Category Archives: 5.08
Adrenaline pumped through Chaff’s body like liquid fire. In that instant, he took in everything around him. Visibility was significantly impaired by the thick mist, as was mobility by the mud and marsh water. Al Innai seemed to stand on the only piece of dry land in sight, wrapped as it was by the engorged tree root. Straight-backed pines jutted from the water, with even straighter branches fanning out in every direction. They would take his weight, Chaff was sure. Would they take a grown man’s?
In that split second, Chaff made his decision. “Up and out, big guy!” he shouted, leaping onto the strait of dry land. He weaved past Al Innai, heading straight for the tallest tree he could see. It was still nothing compared to the behemoth that the great root fed, but it was a start. It could have been just an inch higher than Al Innai’s reach and Chaff wouldn’t have cared, so long as he was safe.
Al Innai turned leisurely, tossing a limp owlcrow onto the ground. The bird twitched weakly, its wings bent at grotesque angles, but Chaff did not have time to worry about that.
“Give us a little chase, wild child,” said Al Innai, rolling his head and cracking the bones in his neck. “Give the Ladies a little entertainment tonight.”
Chaff jumped, wincing as his calloused feet found purchase on the rough bark. He looked over his shoulder. Where was the big guy?
The camelopard cantered towards him, towards safety, when Al Innai struck. Chaff gaped in utter shock as Al Innai took one long stride forward, and with his other leg pivoted and swept under the big guy’s body. While he was under the camelopard’s belly, Al Innai forced his hands upwards. For a brief moment, the man hoisted the five-meter beast bodily off the ground, and the camelopard’s hooves kicked at empty air.
Then Al Innai pushed. Essentially flipping the big guy to his side, the Kennya Noni fighter heaved the camelopard off of him, and the big guy landed with a shuddering thud on the ground. His breath not even labored, his walk measured and composed, Al Innai strolled back towards Chaff, leaving the boy’s friend kicking and struggling in the mud.
Pragmatism kicked in. Chaff hauled himself upward, digging in with his hands and feet as he desperately gained height. His arms were thin, and scrawny: he had never been quite as fast as the other racers.
At last, Chaff reached a branch so thin and whippy that it could not hold even his weight. He looked down, and immediately regretted it. It was a dizzying drop down, and Chaff knew from experience that the water would do nothing to soften the fall. It would hit him harder than a brick wall. He tightened his grip. This was the safest place for him to be. His friends on the ground, however…
“You crazy, yeah?” shouted Chaff, as Al Innai walked, apparently unconcerned, up to the base of the tree. “You come all this way, Innai-Innai? Just for me?”
“You walk with me, you follow my rules. You break my rules, I lay down the law.” Al Innai craned his head upward as he approached. “Royya left after your little escapade, you know that? Crazy bitch just disappeared. That, and your little friend, and so your run took out half my fucking group. Half my manpower, half my eyes. You think I’m just gonna let that go?”
“So you go through the whole marsh?” shouted Chaff, incredulously. “Just to get me?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, kid, I’ve got nowhere to go back to. Shira Hay is at war.” Al Innai cracked his knuckles. “It’s real simple, kid. You made my life miserable. Now I’m gonna end yours.”
And he leaped.
Chaff could not believe how fast Al Innai moved. The boy had been right about the tree not holding the grown man’s weight, but that wasn’t stopping the plainsman. Al Innai clawed at the tree, launching himself up bark that crumbled even as he climbed.
The boy cast wild eyes around. His treacherous sanctuary had ensnared him. The other trees stood a taunting distance away from him, beckoning with their outstretched branches. Chaff braced himself. It was a manageable distance.
He shook his head. These were not the roofs of Shira Hay anymore. A wild jump could send him flying past his target, and while Chaff might not have been the smartest urchin on the block, he had survived all those years by not taking unnecessary risks.
The only out was down.
Chaff could waste no time regretting his decision. He took a deep breath and hopped to the next lowest branch, just as Al Innai crawled up to meet him. The fighter’s hand grabbed Chaff’s ankle, and Chaff felt his stomach leap to his throat as he pivoted around Al Innai’s arm.
Dangling upside down, Chaff had a second to react. The boy reached out for the nearest branch, and despite his misgivings, pulled. Using the branch as a platform to propel himself out of Al Innai’s grip, Chaff dragged his body down. Gravity helped, and Al Innai let go with a startled grunt as the boy hurled himself towards a fall that would kill him. They were both falling now, scraping at the trunk of the tree and each other as the ground raced towards them.
His fingers dug into the bark. Chaff roared in pain as the wood snapped and stabbed at his hand, long splinters digging into his fingernails, but he could not let go. He flailed as he fell, and his other hand closed around a sturdy support.
