Beyond Campfire’s Light
YD 176, northern outskirts of The Awakened Wood.
The interface shimmered softly in the evening light, and Khar’s Hearth was frightened. Their own flames flickering in the shadows of the towering trees, the Elementals gathered anxiously behind their Kindler. Khar himself stood erect, bow in hand, trying to hide his trepidation. The omens had been clear; the Forest demanded to spread, and Khar knew his Hearth must fulfill this demand or perish.
He had seen the consequences of defiance before. Had served them. The Forest provided for those willing to strive – the beasts deadly, certain plants poisonous, and rival clades everywhere, but bountiful if one knew how to live with it, to hunt and defend, and honour the Forest. When a nearby clade ignored the omens, the seer had visions of Khar’s mother leading her people to battle against them. When she and her warriors arrived to fulfill the prophecy, they found a battered clan, ravaged by a wolf of monstrous size, their scouts and hunters betrayed by the very trees which howled as if with a great wind.
Eager to spare his people that fate, Khar had not hesitated to obey. “Flame and shadow,” the seer had said. “A darkness which must be cleansed, and new seeds planted. By your hand, I saw it was so.” The signs pointed north of their home among the rocks and stonebarks, to this place where they must mind their flames carefully lest the whole grove burn.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, kept himself from flinching, and looked to see his younger sister, Riss, at his side.
“Now or never,” she murmured. “The stories all tell of monsters beyond this point; unnatural and terrible.”
Khar nodded, and stepped forward, towards the shimmering barrier at the edge of the trees.
He focused, using long-practiced meditative techniques to seize upon Primus and infuse his body with its light.
Tall, muscular, with spiraling tattoos that guided his personal flames over his red-brown skin, the fire blazing from his head in place of hair, Khar stood at the edge of his homeland with his bow at his feet and hands clasped, as his warriors watched.
White light crept over his tattoos, then suffused his flames, burning brighter and stronger for a moment, a flash of fire that dimmed to a soft, golden glow. A corona of sacred, calming energy surrounded his head, licked his body with wisps of light. When he stepped forward, the barrier parted to admit him.
The assembled warriors uttered a soft prayer, in unison, and strode past Khar as he held the way open.
Beyond the barrier was a landscape eerie and foreign to the Flamehearts. Barely a tree in sight, and those few they could see, distantly, were of pitiful size. The open plains stretched to the sunset, and Khar shivered. Nowhere to hide. No fruit, no prey.
The wind stirred the long grass, like waves on a lake. Khar had heard that the world was an island on a lake that went on forever, and seeing these great, empty spaces lent some credence to the idea. It did nothing to make the prospect less horrifying.
Masking his uncertainty in action, Khar strode to the fore of the group, as Likha pointed to their destination. “It is as the seer said, Kindler,” the scout said, and stepped back, behind another warrior. Khar couldn’t blame him. In the evening light it was a pool of shadow; some strange structure looming within a field of dead grass. It was about half as tall as the smaller trees of the Wood, and canted slightly to one side. Branches protruded from one face of the monolith, flapping with tattered… Khar frowned. Webbing, perhaps? Pale and flapping in the breeze- His frown deepened. The air is still.
“We go,” he said, then louder; “We go!”
Not waiting for an answer, he allowed his flames to burn yellow-red again as he jogged across the field. He heard his warriors fall into line at his back, and felt just a little heartened. Still, his bow was at the ready.
“How do we remove this stain, Khar?”
He almost lost his stride, glancing to RIss now at his side.
“We burn it, Riss. All we can do is burn it.”
She didn’t answer.
“Can we?” She said, after a moment.
Khar tried to ignore a feeling like a belly full of cold water.
“We can.” He said. “We must.”
She remained silent. They moved further from the Wood that was their home, and Khar called a halt.
“Scouts forward,” he said, pointing northwest and northeast. They nodded, and dimmed their fires before scurrying into the gloaming. He turned to examine his warriors, and was pleased to see that they remained straight-backed and at the ready. The glowing dome of the Wood was at their back, and comforting in its permanence. This excursion must be brief, this trek through hissing grasses. The Wood would remain. It would be stronger.
Khar’s fears were consumed in that shimmering glow.
Only Likha returned from the scouting trip.
“Nothing, Kindler.” He said. “Only nothing.”
“Where is Chokha?”
Likha started to shrug, stopped, and glanced around. Afraid of nothing?
“We did not meet. I thought it best to hurry back.”
The news should have been disquieting, but Khar’s eyes narrowed in resolve.
“Forward. We’ll find him.”
“The dead grass is near, Kindler.”
“Good. This will be over sooner.”
From a distance, the assembled Elementals looked like a roving fire; a conflagration rolling softly across the fields. A collection of candles in procession.
One by one, they winked out, and all was dark.
Khar was cold. He’d never been cold before, but he understood the idea. He had been less-warm, but cold was a word he had learned from a traveler who passed through the Wood once; a stranger the gods of Oak and Ash had permitted to walk in their shadow. Likha was moaning quietly, shivering with every step. The flames of the entire Hearth burned green in this place, and the stars were wrong. If he stared long enough, Khar thought a rocky vault like a Steeltooth cave was above them. But there was no time to stare; they were upon their target now.
He couldn’t tell what it was meant to be. A burial place, perhaps? It had three sides, two curving to a narrow edge, smooth and bare. Where those two walls met the third were carvings of cavorting skeletons, and the furthest wall had those branches with eerie web. The clade’s flames flickered in the same breeze that flapped the tatters hanging from the dark spires. The structure was buried in the ground at its thickest point.
