(Verse 2, Line 7) Purge and Cleanse
“We know the blood-curse can interact with the bioconsciousness of the deadlands, but we don’t know if it’s a mutually exclusive relationship. Has the blood-curse survived for centuries because of the deadlands protection? Or has it survived in spite of it?”
Excerpt from ‘A Study of Deadland Bioconsciousness.’
Esther awoke on edge and uneasy, with her sight curled into a tight ball behind the centre of her forehead. As she transitioned into wakefulness, the ball broke apart and stretched. I’m ready, it seemed to say.
Esther wasn’t. As they secured their overnight gear, she became unsure of herself. Even checking her weapons and warming up her body failed to ease the hard lump in the pit of her stomach. When they moved out of camp, fear prickled within her veins. It refused to diffuse, even after she summoned a peaceful mentality to blend with the deadlands. She couldn’t escape that for the first time in years, she felt out of her depth.
I’m good at this, she thought, using her fear to sharpen her instincts and clear her head. Reeve wouldn’t have let us come if we weren’t up to the task.
They left camp and tracked down the pack to a denser thicket of woodland. The trees stood taller, their bark dark and jagged. In some places, it bled an inky sap that quivered on its own accord. Small vines and branches moved to grab her clothing and weapons. Underfoot, roots breached the surface and groped around in the soil. They recoiled and slithered underground when Esther drew near, emitting a vapour that stung her skin.
“Looks alive, location is dead ahead,” Reeve whispered. The four huntsmen hid behind a dense bush. Ramzi disappeared under it, her tortoiseshell brindled coat fusing with the blacks and browns of the forest. Even with her gone, the bush was too small for Esther’s liking.
“You sure this is enough cover?” Esther asked. She needed time to fuse her sight with their minds. If the pack spotted the huntsmen and fled before she formed a connection, it would leave her blind.
“Cover isn’t an issue,” Reeve said. “They’ve known we’ve been coming for the past ten minutes.”
“Then why aren’t they running?” Esvian asked. If Reeve was right and the pack knew they couldn’t defeat a full huntsmen team, they should have fled.
Reeve smirked, his eyes locked on the clearing. They couldn’t see the pack, but they all felt the miasma of the blood-curse. “The little bastards think they’re safe. In their minds, all they need to do to lose us is flee to the cliffs.”
Esther finally appreciated the implication of their plan. “They’ll drop their guard,” she said. “Get lazy and complacent.”
Reeve bared his teeth. “Then, before they can regroup in the open, we’ll charge and strike.” Esther’s sight sung as palpable victory flowed from him. After weeks of tricking the pack, success was nigh.
Reeve checked the alignment of his sword hilts. “We don’t need to chase them in a specific formation, because they’ll run where we’ve trained them to run. When we get to the tree line at the cliffs, we stop for long enough for the pack to relax. Before they regroup, we charge.” They all knew the plan because of their practice runs the day before. But that wasn’t the purpose of Reeve’s speech. It was standard practice to repeat orders before the hunt began so it was fresh on everyone’s mind. “Esvian and Ignacy, you’ll stay together in the centre. Kill anything that gets close. If they rush you at once, wound them enough that they hesitate about passing you.”
Esvian grunted an affirmative, and Ignacy cracked his knuckles. “Get ready, little puppies,” he said. “Ignacy is coming for you with a sharp little present.”
“Esther, you’ll swing left while I swing right. We’ll stay ahead and funnel the pack towards Esvian and Ignacy while taking out any stragglers.” Esther’s throat went dry. She would be fighting alone. At least Esvian would have Ignacy to back him up. “Once they’re concentrated in one spot, we’ll close in and surround them on four fronts. Now, get ready-” He started to rise.
“Wait,” Esther hissed. “Before we charge, I need to... meditate.” Reeve looked unconvinced. “I need to... centre myself,” she continued, struggling to lie.
Esvian caught on. “It’s how she hunts. Let her. She won’t shut up otherwise.”
Reeve relented with a shrug, but the echoes of doubt were still there. “Fine. Everyone, get in position. Esther, when you’re done, make the call.”
As he drifted off to the right, Esther inched to the left and closed her eyes. She slowed her breathing and reached out towards the clearing. The unfamiliar environment and the buzzing of fear made it hard to clear her mind.
Breathe in... Breathe out…
She concentrated on the pack hiding in the clearing, using her breath to focus her sight. It wavered in tune with her self-doubt, but it was eager to exert itself. It didn’t take Esther long until she detected the metallic edge of the blood-curse.
She made contact with the first mind. A jolt of energy rushed across her temples and stirred behind her eyes. There was one, two, four, six... eight minds ahead of her. Everything else faded into nothingness as she forged a connection, giving and taking until their minds merged and became one.
