A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 1, Line 9) Taking Flight - Part 2

As soon as Esther’s foot hit the top of the plateau, the ruins of Al Karesh stirred and reached out. While she waited for the others, phantom fingers caressed her neck, chilling her skin and beckoning her deeper into the wilderness. Al Karesh didn’t trap unsuspecting souls; it enticed them. It was a lure Esther and Esvian had learned to resist, but the others weren’t as prepared for it. When Lord Nazari reached the top, a look of pure ecstasy broke out upon his face. Edyta reached the flat ground and paused for a moment as her eyes clouded over.

“Ignore the call,” Esther said. “All the ruins offer is death.”

They followed the rim of the plateau until they rejoined where the Olde Road met the top of the caves. The road was in a worse state on the top of the plateau, considering it was only used occasionally by huntsmen. It was narrow and impossibly dark in some places where the deadland’s canopy closed over the top. Eventually, it widened and broken columns, walls, and overgrown foundations protruded from the forest floor like rocky teeth. It signalled the beginnings of the town that had once surrounded Al Karesh.

It was the sight Esther had been waiting for. Using her breath, she urged her sight to awaken. It flickered and twisted and lurched, suddenly reluctant to leave her head. But as she roused it and it grew, it sensed Al Karesh’s lure. She didn’t need to work so hard to awaken it after that.

She scanned the nearby area. All sorts of monsters liked to hide amongst the ruins and bask in its unnatural lure. Esther hoped they would be hesitant to attack such a large party, but relying on the fear and self-preservation instincts of a deadland denizen was a fool’s endeavour. The deadland’s didn’t live by nature’s rulebook, or by common sense.

She heard the click again. That it had followed them onto the plateau worried her, but her reaction lasted barely half a second. Her huntsman conditioning kicked in, and she smothered such thoughts in favour of ones of harmony and peace. We will not harm you, she broadcasted to blend in. We are no threat.

Aided by the calmness, she guided her sight towards the sound and let it brush against the barrier of its mind. What she detected made little sense. It had the makings of a bird, but it didn’t feel like one. But how could a bird make such a chitinous sound, and why would it travel on the forest floor and not through the air?

They travelled through the broken remains of the old town for half an hour before Esther called everyone to a halt. “We can go no closer.”

Edyta dragged her feet and let out a huff. “Why? We can’t even see Al Karesh.”

Again? Esther slowly counted to three before she responded.

“Do you feel the cold calling you, drawing you in?” She let her comment hang in the air, giving Edyta enough time to explore the distant chill that raised the hair on her neck.

Edyta swallowed and forced herself to stand straighter. “Lord Nazari, I believe she is being overly cautious. She thinks I seek to threaten her reputation because I saved her from making a rookie mistake yesterday morning. Now she is getting revenge by twisting the facts and making me seem overeager to put you in danger.”

Lord Nazari’s eyes glimmered. His angular eyebrows rose, and he looked at Esther for her response as Hethshaw swooped in a tight circle overhead.

Against her will, her lip twitched and almost pulled back to reveal her teeth. “That’s not true. Firstly, I had that felklein cornered, I didn’t need your help. And secondly, we’re going no closer because Yarvier forbids anyone going within three hundred feet of Al Karesh’s inner sanctum.”

“But the frosts of Al Karesh go still on the full moon.” Hethshaw’s flight path grew more erratic, but nobody paid it any mind. “Now is the safest time to see them!”

“There is no safe time to see them,” Esther hissed. Again, she pondered why Edyta had such a strong desire to see them in person as Hethshaw screamed high above. Esther’s sight bucked in response. “Now, stop disagreeing with me before-”

The bushes to her right exploded in a burst of brown and burnt orange. Something hip-height and covered in feathers and chitin arranged in melted layers scuttled forward and shrieked.

Esther jumped into action without needing to think. She rose the butt of her crossbow and aimed for where the heart would be. But the light reflected from the creature’s chest wrong. With no time to examine it further, she changed her strategy, aimed for its throat, and fired.

In the split second it took for the bolt to sail through the air, Esther inventoried the creature. It stood on two thick legs, which ended in an avian-like clawed foot. Like a bird, it had a brown feathered body, wings, a feathered train designed for flight, and a long neck.

But the similarities ended there.

