June 26th, 2015
Though Zestir had fallen, there was no easy way to his poison tree. Falient led Lask to the edge of the crater in silence. The hunter moved with his natural stealth, needing no magic to move undetected, but Lask was wrapped in the crimson cloak Phena had given him, which shielded him from Dark eyes. He had taken the extra precaution of painting himself with the ashes of some of his previous enemies, the ash helping to mask his Light, but Falient doubted even those measures would be enough. A Luminor Rose like Lask could not help but shine like a beacon.
The tree grew in the center of the crater. It was a twisted, sprawling tangle of thorny black branches. The crater itself was wide, almost the size of a small valley. Falient had led him to the edge where the kordat path began, but Lask could see nothing to define the way. He would have only the map Falient had made on his recent scouting venture to guide him.
“I could go with you,” Falient insisted again.
“No, I need you up here.” Lask’s voice was quiet, but firm, leaving no room for further argument.
Falient swallowed another protest. Lask had declined having any of the others accompany them, lest they attract too much attention from the remaining fragments of Zestir’s forces or his circling enemies. The tree was contested territory now; there was no telling who or what might be nearby. Lask had instructed Falient to wait on the crater rim, and keep watch with his magical spyglass. If Lask encountered more trouble than he could handle, Falient was to capture him in the spyglass and draw a door home immediately.
“Guess I don’ need t’tell you t’be careful,” Falient muttered.
“I’ll do my best,” Lask replied. “I love you.”
“Love you too. Don’t get dead.”
With that, Lask began the descent into the crater.
The sides were not cliffs, but the way was steep and rocky; keeping his sword drawn would be too cumbersome. At times, he had to climb down, finding handholds and footholds, having to tuck the map away until he got to flatter ground. He passed the first line of magical defenses, threading along the kordat path as if through the eye of a needle. He heard a sound up ahead and crouched low, stalking forward like a panther on the heels of prey. He peered over the outcropping ahead, seeing a pack of three Warmongers. He guessed they were a scouting party, since they appeared to be feeling their way along the same path as he was.
Lask drew his sword and crept from behind the outcropping. He put the swordpoint through the base of one Warmonger’s skull without a sound, and sliced the throat of another with little more than the spatter of blood spilling. Only the third Warmonger got out a single bark before Lask’s sword silenced him too. When the trio was on the ground, the Luminor stood in silence for a moment, listening for the sound of anything that might have overheard the scuffle. The crater lay in eerie stillness. He wiped his sword on the fur of one of his kills, then sheathed it and continued on.
He followed Falient’s map on for a half mile or more, until he came to a line on it that said “duck.” Lask sank to one knee as he heard something whistle. Something shot over his head too fast to see. The whistle came again and he looked up to see a fine metal dart fly over his head. He continued on in a crouch, keeping low until Falient’s map indicated it was safe to stand again. He could see the tree in the distance through the gaps in the stones.
There was a hiss behind him and he ducked behind one of the rocks as a Serpent came around a bend in the path. Its tongue flicked in the air where he had stood.
“What?” came a gruff voice behind iy. A Runner prowled around the bend also, followed by two Warmongers and another Serpent.
“Ssssmellsss… Light,” said the Serpent.
Lask reminded himself they wouldn’t be able to see him, and began creeping away from the group. He could have dispatched them, but he doubted he could do it as silently as he had with the Warmongers. The number of Demons interested in the place was growing by the day; the crater was full of scouting parties, although only a few of them had managed to find the kordat path. Lask passed out of earshot of the Runner’s group, wondering if they would see or follow his footprints.
He turned back to the path ahead, following the turns on Falient’s map. Every now and then, he could tell he had stepped near the edge of the path. A faint thrum of magic made his skin prickle. He didn’t want to think what would happen if he should cross over those invisible lines. He was making his way around another bend in the path when he heard a growl up ahead.
“There is Light here,” said a voice. It seemed very close, but Lask had not seen any sign of someone else nearby.
“I don’t see anything,” came another voice.
Lask squinted around the bend, and saw a ripple in the air. Another scouting party, no doubt, but they had somehow cloaked themselves as well.
