Chapter Twelve Conscripts and Refugees
“Lay him there,” the voice said.
Somewhere more distant, he heard other voices. He was unable to recognize their words, so dense was the fog that had overtaken his mind. Something soft pressed against his back, and he relaxed against it. A door closed, heavy and loud and distant. Then footsteps came near.
“Vénes,” the voice said, clear in his mind, the only clarity that he had yet to find. “Can you open your eyes?”
Resisting his exhaustion, Vénes worked to comply. He failed, however, and remained motionless. A hand wrapped around his.
“Please, my friend,” the other urged. “You need to open your eyes.”
Again the sorcerer forced his body to move. This time, he was able to open his eyelids, slowly, and turn his heavy head towards the voice. Everything in his vision was white, and he could not see who had been speaking. Frightened, he squeezed the hand touching his.
“Shhh…” the voice soothed. “You cannot see right now; I can see the white clouds in your eyes. I think I know why, though.”
Vénes tried to reply, but his voice failed him.
“No, Vénes; do not try to talk. Just listen. You have strained yourself far beyond what your body can handle. I can help you, before it consumes you… as long as you stay calm. I am going to tap into the spiritual plane, my friend. You will be able to see me there, though you will not recognize me right away.”
The hand released Vénes’s. He could hear a few footsteps, and then chanting. Slowly, the milky white faded into something more ætherial; not darkness, but not light either. After a few moments of tense bewilderment, the deep-seated fatigue faded from Vénes’s consciousness. He began to feel more stable, though he still seemed to float rather than stand.
“Vénes, where are you?” the other man called out. “Where did you wander off to?”
The sorcerer turned around and uttered, in a voice free as light as a cloud, “I am here.”
“That is you?” The voice came from in front of him, though he could not yet see any form. “Magnificent!”
“Should I be able to see you?” Vénes asked, unsure what to expect.
“You haven’t been here before? What sorcerer has not visited the ætherial plane?”
“Most of them,” he replied, unsure whether he should feel offended. “We work in magic, not the fabric of reality.”
With a small laugh, the voice spoke back. “You say it as though it is dangerous. I am only accessing a more basic realm, one free from physical ties and boundaries.”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?” he asked in return. “Your astral form looks more like the fae mystics from the desert than an elf.”
Vénes stared out, not sure how to respond.
“I was right about something, wasn’t I? Listen, Vénes: I am right in front of you, but my form is entirely different from yours. You have to open your mind to it. Forget your expectations.”
“How?” he queried after standing in silence for some time.
He heard a disappointed sigh. “Right now, you are focused on what you expect to see. Even though you are open to all four alignments, there are other things in the world… things that you would not expect. Until you stop expecting, you will not be able to see me on this plane.”
Vénes focused his mind on letting go of his expectations, reminding himself that the aetherial plane was taught as being beyond description. Before long, a shining world was revealed to him. Starlight outlined a vast, quiet realm, one more ominous and grand than anywhere else he had ever been. Before him, contrasted to the silvery pinpoints above them, was a ghost of pale blue smoke and light. He floated towards it.
“I can see you now, but as you said, I do not recognize you.”
“I am glad,” the other said, seeming smile even though he had no visage to speak of. “You have hardly known me for long, but I am already grateful to you. It’s me, Shu-Giri Shentaren.”
Vénes considered what the other said. Though he saw no resemblance to the whimsical pink-and-green-haired elf, he had no reason to doubt his words.
“What happened to me?”
Shu-Giri paused, trying to decide how best to reply. “Do you remember nothing? The spell that you cast?”
That much felt familiar. “So it was not a dream.”
“Your brother worries that you over-stepped the boundaries set by the academy of magic. What you cast was too much holy magic, and it destroyed a lot of evil beings. It has upset the balance of the alignments within your being.”
Vénes nodded and went on listening.
“The holy power is trying to overtake you. If I do not intervene, it will consume you and take you away to Kearr’s realm. You have effectively made an offering of yourself.”
