Chapter 46: The Final Gift
Colin made his way under the dark, dead limbs of the ancient forest. His meager torchlight barely lit the path around him. The rain had stopped, but the cold was chilling. As he followed the path, he felt it slope downwards and every few steps his feet left small pools in the wet ground. His footsteps breaking through the dead leaves and dried branches on the forest floor echoed through the trees and his breath steamed in the frigid night air. He was thankful for the torch fire, holding it close to his face to feel its warmth. After what seemed like a good hour, the path widened and rose again until Colin came to a clearing. There in the middle of the glade, a small hill rose, and atop it was a lone gnarled tree, blackened and lifeless. A cruel split ran from the top branches to its lower trunk.
Colin’s eyes widened as he stared at it, and his vision betrayed no detail. It was as if time had stopped since that ancient day of bloodshed and seared the scar of that act permanently into the land. Colin shivered. The foul smell of death wafted from the soil. How could something so ugly offer hope?
The clearing was silent--no bird calls, no owl cries--even the wind was mute. As Colin moved up the hill to the tree, the ground itself became harder and as lifeless as the woods around him. No blade of grass grew there, and the puddles were filled with brackish water the color of blood.
Samuel must’ve been wrong, people came for healing here? Why? It’s practically a cesspool. Colin reached out to the blackened husk of one of the tree’s roots. A chill ran up his finger as if he had pressed up on a meat locker door.
Colin brought his torch closer, and there, in the deepest part of the tree’s split core, he saw a small bit of amber resin. His eyes searched around the limbs for any other indications of the balm, but the tree was barren.
This must be it. Whatever other magic this thing had is gone. Maybe . . .
A stabbing pain ripped through Colin’s shoulder. He felt the bite and jerked around to see a hooded Hissith towering over him, his blood dripping from its fangs. Colin fell back as the demon slashed at him with its claws. He threw his torch at the beast, singeing its side. The Hissith hissed and slithered back into the shadows. Colin glanced at his wound and saw the bite was already infected. Venom bubbled from the puncture, and like acid, was eating away at his shirt. Colin’s arm felt numb. He reached for the torch, but fiery needles shot through his arm and up into the base of his skull. His hand fell lifelessly to his side. He grasped the still burning light with his other hand and waved it frantically around in case the beast tried to attack again.
The sound was behind him now. Colin turned to see two sets of serpentine eyes watching him from the gloom just outside the light of the torch. They inched closer.
Two voices broke through to Colin’s mind, coherent but wholly inhuman.
He will sssleep soon. Already he weakensss.
Yes, sssleep little morsel. Drop the nasty flame and dream.
Perhaps we take a bite? Before we deliver him?
Yesss, a little bite, he is fresssh, and sweet.
“You take a bite and I’ll burn your ass to the ground!” Colin screamed at them.
The Hissith paused.
He hears usss? How can he hear usss?
“I hear you very well!” Colin yelled and lurched forward with the torch. The creatures retreated a few feet.
What can he do? Only a boy. Alone. Sleep little morsssel.
The serpents’ voices enticed him. All he wanted was to lie down. His breath became labored and resting sounded divine. Surrounded by darkness and death, how could he hope to stop their attacks? Already his torchlight was burning low. Colin’s gaze blurred as he watched the embers die. He searched for words, some magical phrase that might turn them, but his mind was empty. He may be a soothsayer, but without the Logos, he was nothing. The desire for sleep built like a flood around the dam of his conscious mind.
Colin clenched the torch again and shook his head clear. No. I didn’t come this far for . . .
Fog filled his brain again. The serpents’ voices seemed almost melodic as they spoke to him.
Releassse and resst
Give in and die
The cruel words sounded so sweet. Colin leaned back against the tree. He couldn’t hold back the flood anymore.
“Maker, I can’t do it,” Colin whispered.
One of the Hissith rushed forward and coiled atop Colin’s feet pinning him against the tree. Behind it, another drew closer, ready to strike. Colin felt the bark rub against his skin. Its woody splinters pressed up against his wound. The demon’s crushing tail pulsed on Colin’s legs, cutting the blood flow and its yellow eyes filled his gaze. Colin’s vision darkened as the monster pushed back its hood to reveal its full countenance. Too exhausted to resist Colin felt consciousness flee from his mind as the bark scratched deeper into his flesh.
Something soft pushed into his shoulder. Colin turned his head slightly and saw the sap had dropped into his wound. Warmth surged across his body. The hairs on his neck stood on end as if a trumpet had called them to attention and his vision cleared.
The snake faltered, its trance broken. A name appeared in Colin’s mind.
“Your name was Simiel.” Colin said, catching his breath.
The Hissith hesitated as if it had been slapped.
Colin continued. “You were made a cupbearer to the Maker and then the others called you out. In that great first battle, before the first morning, you had to choose. You were unsure. You wished to be more.”
The Hissith spat. It doesss not know me. How could it know me? What magic is thisss? The great serpent backed away.
The heat from the sap spread across Colin’s body and his strength returned to him. “You wished to be more, so you followed in the uprising, but still you did not fight. You were too afraid, and when the fallen were cast out, you were as well. You are craven, Simiel. You are a coward.” Colin steadied himself as he slowly rose to his feet.
The Hissith screeched as if it had been struck and fell back. The other serpent rushed at Colin from the side.
Colin turned his head and spoke, “Pacem”
The serpent fell to the ground as if it was pinned there.
“You are Azrael, anointed once by the Maker and yet you too were cast out. All you know now is anger.” Colin knew the voice he spoke with was not his own. He had become a vessel of the Logos. He had fallen in his own weakness and been brought back as something new.
Silence! Shut its mouth!
“Run back to the black throne! On your belly’s crawl. May your limbs be broken and useless!” Colin’s voice thundered.
The great serpents screamed in pain as their arms ripped backward. They fell into the mud squirming and flailing.
“Back!” Colin commanded. “Tell your master you’ve failed. Tell your master a soothsayer remains.”
The beasts scrambled across the bracken pools, using their great tails to propel them forward through the muck, down the hill and into the darkness of the woods. Colin stood at the tree and waited. After several moments had passed, he felt their presence was gone. He could feel his muscles relax. The power within him dissipated.
He turned towards the tree and peered closely at the bark he had pressed against. Emerging from the timbers was more of the resin. Colin gingerly raised his wounded arm. Pain still shot through it as he moved. He pulled globules of the resin off the tree’s bark. He pulled a ragged swatch of cloth from his shirt and wrapped it carefully around the balm. His eyes glanced over the dead tree once more and wondered if it had anything left to give.
Good enough for now, if it doesn’t dry up by the time I need it. He pushed the folded fabric and resin into his pocket, his finger brushing up against the smooth stone he still carried. The image of his mother, lying comatose crept into his mind again. The old feelings of powerlessness returned to him. How the hell am I ever getting home?
The path forward was unclear, he was surrounded by the dead wood, each tree mirroring the next.
“The journey of a thousand miles . . .” he mumbled and stepped forward.