3. The Serpent and the Tree
North Larska River
The next day, Alanis and James ventured out together. They rode atop James’ steed, Ellah. He thought it was a good idea for them to journey to Berthold together. She agreed, seeing that she had had no way of protecting herself if she tried to make it to Larska alone.
While traveling, the young knight explained that there may be somebody there that could help her return home, back in Berthold, but it would likely come at a hefty price. He also figured he’d find his missing comrades there. Seemed their leader didn’t have a thing for waiting.
Alanis’ worries melted away as she began to place trust in James. And for the time being, travel wasn’t so bad. Not like it had been the other day while she was alone. She had time to marvel at the beauty of the forest surrounding them, now that she was comfortable.
As they journeyed, James would point out new wildlife and plants, telling her their names and giving her details on each. He would chuckle from time to time at her curiosity. She must have sounded like a child to him, she supposed, with all of her questions regarding simple things. Well, simple to him.
After a while, the knight cocked his head to the side, his blue eyes soon peered back at her. “It’s been some time since you last asked something, I hope I didn’t offend you or anything. If there’s anything else you would like to know about, I’m all ears.”
Alanis pat his shoulder then smiled reassuringly. “No, I’m fine. I’m just... taking it all in. It’s all kind of exhausting, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m sure it is, discovering the world is fuller than you once thought. I couldn’t imagine what you’re going through.” He noticed her smile falling then added, “But things will get better, you’ll see. It’ll get there in time.”
I hope so, I just pray someone will be willing to help me get home.
“I know you’re anxious to get out of here, but do you think we could stop for a bit? I think my legs are falling asleep.” She wiggled her toes, feeling little shocks with each curl.
“Sure,” he said with a smile, then wiped the sweat from his brow. “We can break over at that stream.”
They continued to the small stream. James dismounted and held his hand out to her. She hesitated for a moment as she noticed the sword at his side, it’s mother of peal sheath gleamed in the sunlight. His cloak had fallen from his shoulder to expose it. It was beautifully crafted, with delicate symbols carved about its casing. She found herself wondering if the young knight knew how to use it, he didn’t strike her as the fighting type.
“You coming down, or not?” he questioned, offering his hand again. This time she grasped it and let him guide her to the ground.
Alanis thanked him and sat at the edge of the stream. She cupped the icy water within her palms and washed her face. Goosebumps grew on her back and arms with each splash. As cold as the water was, she continued to bathe herself. The cuts were all nearly healed on her legs, she noticed happily.
James crouched beside her, Alanis studied his face on the waters reflection, he had a carefree look about him. How could he be so optimistic, given their circumstance, she wondered.
“You’re going to love it in Berthold.”
Love it in Berthold?
She gave him a puzzled look while he looked her over.
Why would he say something like that, is he expecting me to forget about my home?
James smirked and washed his face with a splash of water.
“I only say so because I’ve noticed how much you’ve appreciated the scenery out here.” He lifted his scarf to his face and patted the remaining water away. ”Berthold is landscaped with so many beautiful trees, and plants—”
“I get it,” she blurted, then realized how much of a brat she was for interrupting him. He was trying his best to make her feel comfortable. He didn’t have to. In fact, he could have just left her in the forest to fend for herself, though knowing him, that was something he’d never do.
“Sorry,” she said just as quickly, “I don’t want you to think I’m some ungrateful bitch. This is the first time I’ve been away from home. I’m scared, James.”
He looked away politely. “It’s okay,” he replied in a soft voice. “I hoped telling you about Berthold would ease any tension you had about going there. And there’s no need to be afraid, as I’ve said before, I won’t let anything bad happen to you—”
Alanis fell back on her rear into the shallow water with a splash. She threw her head back, her eyes on the flock of birds that burst through the trees ahead of them. Her heart pounded in her chest at the sudden scare. She picked herself off the ground and watched helplessly as James tried to calm Ellah.
“Whoa, girl... It’s okay,” he said grabbing her reins.
Ellah, spooked, reared back and whipped to the side with James’ arm still caught in the reins. After a short tussle, he was tossed to the ground. Ellah galloped away, just as quickly, in the direction of the fleeing birds.
“James,” Alanis shouted, “Are you okay?”
She rushed over to him, but he was standing before she was able to reach him.
He swung his cloak over his shoulder and kicked a rock into the stream with a grunt.
There goes our ride. Looks like we’ll be walking the rest of the way.