“Consume?” The sorcerer was incredulous. “Holy magic can do that?”
“Certainly, my friend. You went too far with the power that you called forth. But listen; I cannot discuss that with you now. I have noticed that part of you has been lost already.”
The words stung Vénes, who had not expected to be reminded of his past.
“A long history, is it? I don’t mean to pry, but the fact is your wounded heart leaves you weak against the magic consuming you. Can you forgive me, and let me heal you?”
The æther fell silent as Vénes considered Shu-Giri’s request. He stared at his ghostly form. The intentions that he sensed from him were entirely good. He believed that his situation was indeed dire, and that it could also worsen from there.
“Aye, Shu-Giri,” Vénes replied. “I trust you.”
“Splendid!” Shu-Giri was elated, and bounced in front of the sorcerer. “I want you to repeat what I say.”
Vénes nodded, and Shu-Giri began chanting. He followed along, although he hardly understood what he was saying.
“Heart of mine, beat for all the world. Share your life, and share your rhythm. Heal this broken soul; grant him peace, the chance to roam the land. Let him carry out his days, to forge his mortal destiny.”
“Return balance to my body and spirit,” Vénes found himself saying when Shu-Giri paused, though he could not tell where the words came from. “Keep my life-force strong, until I am ready at last to return it to you.”
Before him, the Jzamneh spirit seemed to split open. It reached into itself, revealing a mass of shining crystal. Vénes found his gaze transfixed on its colors and the sparkling glow.
“Now… I will give you a piece of my heart,” Shu-Giri intoned, his voice deep and somber. “I trust you to look after it, and guard it well.”
Shu-Giri grasped a facet of the starry crystal, pulling at it until it snapped away. He gasped, and bore down against the wound. “Accept this piece of me, Vénes of the Desert. Live by it and be strong.”
Reaching the shard towards the sorcerer, Shu-Giri let his aura resonate with the other. Their colors, even their forms, began to blend. Vénes felt himself open up, just as the other had. The hand reached into him, then pressed the crystal against his own heart. He looked down to see rays of light pouring from him as the pieces merged together and became one. When Shu-Giri stepped back again, his form had changed.
“Shu-Giri…” he whispered.
“You shared something with me, too, Vénes. Do I look beautiful this way?”
The wispy, playful blue cloud that he had been was now wrapped in sigils and flowery fractals, the ambient colors flowing from one to the next.
Startled by the question as well as Shu-Giri’s sudden change in appearance, Vénes could only agree. “Of course. But more importantly–”
“We should go back,” Shu-Giri interrupted. “I need to rest, and so do you.”
“But your heart!”
Shu-Giri shook his head and began chanting another spell. Before Vénes could protest any more, he felt the ties of his physical body return to him, along with the weariness and aching that has overcome him before. This time, he could at least see, though everything still glowed with a white aura. He found himself on an altar in a round room. Aside from where he laid, the only other adornment of import was a carving of Jenh.
Beside him, the treasure-hunter laid asleep on the floor, restful and quiet. Vénes watched him for a moment, noticing a lock of black among his pink hair before he laid his head back down and closed his eyes.
Darkness stretched out in every direction. One could only tell the walls from the walk-space by touch. Somewhere to his right and in the distance, he heard the grinding of metal on stone, then the wail of a fellow swordsman; he assumed that it was a trap that got him. It was a terrible sound to have to hear in the darkness, no matter how well he was used to the sounds of battle.
He remembered seeing Z’Lé’s army march down the mountains into his kingdom months ago. They had raided his beautiful blue city and marched through his home, searching for anything that might be of use to them, and taking him with them as a conscript. Now he was here in one of Jzamneh’s dungeons, facing traps and beasts, an unwilling combatant in the name of the Onsiran Empire.