Its beak sported glistening, conical teeth. The bones in its wings were thicker. The wing’s wrist joint led not only to the phalange bones within the wing, but also three long fingers with sharp claws, each with a bug-like quality to it. Sections of the creature’s body were devoid of feathers, and in the place of skin lay misshapen panels of warped chitin. That’s why the light had seemed wrong - its chest was coated in insectoid armour.

The creature had a monstrous quality that came from a broken vestigial mandible hanging from the left side of its face. In addition to its feathered wings, two sets of insect-like ones sprouted from its back. Its enormous eyes were rounded and avian, but around the edges, they lost their smoothness until they resembled compound eyes.

It was a hymenopteryx, one of the deadland’s more famous malformations, an unnatural blend between two species. Malformations were deadly, but at least that one wasn’t infected with the blood-curse.

Esther’s bolt pierced the hymenopteryx’s throat and burst out the other side. Before the creature registered the injury, Esther had tossed aside her crossbow — which was designed to withstand such rough treatment — and drew her first sword. Malformations, just like blood-curse vectors, took an unnaturally long time to bleed out. It would also ignore the pain and fight until it lost consciousness due to blood loss.

So Esther engaged. She jumped away from the group, moving with a disjointed rhythm and conjuring intentions of harm and hatred towards the forest. The hymenopteryx followed her, drawn by the otherness of the way she moved and the violent thoughts in her head.

With no time to meld her sight and its mind, Esther had to fight blind. She fell back and crouched slightly. The lowered posture and retreat drew the creature in, and with a pitiful squeak, it slashed at Esther’s chest with its claws.

She danced to her right, drawing even further away from Lord Nazari, and opened a red gash under its feathered arm. She allowed the tip of her blade to graze the edge of a chitinous patch to test its strength. It resisted her blade with ease.

The beast recovered and thrust its toothy beak at her throat. Esther parried the blow, knocking its head to its left. As it extended its left leg to arrest the momentum, Esther slashed at its inner thigh. It stumbled back, unsteady on its feet after the change in direction.

It has terrible balance, she noted. She changed priorities from distracting it by opening new wounds to knocking it over.

With its momentum already pulling it backwards, Esther moved forwards and feigned a strike from the right to introduce a new direction of movement. As it shifted its centre of gravity to dodge, she kicked it in the side. The creature tilted and flared out its wings, dangerously close to falling.

One more change of direction and it’s down, she thought.

It was tilting to her right, so she planned to force it to spin with a strike at the left side of its body. If it spun, she could trip it over with a single kick to its tangled legs...

As she prepared to attack, a slither of silver and red flashed behind the creature.

“Edyta,” Esther hissed. “Protect Nazari!”

I am!”

Edyta’s first sword was shorter than Esther’s, but the girl was a lot faster. The hymenopteryx moved away from Esther and targeted the newer, faster attacker. It spun to face her, regaining its balance by spinning in the direction it had been leaning in, the very thing Esther had been trying to avoid. Its tail swung through the air and slammed into Esther’s lower legs. As she shifted to regain her balance, the roots underfoot came to the hymenopteryx’s aid and twisted under the soil.

Esther fell and landed hard. The moment her back touched the ground, the soil came to life, bubbling and cracking as tree roots shot out and tried to grab her.

Esther rolled away and leapt to her feet, but not before the roots could grab her and snake around one of her ankles. She cut them away, but her first sword wasn’t ideal for the job and she ended up with a deep scratch in her armour.

Internally, she winced. Even without examining it, she knew it would be an expensive repair.

She surveyed the battlefield. Edyta was engaging the beast, allowing it to follow her back towards Lord Nazari. Edyta clearly had more hated on her mind, because the hymenopteryx followed Edyta more avidly than it had Esther. Behind them, Lord Nazari was alone and defenceless. It wouldn’t be long until Edyta drew the hymenopteryx too close.

With panic rising and threatening to overwhelm her senses, Esther tried to force her sight into the hymenopteryx’s head in a desperate bid to draw it away from Lord Nazari.

But it sizzled and quaked, sending shooting pains up her temples. She gasped inaudibly as nausea cinched her abdomen and acidic bile rose in her throat. She became more aware of the predatory, primaeval magic surrounding them, aching to eat them alive.

Edyta and the creature got closer to Lord Nazari, who had started to back away. With her sight out of commission, Esther sprinted over to him while cursing Edyta with every name under the sun. She switched swords mid-sprint, drawing her second and grasping Lord Nazari’s arm with her spare hand. “With me,” she said as she pulled him into the undergrowth. It hurt her to abandon the fight, and her crossbow which still lay on the ground, especially since she wasn’t confident in Edyta’s chances of success. But if Edyta wouldn’t defend him, Esther would. It was her duty.