Riss climbed up onto the thing before Khar could order otherwise.
Watching her, he gestured for his warriors to surround the tomb.
“What have you found, Riss?” He called.
“A door, I think.”
“It does not look like a door.”
“A foreign door. The kind that close up.”
“Don’t go into the cursed place, Riss. It must burn.”
“Are you not curious?”
She snorted, and stepped down.
Once more, Khar focused. His flames turned to gold, and he held his hands up, gathered the fire therein.
His fellow Flamehearts matched the gesture, their flames still an unholy green, and when Khar cast his fire upon the tomb, they echoed the motion.
The structure was consumed in the blaze, the tongues of flame bending and streaming in all directions as if blown to and fro by swirling winds at every angle. They found little purchase on the wood of the strange grave, but the billowing fabric burned away almost immediately.
Khar found himself staring at the ‘door’ with which Riss had been tampering. Square, set into the wall about half-way up. Did the builders fly, perhaps?
The door opened a crack, and Khar’s eyes widened. The flames were having barely any effect, but perhaps that was the first sign of damage? They’d need to pause soon, recover their energies for another blast. It was strange, for something to resist burning like this that was not made of stone or metal.
The door burst open, breaking and falling, narrowly missing Riss who had to stop burning, the sudden distraction halting the entire clade. Khar let the stream of fire stop, but held it in his hands, ready to incinerate whatever might attack.
Only a velvet darkness lay beyond. It occurred to Khar that the flames of his clade were doing little to illuminate the darkness that surrounded them, here. If anything, they seemed to grow dimmer.
The monster burst from the earth, not the door. A giant made of bone and earth, pitted and corroded. Yellowing ribcages assembled into an arm, stuffed with rotting meat and dark soil. Legs made from femurs lashed together. The skulls of two great beasts, one horned and reptilian, the other like that of a cat, sat between the broad shoulders.
Khar wheeled around in terror. Riss had given the order. Those who had kept their mettle fired, a stench of burning meat filling the air. It was fruitless; the bones blackened, but not enough, not in time to stop one sweep of the arm – as long as any three warriors together would be tall – from scattering Khar’s forces like pebbles. Their flames died almost as soon as they were struck, lost in the umbra.
There was no reason to order a retreat – they were already running. If fire would not hurt it, nor would arrows, and so the Flamehearts fled.
Khar was among them. If they were shamed, they were shamed together. He fled with tears steaming from his eyes and his breath tearing at his lungs, the dead grass burning spectral green in his footsteps. He could feel the earth shake as the monster pursued with lumbering strides, but none of the warriors to his side or running ahead disappeared. Easy to follow in the dark.
I have failed but I will atone. I will not die here. I will avenge them. I will serve. I will atone.
He collided with someone with a strangled cry, the two falling into a heap of tangled limbs.
Khar struck out, and realized after his fist connected that he was fighting Likha. The rumbling of the beast seemed distant.
Likha held Khar’s wrists, panic making a rigid mask of his features, his hot breath in Khar’s face.
“We’re trapped!” He cried, and Khar slapped him.
“We are not trapped! We need only run out over the edge.”
“It’s gone!” Likha wailed.
Khar dropped him, got to his feet.
Likha was right. They were far enough from the tomb that they should be out of its dark influence, and yet the dead fields rolled out forever under the sparse and scattered stars. Khar pulled him to his feet.
“This… this must be a dream. An illusion,” he said. “We need only keep going-”
“We are doomed, Khar!” Likha laughed, a mad and desperate sound, turning and stumbling back towards the tomb. The Kindler watched flames going out in the dark nearby, knowing the monster was claiming more lives, and followed, grasping for Likha’s necklace.
“Stop! Stop, there’s no reason to-”
Likha drove him away with a backward elbow, and carried on. From laughter to tears. Khar tried again, and tripped, igniting the grass where he fell. A body. He was sure of it. He couldn’t look, only hauled himself to his feet and carried on.
He found Likha leaning heavily against the tomb, as if the strength had left his legs. He felt much the same, when he saw the spirit.
A man – a hu-man, Khar thought – pale and hairless, dressed in a close-fitting robe that covered his body from neck to heavy black boots. His colours seemed washed out, and his light step upon the earth betrayed his nature.
In one hand, he carried a silvery tool of unknown purpose, one which Khar had not seen before – like a crab’s claw at one end, fitted with a threaded cylinder, decorated with small circles engraved in the metal.
He spoke, mild, curious. Khar didn’t know the words.
At first, as the man approached, Khar thought he was as tall as his tomb. But no; he had fallen to his knees.
He spoke again, and Khar plead for his life. The man shook his head, sighed. His disappointment was palpable.
And then Riss wrapped her hands around his throat and pulled, clinging to his back. For a moment, the ghost staggered, it bent, cried out as if choking. Khar rose to his feet and his flames blazed brighter – and the choking became a laugh. The ghost stepped aside and Riss fell forward, losing her grip entirely, arms passing through him. Still chuckling, the ghost swung his weapon in a wide, rising arc, catching her under the chin with a harsh crack. Her flames dimmed as her body sailed through the air, out of sight.
Likha’s desperate laughter joined that of the ghost. The man with the silver club returned his misty gaze to Khar.
The Kindler called the fire from within himself. If he would die, it would be on his terms.
His failure denied him his place with the ancestors. I will be a star before oblivion.
His radiance blinded him before he died, but the ghost was recoiling. Its skin was blackening.
It can burn, he thought, and smiled into death.