He couldn’t understand how he’d gotten into the labyrinth so soon after entering the forest; nobody in the army understood the tribal magics or tricks of Jzamneh. They only knew that the emperor had ordered them to conquer it. Taken from his home by the waterfalls of K’hithvahn, he and others from his kingdom, and from other conquered lands, had been forced to march with the imperial army. They had walked from his home, past the mountains, and through the neighboring realm of Rrévihn to get to the edge of the whimsical forest.
He missed his home, the sound of waterfalls, the ramadas, pools, and plazas lined with blue and white tiles. He wanted to go back to the clear waters, even if the city was in ruins, so that he could rebuild it. He’d had enough of shuffling through the darkness, his hand on the wall to keep steady, only to find a wet patch that was too warm and sticky to be the water that he’s first assumed it was. He was too horrified to admit that it might be blood.
He wondered whether he would befall the same fate. He also had to admit that he didn’t know whether that fate was a survivable injury or death; a trap or an attack; beast or elf; imperial or conscript.
Eventually, he had stopped moving altogether. How long ago, he had no way of tracking. For a while, he’d been able to gauge the time by his remaining rations, but now they were gone. His strength would leave him soon, and he had begun to think of his own death, deep underground, deep beneath the forest. He would have to choose between dying in that spot, too afraid to move, or dying by whatever trap he might set off whilst wandering the maze in search of a way out.
Not wanting to simply give up, he forced himself back to his feet. He fought back the fatigue, leaning against the wall as he crept forward. If he came to a corner, he turned with it. His hand slid over the brick walls, checking for slits that arrows could pass through and hoping that he did not activate some kind of trap. He moved closely, not wanting to trip and trying not to think about the textures beneath his feet. Sometimes the ground was firm and dry, sometimes it was wet and the hallway smelled of moss, and other times he kicked aside a sword or had to step over what he presumed was a body.
He wanted to be out of the ground. Really, he wanted to be gliding through the rivers of his homeland, swimming in the ocean alongside its magnificent creatures, but he would settle for being above ground.
Something in the corner of his eye caught his attention.
“A light…?” He glanced to the right, where a tiny sphere of pink light floated far above him, like a flower petal drifting on a breeze.
“Can it be real?” The soldier turned and stepped towards it, only to catch his foot and fall on a long line of steep stairs that ascended up into the shadows.
“Aerlia sphae inda?” a small voice called out.
He got back to his feet and stared up at the light. “A faerie?”
Another sphere came into view, this one silvery white.
“Please, help me get out of here!” he called to them as he climbed the stairs towards the lights. “I mean you no harm!”
“You are a warrior in the name of the emperor,” one of the faeries called back. “We shall not help your kind.”
“By no choice of my own!” he tried to explain. “I beg of you; I long only to return to the waters of K’hithvahn.”
The faeries came close, looking him over. In the light that they shed, he was able to get a better look at the stairs he’d tripped over; he was eager to ascend them and find an exit.
“He is no demon, at least,” one said to the other.
They spoke between themselves for a few moments in the Fae language before fluttering away into the darkness. He watched their lights fade, and then waited there at the bottom of the stairs, hoping for his head to stop spinning. He knew that it was a vain hope, though, given his hunger and exhaustion. As difficult as it was, his resolve to find an exit was strong, and with faeries to light his way, he felt that he had a chance to find Ser’s light one last time.
He forced his feet to begin taking the narrow stairs, one careful step at a time. “Wait, please!”
He reached for the faerie-light, but it seemed out of his reach no matter how many steps he climbed. It disappeared around a corner. He followed it, and found more stairs illuminated there. The light, however, was not from the faeries. He leaned against the corner, his breaths heavy, the light burning his eyes. They had no time to adjust before a weight wrapped around his tired body, pulling him backwards. He at first thought that he’d fallen, but the pressure on his neck told him that somebody was holding him. He realized that he’d been captured, and powerless to resist it.
“Oh so foolish a beast is he who comes into our forest,” threatened the voice of his captor. “Now, you’re going to answer our questions, and don’t even try lying to us!”