Alanis sighed and shivered while cradling her arms. It was eerily quiet for a moment. James draped his cloak over her shoulders as she wondered what could have panicked the animals. At least his arm wasn’t broken, or anything else, for that matter, she thought optimistically.
“Thanks.” She mustered a smile, despite the situation. Hopefully she’d be dry by nightfall. The night prior had been chilly enough without damp clothing.
“Well I guess there’s one good thing,” James said, his sights on the packs that had managed to break free from Ellah’s saddle during her fit. “I’m not going to lie though, we’ve got a hell of a walk ahead of us, but we’ll make it.”
At least they got to ride for as long as they did, she thought, turning her eyes to the tree line behind them—from where the birds came. She jerked and stepped back, her eyes widened then she fell into James with her second step.
“W-What the hell is that?” Alanis stuttered fearfully, her wide eyes were locked on a menacing creature.
James turned. He touched her shoulder, motioning for her to keep her voice low. He then took position between her and the enormous serpent-like beast, that was merely a couple hundred feet behind them. He stood still, his eyes darted back and forth examining the thing.
“She’s Onobilando, a Sirpinre’dron,” Dragon Serpent, he replied softly, though Alanis could tell he was worried.
Those words held no meaning to her as the creature slithered through the creek ahead of them. All she knew was, it was huge, it looked angry, and that they were in danger. Its tongue whipped from its mouth, tasting their scent on the breeze, and soon its golden eyes were fixed on them. The cascading sunlight shown on the deep green serpent, causing its scales to glisten and glow as it inched closer.
James’ right arm extended and reached for his blade.
What the hell are you going to do, you fool!
“What are you going to do—fight this thing? You can’t.” Alanis backed up against a nearby tree.
“We’re too slow on foot. If we run it would catch us in no time,” he replied. “And lest I remind you I am a trained Knight of Lahre."
Ughhh—not this again!
The serpent made its way closer to them, stifling Alanis’ thoughts. It slowed, then stopped nearby. The beast let out a low hiss then fanned out its neck, exposing several glands that were a deep red. They began to vibrate and pulsate open as it let out a sudden shriek.
Golden mist sprayed from glands, it wafted towards the pair.
“Hold your breath!” James warned and pulled Alanis back.
“Wait, why? What does it do?” She pinched her nose shut.
“You don’t want to know.” James placed his free hand to the ground. ”Reiro, mani’bran ruendka." Terra, lend me earth.
The ground began to shift slowly, it sounded like the earth was breaking beneath their feet. Alanis stumbled to the tree beside them and clung to it. A dark-colored orb began to form above his hand, it was just like the one she had seen the other day, but it was different, it had grown larger and more powerful—by the looks of it.
He grunted and lurched forward. The look on his face gave away his exhaustion as he held the glowing ball of energy in his hand.
The serpent hissed, it must have sensed something was about to happen. It lunged forward with full force at him, rage burning in its eyes. The ground beneath them shook violently as James threw the orb. It blasted a hole into the serpent, causing bits and pieces of its flesh to slop to the ground.
It squealed, baring its enormous fangs with wide eyes. James grabbed Alanis’ hand and forced her to run with him. The serpent was dazed, but not entirely out of the fight yet, as it soon howled behind them and gave chase.
“James,” Alanis panted his name several times, “I don’t think I can run anymore.”
“We have to run, or we’ll die,” he shouted while griping her hand tighter, nearly dragging her with him.
“I can’t—” Alanis’ legs gave out from under her and she fell to the ground, crashing to her bare knees.
James helped her to her feet again. “Go ahead and I’ll try to stall it.”
Alanis looked up at him. In that moment, she couldn’t think about leaving him behind.
“Go on, I’ll be right behind you,” he said in an assuring tone while catching his breath.
Alanis ran ahead, hoping that James would soon follow. She hated leaving him behind. She didn’t want to think of that creature harming him. If only there was something she could do to help. With that thought, suddenly, everything surrounding her began to slow, until it froze.
She stopped running. While she was catching her breath, she could hear James struggle with the serpent, his grunts echoed throughout the still forest. They soon muffled.
Then everything fell silent.
Alanis looked up at the tree she was standing under. She could hear someone humming a song from within its foliage. It was beautiful and slow.
That woman—it’s her.
It had to be the woman from the day before, she knew her voice. Desperately, she searched each of the trees, trying to spot her. The branches of the tree behind her started to crackle, then began to lace together until they melded into form.