And Esther always did her duty.

It took five minutes until the sounds of battle faded, which was four and a half too many for Esther’s liking.

When Edyta found their hiding spot, she was panting hard and holding Esther’s discarded crossbow in disgusted reluctance. She wasn’t bleeding, but her armour bore deep scratches and she had a bruise at her hairline and on her neck.

“Where did you go,” she demanded.

“To do your job,” Esther replied calmly, intentionally misinterpreting the question. No doubt Edyta had wanted Lord Nazari to see the entire fight play out. It was petty, but Esther had intentionally taken him further away than necessary so he couldn’t bear witness to any flashy moves or feats of heroism.

But it didn’t take long for the artificial calmness Esther had cultivated to dissolve. “When I first noticed we were being followed, I ordered you to defend Lord Nazari if it attacked us. By engaging, you disobeyed a direct order. You put his life at risk.” She spat on the floor. “Was it worth it?”

Lord Nazari’s mouth moved. Esther wasn’t sure of it, but it looked like a half-smile.

“I am alive,” he said. “Let us focus on that.”

Edyta tossed Esther’s crossbow at her with too much force. “Let’s also focus on getting you closer to the ruins before Esther’s power complex gets you killed.”

Lord Nazari held out his hands in a gesture of peace. “We are close enough. Yarvier is not a man to set frivolous rules. I trust her when she says it’s dangerous. My dear Esther, if you could find me a clearing so Hethshaw can land, I would be grateful.”

That time, Edyta didn’t hide the scowl on her face at being overruled.

It took Esther twenty minutes to find a defensible clearing big enough for Hethshaw to land. Edyta spent the entire time moping while trying to hide it. The acerbic nature of her mood upset Esther’s already agitated sight, causing more discomfort to seize control of her head.

Eventually, she found the remains of an old stone house with two walls set at a right angle and no roof. Lord Nazari didn’t protest when she wedged him in the corner against the wet, mossy wall so they only needed to defend one side. He sat on the dirty, soggy ground without hesitation and beckoned them to move back.

“I will need space and quiet for this to work.”

Hethshaw spiralled down and landed on the ground in front of him. Lord Nazari closed his eyes and breathed in an unequal sequence, taking quick inhales through his mouth followed by extended exhales through his nose. He performed three cycles of breath and at the conclusion of the third, he said: “Hethshaw, fly!”

A wave of power pulsed from within him, causing a metallic taste to bubble up on Esther’s tongue. The unmistakable feel of magery made her sight squirm with excitement and her stomach to cramp.

“Of course,” she muttered, holding her stomach. “Hethshaw is his familiar.” A familiar was an animal that boosted a mage’s abilities. Lord Nazari’s magery must have enabled him to see through Hethshaw’s eyes.

Once Hethshaw flew out of sight, the power emitting from him magnified to cover the distance. As it did, Esther’s sight reached out towards him on its own accord, begging her for a taste. It slammed against her control so forcefully that she teetered on the spot. She clamped a hand on her forehead. Her sight simmered and tried to extend towards him again, so she forced herself to stumble away from the clearing. But the pressure didn’t ease with distance.

What the hell is going on?

In an attempt to restore a semblance of control over her sight, Esther tried to tire it out. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she forcefully cast it out into the deadlands, burning through more of her reserves than usual by scanning for the signature of the blood-curse and the hungry minds of non-infected monsters. It reluctantly obeyed, scrutinising every inch of forest around them. Eventually, the methodical nature of the work calmed it down and took the edge off its excitement.

Edyta caught up and leaned against a deadened husk of an oak tree. Edyta watched Esther while rubbing the bruise on her neck - a bruise she wouldn’t have received if she’d obeyed orders.

“When we get back, I’m reporting you for insubordination,” Esther said when she could no longer tolerate her mute stare. “That little stunt put Lord Nazari’s life in danger.”

“You won’t,” she said. “Because by the time we get back to the Shack, you’ll have forgotten all about that incident.” She smirked and added: “Won’t you, sister Esther.”

Esther’s mouth went dry, her palms wet. Her sight faltered in its quest to search for danger.

The danger is right here, it said.