Her sight obeyed flawlessly. It rejoiced at its release, sending a pleasant tingling sensation throughout her skull and down her spine. The power invigorating her. The energy pulsing through her body almost made her gasp in pleasure.
The connection had never felt so good. As she opened her eyes, the world took on a different light. Before, she could only see the wilderness. But after melding with the memories and instincts of the pack, she knew the wilderness.
She sunk deeper, losing herself to the connection. The pack were part of an interconnected network shared between the trees, birds, insects, and even the ground beneath their feet. Riding their half-horded minds let her access the shared consciousness of the deadlands. It was an ecstasy beyond measure.
We are the wilderness, the pack, forests, earth, and Esther thought as one.
But there was a poison there, a plague; a crimson rot that shed from the blood-cursed vectors and infected everything they touched. The land shrank away from the pack.
Let me purge it, she asked of the consciousness she had become one with.
Yes, cleanse us, it begged.
Using the ancient powers of a conservator, she dug into the fleshy minds of the pack. They howled and writhed in pain.
“What the hell…” Reeve breathed. She heard it not from his lips but felt it through the wilds surrounding him.
A smile played across her face. “Let’s hunt.”
They placed their goggles over their eyes and raised the waxed face guards. Then, as one, they leapt into the chase.
Esther’s feet hit the ground of the clearing with a light jolt. In sync with her partners, she charged towards the pack. They froze at first, their minds’ struggling to comprehend the hold Esther had on them. But she’d never captured so many individuals at once, and her grip was weak. Their half-horded minds overcame their shock and they fled.
In moments, the huntsmen and the pack crossed the clearing and re-entered the forest on the other side. Their sudden flight roused the deadlands, which shuddered and awoke. Mist oozed from gaps in the tree bark, forming conical structures resembling teeth. The ground tremored. It thumped in a regular rhythm that stirred the detritus lining the ground, along with Esther’s blood.
For the deadlands to rouse so viscerally wasn’t normal. It was a sign the pack were trying to call the deadlands to their aid.
A half-formed swarm of insects rose from a small pool of water and rushed in Esther’s direction. She darted aside, avoiding the uncoordinated attack. A few feet later, an inert pile of leaves animated, contracting and whirling like the body of a snake. It floundered across the ground, reluctant to intervene. Esther leapt over it.
The deadlands resisted their call, but couldn’t ignore it. It would take a single lucky command and one of the huntsmen would break a leg or sprain an ankle. Through her sight, Esther knew the pack wouldn’t give up.
Not if I can help it, she thought. She pushed her sight deeper into the matrix of their consciousnesses. With a featherlight touch, she sought their connection with the wilds.
She found it. She touched it. And it touched her back.
A kaleidoscope of primordial colours, shapes, and sensations seized her senses. The foliage, soil, and sentient creatures were a harmonic tapestry of greens, browns, and blues. They were the colours of life, nourished and amplified by the deadlands’ providence. Between each spike of life was a swirling of ancient magic, raw and nebulous. From beneath the earth it came, soaking into all who called the deadlands ‘home.’
But the hunters and their prey fractured the harmony.
Each canine was a blaze of red that bled into the land like an infection. Ramzi was a burst of pure white the deadlands pulled away from. Reeve and Ignacy were a deep black, but their colour reached out to intermingle with the blues and greens. In turn, the deadlands’ colours trickled into them, a testament to how in-tuned they had become with their hunting grounds.
She displayed a similar pattern, only the exchange funnelled through the pack. As Esther reached through, she painted the deadlands with the tainted mark of the blood-curse. As the wilds reached into her, her core burned scarlet. Her sight exploded with joy as it shared a sanguine kiss with the ancient magics. They danced in temporary unity, happy to explore each other.
But Esvian was a different story.
Born a wilding, Esvian rarely struggled with the deadlands. He had a natural affinity with the Kareshian Plateau and blended without trying.
But the Kareshian Plateau had claimed them, and its mark stained them. Esvian’s blending was exceptional, but the Dark Woods knew he belonged to something else. They regarded him as a stranger to be taken, and if Esther hadn’t connected with the pack, she would face the same fate.
Through the pack, Esther felt the land’s desire to reach into him and claim him as their own. A root reached out and caught his foot. He stumbled and recovered his balance. As soon as he straightened his path, a dark patch of soil contracted and sank in on itself, creating a hole where he was about to stand.
It wasn’t at the pack’s request, but their earlier attempts to stop the hunters had piqued the deadlands interest… and greed.