He felt the arm press against his throat as he was forced up the stairs. Eventually, his vision cleared, and he could see his captors curls of colorful hair glowing in the light of a torch. He was relieved to be among other elves, ones not part of the imperial army. Even though the Jzamneh distrusted him for the time being, they gave him hope that he might see his homeland, before his strength, his life-force, altogether failed him.
In the shade of the trees outside Shu-Giri’s home, Vincent sat with his harp, filling the air with his song. He had spent the entirety of the week doing so, waiting for his brother to recover. He wished have that he had seen it, the magic surging through the forest, insurmountable and purifying. Having grown up watching Vénes constantly studying and practicing magic, he’d hoped to see what power Vénes had come into.
As much as he worried about his brother’s condition, Vincent was glad that whatever evil had been pouring into Jzamneh had been vanquished. Now that Vénes’s holy magic had purified the demons and lost souls, Vincent felt content to sing of peace and legends and beauty. He had considered writing a song to tell the story of how the sorcerer had come to Jzamneh, and of his vanquishing the evil that had tried to infect it; Vénes would probably want to hear nothing of it.
The tenets that sorcerers were expected to uphold were complicated. In exchange for the gifts of the four alignments, they were expected to maintain a level of balance between them. They were not expected to defend any one of the four when it was threatened, but they were also disallowed from showing preference for one deity over the others. Assisting or defending those in need was not considered to be a violation of those tenets, so long as they were not aiding or attacking the gods themselves.
The schools of sorcery acknowledged that a sorcerer’s actions were their own, but warned that constant use in one realm could mean weakness in another. Vénes had chosen long ago to flee from the darkness of the Demon Lord, but he did not like to be reminded of his reasons. At the same time, he did not uphold Kearr’s light to any great level; that, too, he kept silent about.
“My brother is so sensitive,” the bard thought to himself, “no matter how much he pretends to be strong of heart.”
Vincent was in the middle of another song when he heard footsteps approaching the village, joined by the sound of animals. He looked up from his harp to see two k’hivs approaching, carrying three riders between them.
They were handsome beasts, strong and agile, but also docile. Their long necks, with small and narrow heads and dark eyes laden with curiosity, were balanced by their tails. They walked on two legs, with long, broad feet to support their gait, and were covered with honey-colored fur that was both thick and soft. Their forearms were less robust, useful for picking up items and gathering food, but not made for fighting. Whereas k’hets were best for hauling and farming, k’hivs were used for riding. They were fast and agreeable, and were good at navigating a wide variety of terrains. The Jzamneh elves tended to use decorative bridles and saddles, and these two were no different.
The riders halted in front of the doors to Shu-Giri’s home. They nodded to Vincent as they descended, bringing a third elf, a foreigner in filthy leather armor, with them. Even though he looked too exhausted to flee, one of the Jzamneh elves held him tightly. The foreigner was tall and lanky, his black hair– just as dirty as the rest of him– tied at the top of his head. Grime was smeared across his face his face, along with blood, though he didn’t appear to be wounded. Vincent guessed by his sculpted features and his watery blue eyes that he was from K’hithvahn, which is turns made him wonder why he was in Jzamneh Forest.
The three of them entered Shu-Giri’s house without acknowledging the bard, leaving the k’hivs to wander in the grass, nibbling on flowers and leaves. One found a patch of mushrooms and pulled them from the ground with its lean forearms. It looked at Vincent curiously as it ate, seeming unafraid and slightly interested in him.
Vincent relaxed against the wall and went back to his singing.
Inside, the elves asked to see the village chief. They were shown to the treasure-filled hall by the household maid, where they waited on silk-embroidered cushions for their host. Their captured soldier sat patiently, content to be out of the darkness in which he had been lost. Though his captors had tried to threaten him, he did not seem bothered by it. He was away from the imperial army at last. For him, matters were beginning to improve.