It was, but at that moment, she didn’t have the fortitude to deal with the ramifications of Edyta’s threat. So she did the only thing that came to mind - she changed the subject. “Did you really think you could look after Lord Nazari out here on your own?” Later, she thought. I’ll consider how to deal with blackmail later.

“Of course I could,” she said imperiously, stroking the hilt of her first sword, the one that had killed the hymenopteryx. “I left this guildhall to train under the best huntsmen in Gardara and Crematia. I can handle the Kareshian Plateau.” She spoke its name with both contempt and anguish.

“But you wanted to get him closer to the ruins,” Esther pushed. “Why?” In her professional opinion, doing so alone while protecting a defenceless man was a suicide mission.

“What is this, an inquisition?” Edyta pushed away from the dead tree. Black ash spilled into the air where she’d touched it. “You’re nothing but a scared, jealous little girl. You know I’m better than you and you’re terrified I’ll show everyone you’re a fraud. Stop trying to delay the inevitable by pretending I’m the bad guy. It won’t save you.”

Esther bit back a growl, but her anger stripped her of her judgment. “Are you sure you’re not projecting?” She winced instantly. It was an incredibly stupid, immature thing to say considering the damaging knowledge Edyta held, but Esther couldn’t help it.

Something yowled in the distance. They stood to attention, their argument forgotten. Esther pushed her sight as far as it would go but detected nothing. A minute later, the creature repeated the noise, but it was quieter. Whatever it was, it was moving away.

“Esvian told me to be careful around you,” she said at last.

Edyta snorted. “Of course he’d say that,” she said. “He’s jealous that Reeve has always liked me more. He’s never been very good at sharing, that poor man, and it’s damaged his judgement. Though perhaps he can’t be blamed for it - it must run in the family, if Yarvier’s hiring decisions these past few years are anything to go on.”

Esther forced herself to ignore the jab and didn’t respond because she didn’t trust herself to be sensible. They stood in silent vigil while Lord Nazari explored the ruins through his avian familiar. He didn’t finish until Esther’s back ached from the cold. Hethshaw flew overhead first. Shortly after, Lord Nazari bounded towards them with a smile on his face.

“Did you get close enough, my lord?” Edyta purred.

He cocked an eyebrow at her flirtatious tone, but his joy outweighed his suspicion. “A magical ward sits on the top of the inner sanctum and reinforces its walls, so I couldn’t get in the ruins without singing Hethshaw’s feathers. However, what I saw was marvellous! Ice and fog obscure the centre, but it’s clear from the naked eye someone has used the ruins since the Tears and the fall of the Blood Queen. Isn’t that spectacular?”

“Spectacular, indeed,” Esther said flatly, checking her weapons in preparation to leave. She wanted to get him out of the deadlands before his talkative mood attracted unwanted attention.

“I cannot wait to share my findings!” he continued. “A few of my old friends from Fort Gradora will love to hear about it when they come down, especially Guardian Nicholas.”

Esther’s hands froze while checking the alignment of her sword hilts. Guardian Nicholas was Guardian Kessila’s widowed husband. She still remembered how he’d wailed as Guardian Kessila’s blood seeped through Esther’s fingers.

“What do you mean?” she asked sharply.

“Oh, you haven’t heard?” Edyta drawled, pretending to look at Esther with pity. “Well, it’s hardly surprising since you’re not as well connected as us. Fall is upon us, so the social season draws near. Lord Nazari volunteered to host the entire royal court for his official inauguration. It’s a genius way to heal Koryn’s fractured ties with the rest of the country.”

Esther’s breathing hitched. ‘The entire royal court’ included her former family and friends. No, no, this is impossible! She was safe in Koryn because of its independence from the rest of the realm.

The edge of her vision warped, and for a moment, she saw Sassin hiding amongst the trees.

“Is it true?” she whispered to Lord Nazari.

They both looked at her oddly.

“It is,” he said, before switching to projecting: What’s wrong, Esther?

His projected voice made her sight scream and slam against her mental defences. She staggered back, barely pushing him out of her head. To quell the overwhelming panic, she spun around and marched back down the Olde Road. Her companions followed more warily.

“It’s just a royal visit,” Edyta whispered. Esther may not have heard it fully, but the trees did, and they murmured it in her ear the entire way back.

It’s just a royal visit…

Just a royal visit…

Royal visit…

Up Next: With this new threat entering the game, Esther comes up with a desperate plan to escape the odds that have stacked against her.

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