Esvian dropped and fell. The distant thrumming that vibrated through the ground increased in tempo. Fuelled by avarice, the wilds drove a small creature under Ignacy’s feet. He staggered and a plume of solid mist pulled him to the ground. Thorns thrashed and clamped onto their limbs.
Reeve and Esther ran back to their fallen comrades. They couldn’t allow blood to spill. Reeve ripped the thorns away from Esvian’s legs with a grunt. Esther drew one of her knives and cut Ignacy free.
But the deadlands craved Esvian, and they were tenacious. A branch took on the disfigured proportions of a human hand and snatched at his wrist. Ignacy cut it away and the amputated remains convulsed and stretched towards him.
A ghostly whisper drifted through the trees, audible to only Esther’s ears.
Esther grasped Esvian’s shoulder and sent a pulse of power through the pack and into the deadlands.
No, he’s mine!
Her sight tossed in delight as it spoke into the deadlands’ primal heart. Esther winced as it attempted to spread further, deeper, faster. She pulled it back, and it writhed in frustration.
You promised, it growled. You said you’d let us free…
Not yet, she told it.
After her power echoed out, the deadlands paused. It played with the command, tossing it between its autumn crisped flora in a ripple of red. Esther struggled to breathe until it sighed its response:
The roots and branches withdrew. The mists receded. The thumping abated.
“What the hell?” Reeve murmured, his voice muffled by his mask. His words did uncomfortable things to Esther’s body.
“Just run,” she said. Before they change their mind...
Free of the forest’s interference, the huntsmen ran at a steady pace behind the pack. Esther kept her touch on their minds as light as possible, worried about the stamina of her sight. But it buzzed, urging her to run faster.
Catch up… let me... have them…
“Be ready to stop,” Reeve hissed. Ahead, light knifed through minuscule breaks in the foliage, trying to penetrate the savage wilderness. The forest remained dark until the vegetation terminated. They paused at the precipice to rest. It was in vain because the sight of the cliffs stole Esther’s breath.
Jagged hills and warped boulders dominated the distance between them and the glistening Farsea. Layers of rock crashed over each other, shifting between granite, slate, limestone, and more. Some had glassy surfaces and reflected the sunlight like mirrors, while others were pockmarked and studded with pebbles and shells. There wasn’t a flat piece of ground in sight. Hundreds of ravines cleaved through the landscape, which was scarred by rock slides and sinkholes.
The ground trembled beneath their feet. Esther grasped at the nearest object for stability, which was Ignacy’s arm. There was a thunderous boom in the distance and an enormous chunk of the cliff fell and splashed into the sea.
“That was fifty meters of rock and it just... disappeared!” she squeaked in alarm. “Are you sure we’re safe?”
Ignacy chuckled deeply and readied his shield. “It will grow back by morning.”
“Growing cliffs…” Esther saw a strange shape amongst the rocky formations. It was a long spherical tube with a pointed top. She recognised the shape, but not from the deadlands. It made no sense until she turned it around in her mind. “That’s a tower from the new casino!”
“They’re called echoes,” Reeve said. “As the rock grows, it picks up on the shapes of the structures and buildings further inland. Somehow, they’re replicated here.”
“Unnatural,” Esvian said.
“Ain’t nothing natural in the deadlands,” Ignacy said. Then they grinned at each other like madmen.
“Wildings,” Esther uttered in disbelief.
Reeve chuckled. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Now,” he said, adjusting the quiver of bolts at his hip. The pack was closing in on one another. “Get ready.”
Esther busied her shaking hands by readying her crossbow. As she stroked the loaded bolt with a gloved finger, she checked her connection with the pack. They were out of range from the consciousness of the forest, and it made their minds feel desolate. Her sight mourned the connection, but its absence eased the pressure in her head.
The emptiness made their intentions more clear. They believed they were safe and were dropping their guard.
“We need to go now,” she said.
Reeve grew taller with excitement. “Then get into position.”
Esther urged the pack to turn towards the ocean. Issuing a direct order to so many minds sent a metallic taste shooting through her mouth. It made her teeth ache, but pushing the limits of her power felt... Good.
She wondered what it would feel like if the pack had completely horded. She imagined driving them around like a single entity with minimal effort. It would feel so natural, so empowering. She would rejoice, and as she replaced their will with her own, they would rejoice too!
She recoiled from the foreign thought. Where did that come from?
Despite her panic, her command worked. The pack turned towards the Farsea, blinded to the huntsmen hiding in the woods. It was time to attack.
Esther grit her teeth and steadied her hold on their minds. I can do this, she thought. She needed to keep control of her exuberant sight, hide it from Reeve and Ignacy, and help them kill a half-horded pack on rocky terrain that might swallow them at any moment…
The hunt intensifies and Esther has no choice but to rely on her sight to survive. But can she control it?