Food and drink arrived long before Shu-Giri did. They shared it between the three of them, thus restoring much of the foreign warrior’s strength. The Jzamneh, it should be noted, were not cruel or insensitive elves; they would defend their forest without hesitation, but they never tortured their captives. As long as their forest was safe, they were happier with treasure and merriment than with power.
Eventually, Shu-Giri entered his treasure hall, Mearrk’hal at his side. He plopped his body onto his favorite the pillows and grinned at his guests. “Greetings, my brethren! I see that you have eaten. How grand!” He ignored Mearrk’hal’s displeased expression and went on. “What have you brought for me this fine day?”
“We found this soldier in the Labyrinth of Shadows, Chief,” one of the elves answered. “He was there among other members of Z’Lé’s army, but claims that he wanted no part in their conquest. The faeries sensed no evil in him, so we brought him for you to judge.”
Shu-Giri looked over the foreigner. He could tell that he was thin despite the layers of armor, and tall as well. His hair fell across his back in black lines; if not for the time it had spent uncombed and littered with grime, it could have been as smooth and straight as arrows. What interested Shu-Giri most were the streaks of blue that ran through his hair. Those he recognized.
“We took this sword from him, Chief.” One of the elves handed Shu-Giri a short sword, sheathed in a scabbard of the same leather that the soldier wore. He looked it over, and then glanced back at the captive.
“Methinks you have little interest in so simple a blade,” he said matter-of-factly. “I am Shu-Giri Shentaren, leader of the Jzamneh villages. If you will, tell me the story of how you came to be found by my people in so dangerous a maze as the Labyrinth of Shadows.”
The foreigner nodded and collected his thoughts. He began by explaining the way the Onsiran Imperial Army had invaded his homeland. He recounted the tale of the soldiers invading his village, of buildings falling under their axes and maces, and of elves dying by black-edged swords. He then told Shu-Giri of being taken into the army and forced to march along with it. He had yet to find a chance to flee in the night, since the conscripts were closely guarded. He could not say exactly how many others there were, but they took captives from nearly every village they rampaged.
“We passed south, with the mountains in our view, through Rrévihn and to the edge of the forest. We had orders to take the forest by whatever means possible, but when we marched through the archway leading into the forest, we found ourselves marching into a dungeon.”
“That will do,” Shu-Giri told him. “You’ve come a long way from K’hithvahn, stranger. I believe my friend here would be willing to have you taken back.” He gestured to the shaman.
“You believe his tale?” one of the elves who had brought him in asked. “Just like that?”
“Of course I do. Surely you know of the water elves.” Shu-Giri waited for him to agree before continuing. “He has the blue markings on his skin that any water elf would have. No doubt they were hard for you to see down in the labyrinth… and under all that dirt. Your name for a bath, newcomer. We shall see you cared for and returned to your realm.”
“Amaten,” he answered, smiling at the kind-hearted chieftain. “Many thanks for your trust and assistance.”
“The name means ‘water dweller,’ doesn’t it?” Mearrk’hal translated. “I had only just recently heard of such invasions before leaving Ayafir. I had not expected to see evidence of it so soon. Do you know anything of the Empress, Amaten?”
“Only that her son Loracaz is now Onsira’s crowned prince. Anything else we hear about Onsira relates the Emperor.”
“We do not expect to keep you long in our forest.” Shu-Giri said as he rose from the pillows. “My people will look after you whilst you are here. You can do with the armor and short sword what you wish; I know of no water elf who would wear that willingly.”
“My thanks again, milord,” he replied.
This drew a great laugh from the pink-eyed elf. “I am no lord, Amaten; merely the greatest treasure-hunter in all of Jzamneh!” He laughed still as he invited him to stay in his home, and left the room to attend to his resting friend upstairs.
The two elves who had brought Amaten to the village smiled to one another. They stood and offered their hands to him. Knowing that Shu-Giri believed him, they had no further reason to distrust him. They no longer considered him a soldier of the imperial army, but a fine elf from a powerful kingdom.
“Welcome to Jzamneh Forest,” one of them told him.