Traveller’s Tales – Earkran

4

The Ridge forms a wall around the Frosts, locking them out of the rest of the continent. Rather than one continuous mountain as the name suggests, time and vicious climate has broken it down, forming crags and cliffs along its length. Nestled within one of these is Val’s Cabin, and Milo’s escape from any chasing Craven.

Moving at first along the coast, then inland as the path moves towards the Ridge, the foliage in the dead forest becomes more densely packed together as branches, roots and entire trees grow through one another. After days of walking non-stop, Milo relents as the light and colour begins to seep out of her surroundings for the sixth time since leaving the temple.

She doesn’t need sleep, not in the same way that Null do at the end of each day: her body can keep up a ‘normal’ pace for five or six days before really needing to stop, and even after that it’s only useful, not mandatory. However, any rest she can get certainly doesn’t hurt, and to operate at full force it’s safer to stop once in a while.

She climbs up the inside of an abandoned lookout tower as dusk falls, finding a small bed in the scout’s quarters at the top. Standing for a moment and staring out at the steadily darkening scene, she sees this forest that once lived in balance choking itself to death instead, just for a chance at survival. A frustratingly familiar sight.

A memory flashes across her mind: a child, maybe eight years old, holding a knife of white energy dripping with blood. Two other children next to them, gutted and spread out across the floor. The Agony, crawling up their arms, glowing behind their eyes. That fucking grin on their face.

She takes a long, deep breath. Blinks a few times, focusing on a tree branch slowly flapping in the wind. Swallows once, then again. Forcing down the bile.

Reluctantly, she beds down for the night, as alert as always while trying to let herself rest. When daylight pricks beneath her eyelids, prompting her to move once again, she climbs down to the forest floor and clears what woodland is left quickly. The small chance at rest has done enough, refreshing her after the days of constant activity, and she wants out.

With plenty of daylight left, Milo surveys the immediate area from above, climbing up a thick trunk and finding a perch nestled within its bony branches. The forest’s border runs parallel to the base of the Ridge, a border where the thickening mass of foliage abruptly halts, spitting out any travellers onto a clearing of dirt and snow. That clearing runs the entire length of the mountain as it surrounds the Frosts, about half a mile wide from trees to mountain. The perfect place for an ambush.

Which would probably raise her heartrate, at least.

She drops down onto the snow with all the softness she can manage, staying low and alert. One hand shrouds itself with stormy silver energy; white hot tar suspended in streams of black smoke. She touches the ground briefly with the other, feeling for movement in the earth, while her eyes focus on a point in the rock across the gap and her ears listen for any noise around her.

Nothing close. She stands and takes a step, slowly, out into the open air towards the mountain. Nothing comes. She keeps stepping, as quickly as she can without making noise that would compromise her position.

She makes it about a quarter of the way across before the first bolt of energy evaporates the snow just ahead of her.

‘Shit.’

They aimed too far ahead, but she should’ve heard it. She turns quickly as another bolt flies over her shoulder, then raises her shrouded hand as she walks. A burst of silver energy and smoke explodes outward, forming a shield in front of her that shimmers and shifts. Through its changing translucency she can see a group of Craven, several hundred metres away, spilling out of the forest and launching bolt after bolt of energy at her as they try to close the gap. At this distance they only appear as dots of grey against a backdrop of white snow and the rock of the Ridge, but she’s more than okay with that.

She speeds up, turning and breaking into a sprint towards the Ridge, shield held to her side. The bolts of Craven magick come thick and fast, like white-hot hailstones in a flash storm.

‘Shiiiit.’ As they batter her shield, she channels more and more energy to keep up its protection. She’s about halfway across now, sprinting hard and focused on staying on target.

Amongst the sounds of the hailstorm and shouts of Craven rapidly approaching, the thump of something larger gets her attention. She glances to her right just fast enough to catch the arc of a huge ball of Agony, writhing like a mass of molten serpents, flying down to meet her. She skids to a stop, pulling her hands in close as she crouches down behind the shield.

There’s a moment of complete silence, then it explodes around her and she cries out; the shield holds, but the shock of the impact rips through her. She makes to stand, shakily, but the sound of another thump forces her down into a tucked ball. She expands the shield as best she can, then the second impact crashes down and knocks her onto one knee. She has to use her shield hand to keep steady, the barrier knocking into the ground and breaking, leaving her exposed.

‘Argh – shit!’ Reaching out with her other hand, she focuses on the spot in the mountain she’s been aiming for. She starts to feel the stone, its physical presence opposite her, and pulls down hard. The rock shifts, a few hundred metres away, opening a small doorway to a hidden staircase leading up the inside.

Staying down, she takes a deep breath, then imagines herself taking hold of the edge of this new doorway. Whisps of silver energy reach out from her fingers, curling around her mental image of the rock, as the hailstorm of Agony rains down around her and a third thump rings out through the air. She breathes in deep and holds it.

It feels for a moment like she’s being thrown violently forward. Chaos explodes around her, obscuring everything, and every nerve on her skin screams electric shock and scalding heat. Then she smacks into the rock wall of the alcove, one arm and shoulder crunching against it. She can’t help but shout from the pain.

As she exhales shakily, she looks around at the scarred snow outside and the broken steps inside, leading up a dark and wet pathway. She overshot it a little, but it worked. The third heaving mass of Agony crashes into the spot she just left, now several hundred metres away outside.

It would’ve killed her.

A few smaller bolts sear the snow, then there’s nothing but shouts and sprinting footsteps. Before they get any closer, she lifts her good hand, focusing on the stone at the top of the archway. Gripping the energy within it, she pulls down, plunging her into darkness as the stone rumbles and thumps back into place.

She lifts her hand up, palm facing the ceiling, until it’s about level with her face. She finds, then draws in the heat from the air around her; the temperature drops immediately, but a burst of flame erupts from her palm, throwing some light around. Slowly, she drops her hand away and the small ball of embers stays afloat in mid-air.

She holds the injured arm, lifting it at the elbow slightly to avoid the shattered shoulder dislocating. The first few steps almost knock her off-balance, but as the fireball follows her up she finds a rhythm and starts making progress. Whisps of a thick, dark smoke pour out from the pores of her skin and her mouth as she walks, curling around her broken arm and shoulder. As she ascends toward Val’s Cabin, she can feel the fragments of bone begin to knit themselves together, drawing from her a low, long moan.

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