“I ssssmell it,” said another, clearly a Serpent.
“Sssso do I.” A second Serpent.
Lask’s eyes followed the voices, picking out at least five distinct ripples in the air. There wasn’t space to go around them. As Lask was considering unleashing a fireball across the whole path, there was a thump and a startled yelp. Something flickered, and Lask saw a Serpent drop dead in the path. Just then, the second one fell. Lask saw a bullet hole in its head.
“Where’s it coming from?” barked a voice.
“I don’t see a thing!”
A Warmonger fell with an abrupt cry.
“Get down, you fools!”
A second Warmonger collapsed, and then a third. Lask decided Falient’s spyglass must have detected the cloaked Dark things. He no doubt silenced his pistol and started picking them off from the crater rim.
A Runner fell dead over one of the Serpents. Lask waited a moment, listening. No sound came from the path ahead, and nothing else fell. He crept out around the bend, tiptoeing around the bodies and onto the clear path. He had just turned to continue on, when something made him pause. He drew his sword like lightning, and thrust it under a thin outcropping of rock.
He was rewarded with a muffled shriek, and he pulled out a Deceiver, skewered on his blade. He pulled his sword free of her, and continued on. The way had leveled out enough he could keep his sword drawn. He quickened his pace, as there were more Dark things afoot than he would have liked. He followed the meandering line on Falient’s map, the tree drawing closer, and closer, until Falient’s writing told him, “watch out for the bugs.”
For a moment, Lask was puzzled, as there didn’t seem to be anything here. He had a fleeting fear that he had lost track of his place on the map, then a strange buzzing sound begin. He looked to the left, and a cloud of insects poured out of a crevice in the stone. They were thick black hornets, each the length of his hand. They swarmed in the air, and Lask backed away, wondering if they would be able to see him. He had no doubt when the swarm darted straight for his head. Lask ducked, throwing a wide swing with his sword, slicing down at least five of the bees. They growled and buzzed about him, and he flared the cloak around himself to keep them at bay.
He swung again, cutting three more out of the air, but there were too many for him to count. He ducked and spun, weaving his way further up the path, but they stayed with him, not caring how many of their fellows he struck down with his blade. One of them got a lucky strike as he swung. He felt the black stinger sink into his wrist, and a pain like wildfire burst into his skin. He didn’t know what the venom would do, but he was unwilling to risk more. He would have to brave whatever Dark things would see him.
Lask flared with fire, and a sudden burst of flame swept out from him, consuming the black swarm. It was a sizable fireball, and almost immediately he heard the distant shriek of a Runner. Lask wasted no time, breaking into a jog along the path. He was close now; he had a clear view of the tree ahead. He entered the flat, dusty plain around it, seeing one Dark party clustered around its trunk, six creatures altogether.
There was no point in hiding now. Lask released another fireball, searing them all into ash in an instant. He stepped through their burning bodies, and approached the black trunk. It was thick, with thorns jutting out everywhere. Finding a clear enough place to pierce the iron bark would not be easy. Falient had tried to describe the place he’d found on the tree, but in his rush, Lask could hardly focus on the instructions. Instead, he let his own eyes scan the tree, circling it, until he found a gap in the thorns wide enough for his hand. He tucked the map into his shirt, and placed his sword point against the trunk– his sword was the only thing they had with a prayer of piercing the bark.
Lask gripped the sword with both hands and braced himself against it, having to use most of his weight to shove the tip of the blade through the outer layer. When a bead of black sap rose around the blade he stopped, and yanked the sword free. He held it in the fires of the burning corpses to burn the poison off, then sheathed it.
His quick hands moved to his leather satchel, withdrawing the tap, phial, and hammer he’d prepared. There was another Runner’s shriek, closer this time. Lask hoped Falient would take care of shooting them. He placed the tap against the hole his sword had made, noticing his right hand shook, likely a side effect of the hornet sting. He glanced at the place it had stung– a dark angry weal had risen on his wrist, with faint tendrils of blackness radiating out from it. There was no time to think of it now. Taking up the hammer, he pounded the tap into the tree. It took many blows; the wood was like granite.
