Part 5

Lights Amid the Darkness
Daiza bumped into Syll from behind. Her braid smelled of lavender.
Gillion paused and turned while Daiza backed up a step and scratched her nose, which Syll's hair had tickled.
"We're not stopping to pick our noses are we?" he asked.
Daiza flushed. "I wasn't picking my--"
"This is a nice big specimen," the raven-haired woman said, slapping a gray bole. "Perhaps one of us should go aloft and see what can be seen."
Lantern held aloft, Gillion gazed with displeasure at the tree. He looked to Syll. "What? Me?"
"You're the smallest."
"Does that make you the fattest?"
She ignored his sally with, to Daiza's mind anyway, unexpected grace.
"You're not in a skirt," she pointed out.
"That's fine. We'll trade." He began unbuckling his trousers.
"Leave 'em on," Syll told him. "You're a scout. Isn't that how Kalaena and you met? Well, this is a scouty thing."
"I'm retired."
"As of when?"
"As of when the trees got so creepy."
Syll rolled her eyes. "Be a man, Gillion."
"I thought today I was a boy."
"I could do it," Daiza said quietly.
Gillion looked over at her with something like panic. "Wait--no. I don't like that idea, either."
"So you'd send me up?" Syll asked sharply. "Is it because I'm not an innocent little girl like her?"
Daiza scowled. "Hey, I'm not--"
"What are you saying about me, Gillion?"
"Uh, no." Gillion waved his hand at her as if to calm her. "I'm in favor of sending you up because you don't have a big sister who will murder me if something happens to you."
"Kalaena would never--" Daiza tried to say.
"Where's your sense of chivalry?"
"Chivalry is great for those big bastards in clanky armor, but for guys like me--not so much."
"Come on, Gil. You're the best climber here and you know it."
"New idea: how about none of us go up the big creepy tree?"
Syll threw her hands up. "What is your problem?"
"I've spent a lot of time around trees. Like you said, I'm a scout. Well, my professional opinion is that the trees here feel wrong." He bit his lip. "It's almost like they could come alive any minute and start attacking us or something."
Syll turned to Daiza. "You hear this?"
She was about to answer but the dark-haired woman spoke first: "People attack trees. Trees do not attack people." Syll grabbed the hem of her skirt and pulled it up to display her arsenal. "Take a blade if it'll make you feel better."
It was a testament to how frightened he was that Gillion didn't even look. "What good would a knife do against wood?"
"It's not for the wood--it's for whatever actually attacks you. Because if there's an attack, it won't be a tree."
"I could go," Daiza repeated.
"So you admit there could be an attack?"
"No, I'm just trying to assuage your paranoia a little."
"You know the best way to do that? Go back to the ship. All in favor?" He raised his hand.
Syll narrowed her dark eyes at him. "Coward."
"Kept me alive this long, hasn't it?"
She turned to Daiza. "Did you want to go instead, lil' sis?"
"Let's get your skirt secured. We don't want to give the little pervert a show, do we?"
"Who you calling little?"
Although not particularly athletic, Daiza had climbed a number of ruined towers. It was part of the apprentice job description, actually. Her mentor made her fetch musty old tomes while he guarded the crumbling tower from below. He always insisted his was the more dangerous job.
Trees couldn't be much harder than ruins, could they?
They were not, as it happened, though in some ways they were more irritating. Towers didn't have brittle little sticks that clawed at your face or broke off and hung like dead men from your pigtails. On the other hand, the tree--unhealthy as it was--did not crumble or break in her fingers the way ancient masonry sometimes did. In that way, the climb was surprisingly terror-free.
When at last she was at the top, she took a steadying breath and looked around.
The island was a jumbled mess of trees around her. She could make out a farm or pasture in the distance, gray and untroubled by writhing branches. She thought she could make out crops, crops and--
"A light!" she called down. "Several lights! Look like torches from here."
"Excellent," Gillion called up. "Does the path lead to them?"
She squinted at the dreary landscape as the voices prattled on below:
"Listen to you, asking questions. I can't believe you sent a girl up there."
"I didn't send a girl anywhere," he shot back. "I was perfectly fine following the path. But now that she's up there, I might as well. And while we're on the topic..."
"That's not the only light I see," Daiza said, glancing down at her companions.
They weren't listening. Gillion was gesticulating wildly and whispering harshly at Syll. The dark-haired woman, meanwhile, held her head high and pretended to ignore him.
With another sigh, Daiza peered over the land.
There was another light, roosted high above the torch-fires, perhaps on a tower or hill. It was cold and yellow, like a candle seen through a window. Realizing she could never know for certain what it was--not from here, anyway--she instead scanned the forest carefully to see if she could spot the path.
She could not. The canopy was too thick. But she saw something else: a dim sort of glow among the trees ahead, a leprous, pulsing aura of fetid sickness.
She narrowed her eyes, studying the weird phenomenon.
A veil of misting rain fell from the island above. Because of the tethers, whatever aquifer or spring up there did not move. The water fell always on that same spot. Even from here, Daiza could see the trees were rotted from it, corrupted by the constant damp. The fetid glow was no doubt emitted by fungal blooms, growing thick and pale in the moist, rotting glade.
The thought of crossing that glade filled her with horror, so much horror that she almost didn't feel the thrum which suddenly reverberated through the island's dji energy. She closed her eyes. It felt like there was a giant guitar string running under the land and someone was plucking it, trying to find the right note. After a while she thought she recognized the 'finger' which plucked--it was Kuthaan. His interventions had a distinct feel to them, as unique as a person's voice.
What was that naked lunatic trying now? He very rarely used magic. He preferred to spend his time staring at grasshoppers or lecturing Daiza about the Balance. This thing he was doing was big. Really big.
Since there was no way to tell the point or purpose, she returned to her current and far more mundane task: straining to see if the path went through the leprous hollow. Perhaps, she reflected, they could strike cross-country and thereby avoid it.
But going off-trail had its own dangers. The forest was a dark, tortured place, with uneven ground and no moon or stars to navigate by.
Descending carefully, branch by brittle branch, she knew they would have to follow the trail, wherever it led--even into the corrupted glade.

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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