you’re wrong. The visibility in the caves is next to nothing. Never bring a non-huntsman through them. Never.”

“But it’s near full moon,” Edyta said, trying and failing to sound confident and in control. “The deadlands will eat him alive-”

“And the caves will swallow him,” Esther countered. “At least if they’re trying to eat him, we can smash their teeth in. Don’t forget that this is my territory; it will only harm those who don’t follow my instructions.” The deadlands echoed her hiss with one of their own. Edyta looked everywhere at once but refused to let the rest of her body show any sign of fear.

Esther didn’t know what to make of, what to think of, or what to do about her insubordination. If it was an ordinary hunt and Esvian was in attendance, Esther would cancel the trip, march Edyta back to the Shack, write her up for insubordination, and set out the next day without her. Nothing drew the deadland’s unnatural attention like conflict, so those who couldn’t avoid it didn’t leave the Shack.

Something clicked behind Edyta. It was a dull and chitinous sound, so quiet Esther almost missed it. She surveyed the area behind Edyta and was rewarded with a brief flash of brown amidst the erect foliage.

Esther’s sight squirmed and needled into the back of her eyes, but the pain disappeared when the creature slunk out of sight. Gently, she massaged her temples with the tips of her fingers. Whatever it was, the only reason it had for getting so close was curiosity. Esther had no doubt the deadland’s had sent it to investigate the earlier commotion.

Lord Nazari’s condor swooped overhead again, making the pain worse. “We’re leaving the road,” Esther repeated. While the duke’s attention was on the bird, Esther signed to Edyta: We’re being followed by a scout. Species unknown. If it attacks, you’re his shield, I’m his sword.

Edyta shook with rage at the command. It put her on the defensive, which was arguably the more important position during guard duty, but it meant she couldn’t draw her sword or fire a bolt unless absolutely necessary. It didn’t go well with her goal of winning the duke’s favour.

Instead of releasing her anger, she glanced at Lord Nazari and held her tongue with tremendous effort. By your lead, she signed reluctantly. Then out loud, she said: “I hope you know what you’re doing. For Lord Nazari’s sake, if not your own.”

They left the road. Even though Esther couldn’t see it, her sight sensed the creature followed at a distance, assessing their every move. Esther hoped it would conclude they weren’t worth hassling.

As Esther led them through the tapestry of semi-conscious undergrowth, she reached for her sight. She didn’t want to activate it, she wanted to ride its edge, keeping it alert and within reach without burning through her reserve. However, it squirmed in reaction to the deadland’s magics, which had been amplified by the sacanda moon. She calmed her mind and tried to reach it again. It buzzed in her mental grip, pulling her attention to the smatterings of pressure it painted against her eyes.

She couldn’t understand what was wrong. She’d used it near the full moon before, but it had never been so distracted. The sacanda moon and the equinox wouldn’t boost her sight like it would Lord Nazari’s magery, so the cause had to be unrelated. Perhaps it was stress from being so close to Edyta after she’d discovered Esther’s identity as a conservator?

They sunk into the deadlands. At first, the land regarded them with interest. It reached towards the two strangers Esther had led into their reach, trying to touch their minds and claim them as its own. As they probed into Lord Nazari, Hethshaw flew lower and cawed at the foreign magic. The deadlands pulled away as if smacked.

“Condors are birds of protection,” he whispered, doing a good job of imitating the huntsman’s whisper. “Many huntsmen have tried to implement them in their hunting to keep the deadlands at bay, but they are rare in this part of the world.”

It eased Esther’s mind, but the chitinous clicking, which was closer that time, soon roused the anxiety Hethshaw had abated.

They reached the base of the plateau. The four hundred foot tall scarp face was the lowest cliff edge and the only place suitable for climbing. The guild had carved steps into the rock and built a study pulley and winch system to lower the huntsmen’s quarry to the forest floor on the journey home. It was a risky climb, but in recent years it had become a lot safer than travelling through the caves that swallowed all light.

Edyta teetered in place when she saw the steep stairs.

“You don’t expect Lord Nazari to climb that,” she hissed as she looked up the cliff, her face growing pale. Esther squeezed her crossbow so she wouldn’t strangle her.

“Maybe the caves were safe to use when you were last here, but they aren’t any more. Either Lord Nazari climbs, or you stay on the forest floor and winch him up while I cover him top-side.”

Edyta licked her lips and glanced back up the cliff face. Then the clicking sounded again. Her skin grew paler.

“I am not above climbing.” Lord Nazari interlocked his fingers and pushed his palms away from him, stretching out his hands. “It’s widely acknowledged that there are three paths to power: birth, brown-nosing, and getting your hands dirty. Well, you could call me a bit of a legerdemain because I’ve always been good with my hands.”

In the second half of this chapter: The ruins of Al Karesh awaits, promising only danger. Can Esther handle it while trying to contain her out-of-control sight?

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