Tears rose unbidden in Chaff’s eyes as his arm jerked. There was an audible, hollow sound: the click and pop of bone as Chaff’s shoulder was pulled out of its socket. He hung there, fingers frozen out of shock, his dislocated shoulder throbbing.
Blinking rapidly, Chaff looked around. He had seconds before his hand gave out and let go. Where was the enemy? Where was Al Innai?
He dropped, and a jarring pain ran through his body as he landed on his tailbone. Chaff winced, propping himself up on his uninjured arm. His vision spun as he tried to get his bearings; everything below was mud brown, everything above was misty white. Al Innai could have been two feet from him and he wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“Big guy?” shouted Chaff, his mouth dry. “Lookout?”
He stumbled forward, and his foot prodded a body. Chaff fell to his knees. “Lookout?” he whispered, holding her chin, her face. Blood crusted the side of her head, and her head was twisted at an odd angle. She wasn’t moving.
“Lookout?” Chaff asked, again. He blinked tears from his eyes, and they had nothing to do with the pain in his shoulder. “Lookout, I need you.”
She didn’t respond.
Uncontrollable gasps began to shake Chaff’s body. “Lookout, please, please,” he whimpered. “It…it does get tiring. Leaving people behind. It gets tiring, yeah? So please don’t leave me behind. Please, Lookout, please. I don’t want to live in a world of strangers.”
He grabbed Lookout’s wrist and shook her arm. He couldn’t see anything but a watery blur, couldn’t hear anything but a static buzz. But he could feel the ache in his chest. He could feel the black loneliness surround him again. He could feel…
Chaff could feel a pulse.
Cold relief washed over him at the same time as a wave of fear. He had to get Lookout out, now. He wouldn’t go through losing her again.
Chaff could barely breathe, his muscles hurt so much, as he put his arms under Lookout’s shoulders and began to drag her away. She was bigger than him, and heavier, although that wasn’t saying much. Chaff dragged her through the mud, panting, sweating. “Big guy!” he shouted. “Big guy, I can use some help!”
He searched the mist for the big guy’s familiar silhouette, but it was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone? Had he, too, been injured when Al Innai had pushed him aside? “It’s me you want, Innai!” shouted Chaff, cheeks flushed. “It’s me! Leave the rest of them alone!”
“Make me,” growled a voice from behind him, and before Chaff could turn or run, something hit him in the back of the head so hard he nearly blacked out.
He crawled backwards out of pure reflex, as Al Innai advanced on him. It struck Chaff just how calm the Kennya Noni fighter was, how deliberate and relaxed his actions were. How many times had he laid down his law? How many times had he killed children in the wilds?
“You don’t pay attention to what I tell you to do,” said Al Innai, and he pressed his foot on Chaff’s chest. Mud splattered Chaff’s shirt. “Why should I pay any heed to you?” Al Innai stared at Chaff. His expression seemed almost bored, except for his eyes. They were alight, and burning with anger a sane man couldn’t hope to achieve.
Chaff couldn’t respond. Half submerged in mud and marsh water, he couldn’t seem to draw breath as Al Innai pressed and pressed, and black spots were beginning to appear in his already spinning vision.
“Maybe I’ll bury you instead of your book. Maybe the Lady Fall will like you if you’re still squirming,” Al Innai mused, as Chaff’s weak fingers clawed ineffectually at Al Innai’s ankle.
The boy’s head fell to the side. He saw him again, a silhouette in the mist. The bark-made man watched with eyes made of amber, always at a distance, never quite close enough for Chaff to make out the details.
Chaff didn’t have the breath for words anymore, but he had enough energy to mouth the word.
“Help,” he whispered.
And then several things happened at once.
A bass roar filled the marsh, a deep and terrible sound that shook Chaff’s very bones. The thunderous bellow continued to crescendo, and as Chaff stared at the wooden man’s silhouette something else emerged from behind it in the mist.
The poltergeist of the marsh had swollen to three or four times its previous size. It barreled past the bark-made man, sweeping him aside with a crushing blow that Chaff swore could have toppled one of the great hollow trees of Shira Hay. The poltergeist seemed more beast than man, a writhing mess of vines and sloshing water that galloped forward on all fours, and even as it ran it seemed to grow in size.
At the same time, the big guy arrived. Eyes wild, prancing with nervous energy, the camelopard ran straight for Chaff—and he wasn’t alone.
Behind him rode the marshman Wozek, and the monstrous spiderwhale. Gopal and Sri were there, too, clinging for dear life to the spiderwhale’s back. “Where the hell are you taking-!?” shouted Wozek, but he stopped. He had seen.