He pounded the tap in as far as he could, then secured the phial. There were more Runner shrieks now, from multiple sides of the crater. Lask loosened the valve on the tap, and a burst of black sap bubbled out, sputtering into the phial. He let it fill, then tightened the valve back and removed the phial, holding it in his steady left hand. Placing the stopper was difficult; his right hand shook like a stalk of wheat in a gale, and he couldn’t afford to spill any of the sap on himself. He managed to close the phial, and tucked it back in his satchel.
There was a shriek close by, and he turned to see a group of Dark things come running onto the plain. They dropped as he saw them, falling one by one as Falient picked them off, but Lask doubted he would get them all before they reached him. Lask drew his sword, but instead of preparing to meet them, he circled the tree, moving farther away and raised his hand.
A storm of fire thundered out of him, engulfing the black tree. The Dark things on the other side were consumed in the sudden blaze. The wood of the tree was reluctant to burn, but Lask refused to relent, a torrent of fire searing out from him into the tree. The crater was alive with the shrieks and calls of Dark things, but Lask did not move from his place. The tree curled with ash, branches falling as the fire ate through. Lask grit his teeth in a snarl and a white-hot explosion jolted out of him.
The black tree burst into a cloud of ash, opaque smoke rising in a pillar above the crater. Lask held his breath, raising his sword to glint in the fire, hoping Falient could still see him through the smoke. He could hear pounding feet on the edge of the crater, screaming Runners, hissing Serpents. His lungs burned, but he dared not breathe the smoke of the tree.
All of a sudden, it was as if everything flickered, then it all went dark.
Up on the crater rim, Falient collapsed the spyglass, having collected Lask inside. He tucked it in his pocket, taking in the chaos at the center of the crater.
“Crazy loon,” Falient muttered, watching the black smoke swirl the ashes of the tree across the waste. He shook his head, then pulled out his key, drawing a door back to Atorcoppen, then crossed through into the sunlight, leaving the smokey cacophony behind him.
He jogged into the house, following the corridor back to the infirmary. Once there, he took out the spyglass and opened it. He finagled some of the brass switches until there was a flash and a clatter. Lask fell out on the floor, sword ringing as it hit the floorboards. He coughed and sputtered, starting to pick himself up. Falient took his arm and hauled him toward the nearest bed.
“Sit,” Falient commanded.
Lask didn’t protest. His whole right arm quaked, and it felt like he couldn’t get a full breath. Falient rifled through the cabinets, muttering to himself as he gathered things. He collected an armful of items, then returned to sit on the bed next to Lask. He uncorked a bottle, then grabbed the Luminor’s arm and poured a faint yellow liquid over the sting. Lask yelped sharply and tried to pull his arm back on reflex, but Falient dug his fingers in, holding him fast. He emptied the small bottle over the wound, ignoring Lask’s grimace.
“You’re lucky I have this,” said Falient. “Would’ve cost me a fortune on the Dark side. Lucky for you, I got a crop growin’ in the cellar.” When he was finished, he toweled Lask’s wrist dry. The swelling in the weal seemed to have gone down, and the blackness was fading. Falient lay Lask’s arm across his leg, then took up a needle and a pair of tweezers.
Lask’s jaw tightened as Falient dug into the weal with the needle. He picked through Lask’s skin until blood started to well, then grabbed with the tweezers. Lask winced, and Falient dislodged an inch-long stinger from his skin, and held it up for his inspection.
“Thank you,” said Lask.
“My pleasure.” Falient flashed a wry smile, then slathered a pale green salve on the wound and bandaged it. “Should be good as new by tomorrow.”
“Hopefully.” Lask still felt a bit faint, and like he couldn’t get as much air as he wanted, but breathing was gradually getting easier.
“Did you breathe any of that smoke?” Falient asked.
Lask shook his head.
“Wot were you thinkin’?”
“I was thinking I didn’t want that poison to be used on anyone else,” Lask replied, eyes flaring as he looked up at Falient. “I was thinking the world will be better off without that tree in it, and I will sleep better at night with it gone.”