She backed away from the tree, astonished at what she was seeing. The woman from her vision began to emerge from those branches. Twigs and leaves weaved throughout her black flowing hair. Her gray eyes opened and peered into Alanis’. She was drawn into their magical glow. The tree dropped the dark-haired beauty gently to the ground in front of her.
A smile spread across the woman’s perfect lips while she spoke, “Alanis.” She grabbed her hand, pulling it away from her side where it shook. “Has she spoken to you, have you been given the task?” she asked. Her hand caressed Alanis’ in an attempt to calm her.
Alanis pulled her hand away, frightened. She had no idea what was going on, or what she was talking about. At that moment, she was busy trying to understand how this woman formed out of the tree they stood under.
What task, what is she talking about?
“I see— it’s not time.”
“What are you talking about?” Alanis questioned, but was offered no answer.
Enough of this, I’ve got to help James before he gets killed by that thing.
The woman pulled her close. “Something is chasing you?”
What—how does she know what’s going on?
She pulled away from Alanis. ”Our thoughts are interlocked," she answered her question, but not out loud.
This is amazing, how is this happening?
The dark-haired woman circled around her then spoke, “You’re going to need gold to slay that beast.”
“Gold,” Alanis questioned.
“Yes, a weapon made of gold to pierce through its heart. It’s the only way to bring down a Nu’trioreri" God Creature. Her fingers trailed along the cloak James had lent Alanis, they stopped at a golden pin that adorned it near her collar. She ripped the golden sigil from the fur.
She grasped the pin tightly within her hands, her knuckles turned white with force.
Her eyes met Alanis’ again. “There are so many things you do not know, so many truths you will be awakened to in the days to come,” she said while bowing her head. “But you must keep our meeting a secret. It is important. You must swear to me that you will never tell anyone about me, or the task ahead of you. It is of great importance that you don’t, for all of Terra.”
She bowed down in front of Alanis. “Promise me this, and I will help you, but only this once, for after this, I will be powerless.”
Alanis looked down at her as the woman slid back to her feet, her eyes searched Alanis’ awaiting her answer.
If I do nothing, James was as good as dead, and I can’t live with that. No, not after he had stayed behind to keep that monster from following me. I have no idea what she is talking about, but—
“I promise,” Alanis answered hastily, not giving it any more thought.
The woman closed her eyes and began to hum again.
"Letando’Na, mani’afre uni iopun’moaka.” Letando, gift me a magi-weapon, she chanted, her voice echoed throughout the great forest.
The golden pin vanished into her hand. Light tore through the treetops and beamed upon her. She stumbled backwards, then fell to her knees. Her back arched, exposing her breast to the sky. In time, Alanis could see something breaking through her breastbone, it gurgled and pulsated. The woman tore into it with both hands, then cried out. She began to pull something from the wound. It was a long spear. She threw it to the ground beside Alanis as she slumped forward.
She propped herself up, her body heaving with each breath she took.
What the hell is going on—am I dead already?
Alanis looked down at the woman dazed at what had happened. These abnormal events were taking a toll on her sanity. After witnessing that, the only logical thing she could think had happened was that she had fallen ill from The Burn, and had died back in Larska.
This had to be some sort of mystic afterlife she was living in, nothing made sense anymore.
The woman’s eyes followed Alanis, the glow within them was now gone.
“You are alive, but you won’t be for long if you hesitate,” she warned as she stood up slowly, stumbling with the first few steps she took.
“The tip of this spear is made of gold,” the woman choked.
“I don’t expect you to know where the heart lies within that monster, but the man you are traveling with will.” She walked past Alanis to the tree she had sprung from earlier. Her hands caressed the bark of the tree trunk. The branches lowered and began to wrap around her and in a blink of the eye she vanished within them.
The forest began to move again.
Alanis could hear James and that monster fighting in the distance. She picked up the spear and examined it, thinking about what the woman had said. She was right, she needed to keep a cool head. She could worry about the rest later, when they were safe.
She ran back to find James cornered. His sword was mangled in the mouth of the serpent. He looked back at her, she could read his disapproval through his stare, but it was too late to reconsider as the beast caught her scent. Now that she was there, she had no idea how she was going to get the weapon to him. If she could distract it, then James could escape to her side and use it.
That orb from the other day, I created it once before. If I could do it again that would buy us some time.
She shut her eyes and clenched them, hoping she would see something again.
“Alanis, what are you doing?” James shouted.
Alanis ignored him and focused on the darkness ahead of her.