Al Innai didn’t have time to cry out. He stepped off Chaff’s chest, eyes widening, mouth gaping, and was just about to sprint away when a vine-made hand with too many fingers closed around his waist. Chaff gasped for breath, unable to take his eyes away from the Kennya Noni fighter as he kicked and struggled in the now gargantuan poltergeist’s fist.
“Piece of the father, tried to kill our brother,” mumbled the poltergeist, in the same, mournful tones, except now its voice echoed throughout the marsh. “Doesn’t he know? Our essence is energy, and energy never dies.”
Al Innai beat his fists on the poltergeist’s hand, but the poltergeist did not even seem to notice.
“Our essence is energy,” it repeated, its sad green eyes flickering. “And energy never dies.”
Its other hand closed around Al Innai’s head, and Chaff could hear Al Innai’s terrified scream suddenly muffled by the mass of vines and plant matter. There was a creek, a groan like timber falling as the poltergeist’s arms stiffened, and then the poltergeist pulled.
Chaff saw Al Innai’s spine rip out of his body as his entire torso was torn from his waist. Blood spattered the ground, dark scarlet rain that landed on Chaff’s face. The boy felt ready to be sick as both halves of Al Innai’s body fell from the poltergeist’s hands: his head and shoulders crushed to a pulp, his lower body leaking guts and shit.
The boy backed away, twitching and shuddering, as slowly, inexorably, the poltergeist’s face turned towards them. The jade fire in its eyes seemed to burn hotter than the sun and stars.
“Hunger, hunger, can’t be sated,” it muttered, staring. “Green star, mother of spiders, she’s inside me. Can’t be helped. Sorry, sooorrry.” Its voice deepened and distorted on the last word, as it took a step forward.
“Lookout, wake up!” shouted Chaff, pulling at the girl’s shoulders. He slapped her cheek, the adrenaline overriding the pain in his shoulder and chest. “Lookout, we have to go! We have to go now!”
The big guy nickered and reared, biting down on Chaff’s collar and pulling him away. Behind him, the spiderwhale clicked and hissed, as Wozek shouted for Gopal and Sri to get to safety.
“Big guy, we can’t go now! Lookout!” Chaff struggled and twisted, his shirt tearing as he tore free. His tabula clattered into the mud as he stumbled away, but he didn’t care. “We can’t go without her! We’re not leaving her behind!”
The first impact between the poltergeist and the spiderwhale was nowhere near close enough to touch Chaff, and yet it still knocked him off his feet. The poltergeist cracked a fist over the spiderwhale’s back that could have crushed a house flat, while the beast dug mandibles into the poltergeist’s waist from which water leaked like blood. A humming so loud that it echoed with their titanic blows came from Wozek, as the marshman held on tight to the spiderwhale’s back.
Chaff watched with shock and awe as he knelt in the mud, his body taxed to the limit.
And overhead, he heard a familiar screech.
Sinndi’s flight was crooked, yes, barely even off the ground, but she was flying. And if the owlcrow was conscious, that meant…
“What the fuck did you do, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She gripped her head as she rose, stumbling away from the fight the moment she raised her head. “Where’s Al Innai? Did he summon that?”
Her gaze slid downwards to the body, or at least half a body, sinking into the swamp, and she rolled over, retching.
“Let’s go now, big guy,” said Chaff, limping forward. “Now’s the time to go, yeah?” He bent down to collect his tabula, but no sooner had he done so when another impact knocked him flat.
“Essence burning, five in one,” said the poltergeist, staggering away towards Chaff and Lookout. The spiderwhale was alive, as was Wozek, but three of the spiderwhale’s great legs looked to have been snapped in two and it was bleeding profusely from its right side. “There shall be four, and a fifth to come.”
“Chaff…” muttered Lookout. “Please tell me you’re on good terms with that thing.”
Chaff answered by running. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of this one, but running seemed like a good way to start.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” muttered the poltergeist. Chaff tripped! He went sprawling into the mud, the tabula in his hands falling into the mud. They tumbled out, three golden disks that reflected the green fire in the poltergeist’s eyes. “All rivers flow to me.”
As Chaff struggled to rise, he saw Lookout bend down to collect his tabula. She looked at them, and then at Chaff, and then at the monster looming above him.
“Fuck it,” said Lookout, grabbing one of the tabula. “Whatever you’ve been holding out on us, Chaff, it better be good.”
Chaff looked up. It wasn’t his tabula, or the big guy’s. It had a single crack running down its face.
“Not here,” Chaff whispered, tears running down his mud-streaked face. “Not here.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her.