She could feel the breeze shift, it seemed to flow towards her in that instant. She could soon see it. This time, it looked like a flowing wave of light as it rushed toward her. She opened her eyes to find the orb floating above her head. It was growing in size rapidly. She looked down at the ground below her feet. She was hovering much higher than before, in fact it was way higher than she was comfortable with. There was nothing she could do as the serpent was below her. It lunged at her feet, missing each strike.
James shouted slowly, “Concentrate on the orb, and don’t look down!”
Realizing she still had the spear clutched in her hands, she took the first chance to chuck it near him. It landed, piercing the ground beside him. He picked it up and briefly examined it
“Gold,” he questioned, sounding surprised, “This is exactly what we need.”
I hoped he didn’t want an explanation of where I got it.
She closed her eyes again, heeding James’ advise. She could now see the orb within her head, and could feel her body pulling the breeze into it. It grew darker and darker, until it vanished into the black backdrop, but she could still feel it. She felt her very breath being drawn into it now. It made her chest tense, and soon made breathing near impossible.
Her eyes opened to the orb, it glistened and hummed in front of her face.
James shouted up at her, “Throw it, and I’ll catch you!”
Alanis looked over at him, concerned his promise would fail. The fall she would take would be great if he didn’t manage catch her.
“Throw it down, and the blast will push you back. You’ll be safe, I promise.” He readied himself.
She scooped up the orb carefully, her fingers sank through its gel-like membrane to a solid core. Waves of energy rushed through her body, and it was then, she could feel its true power. She hurled it as hard as she could, down at the monster.
It hit with massive crackle, blood and vaporized scales plumed into the sky, then rained down to the forest floor. The shock wave sent her flying backwards, just as James had predicted. She screamed as she slammed into his waiting arms. He dropped her to her feet and picked up the spear.
She gave him a quick concerning look. “Be careful.”
But before Alanis could spit out her whole warning—as small as it was, he took off with the spear clutched in his hand. The serpent quickly regained itself. James jumped on its back and used its wound as a grip, he dug into it and held on tight as it began to thrash about.
He grunted to the beast, “The more you struggle, the harder this is going to be.”
She watched as he lunged the weapon deep into the monster, it let out a blood-curdling screech that made her drop to her knees. Its tail began to whip wildly, knocking James into a patch of bushes. Its head crashed into the ground with a thunderous thud. It let out a few drawn out wheezes before it became completely still.
Alanis fell backwards onto the ground, relieved. She could finally give in to the exhaustion that was building up.
“Wow,” she repeated a several times. “I can’t believe we made it.”
She could hear James rustling from the bush. He soon stood over her. He panted for a moment then began to chuckle to himself. She laughed with him, she could only assume it was the layer of drying blood, and crushed scales that caked her skin that instigated his laughter. She would have been disgusted if she wasn’t so damned tired, and thankful to be alive.
He helped her to her feet. “That was amazing. I can’t believe you figured out how to wield so quickly.”
Wield, I assume he means the orb I created?
In that instant, she was happy he didn’t ask her about the weapon she had pulled from thin air. That woman had saved her life twice now, so she supposed keeping her promise was the least she could do.
They walked back to the stream and gathered his packs from the shore. Soon after, they both took the time to clean up in the water. Alanis eagerly washed away the filth that covered her body. Only this time, she didn’t mind the icy temperature.
James looked up into the forest in front of them. Alanis could read concern in his eyes, it was the first time, besides the attack that he looked worried.
“I hope Ellah is okay,” he soon whispered his concern.
Alanis smiled cheerfully, trying to brighten his mood.
“I’m sure she’s fine. She has better sense than us,” she said while washing her arms. “She knew when to run.”
“Aye,” The worried look faded from his face and he smiled back at her. “How are you faring?”
“It’s not every day a large beast tries to kill me, so I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t scared.”
"Onobilando, she shouldn’t have been here. Their kind usually stick to the swamps in the south this time of year. They only ever travel here late spring to mate,” he replied scratching his brow, “A cold blooded creature like that would have died from the cold soon, with winter being around the corner.”
“Oh,” she replied, not knowing what else to say.
James dunked his head into the water. The scales that clung to his hair released into the water, shimmering as they were carried away in the current.
Alanis examined him while they were preparing for their trek. The man was definitely inept at the whole knight thing, but even so, she could learn a hint or two from him. He kept his word and protected her, so she knew she could trust him.
Hell, he caught her as she hurled to the ground, and didn’t even flinch.
He was awesome.