5.3 – Scourge
„What happened here?“ said Brittle. Branch sighed, looking far older than she should be. „They came from the plains. We’ve become accustomed to strangers, of late. Wounded stragglers. Lost. Defeated.“ „We’ve noticed them too“. „We?“ asked Branch. Feeling that a gap needed to be filled, Cutting slid in to the tent beside Brittle. „Ah“ said Branch, her face cast in the expressionless mask of someone who can’t be surprised by anything anymore.
Branch bowed her head slightly. „Thank you“. If Brittle had been skeptical of the girl before, she had no reason to now. She was clearly in touch with her Deepheart, being able to both understand and communicate to her companion. Perhaps it was a given, with such a name. Seeming to just add Cutting to a growing knowledge base of wood maiden lore, Branch continued her line of thought unperturbed.
„We offered shelter to some of them, but our resources were limited. We had to show most of them off, ask them to seek refuge in the forest or further afield. The few that remained, some of them had come from quite far away, a small group had even traversed the mountain range. The majority were not able to articulate what had happened to them, and those that did were hard to understand. As if they were broken inside by what they had experienced. Me and…“ Branch looked briefly down at her prone mentor, „…Brilliance tried our best to glean what information we could from them, concerned as we are with the preservation of Memory. We feared that something like The Great Forgetting was happening again.“
Brittle shuddered inwardly. She remembered Briar’s nighttime stories of the Hardships that had befallen them. The Great Forgetting – the erasing of memory that had effected the entire world. The Frostfall – the sudden cold that had made the climate uninhabitable where they had used to live, in the wondrous paradise beyond the mountains, far far far beyond. The snap chill that had forced The Sisters Three – Brief, Breaker and Breem – and their children and children’s children to travel for months through the icy wastes, through the strange corridors of Hollow Mountain until they found the ring of trees where they made their first settlement. A settlement that was now reduced to ash and flame. „But…“ continued Branch „…this was something else. Those who could make some sort of sense, they spoke of fire. A destructive, all-consuming fire. A fire that almost seemed alive, sentient even, the way these poor people talked about it. A description, or name, kept reoccuring in their fragmented tales.“ Branch swallowed. „Scourge“.
Cutting shuddered as if reacting to some hidden energy within the name itself. Brittle’s tails too. A scent that translated into horrible desolation in Brittle’s mind filled the tent. It felt like…
[the deadening cloud of pheromones emitted by a swarm of egg-carrying killer wasps devouring the land]
„Yes“ said Branch and tried to stop herself from gagging „Precisely. The name reeks of imbalance“. Kindly, Cutting countered the stench with a sweet-smelling apology and opened the tent flap to let in some air.
„And then…then they came. From the plains. Like all the others. A handful of men. Only, they weren’t like the others at all. Their clothes, they were made of mmmmetal. Like the Morning Queen’s dress. Metal. Its name…its name…“ Branch clearly struggled with telling this, but it was as if she was desperately needing to get through it, like if recalling it all and sharing it with them was some life-necessary ritual. Branch bit her lip until she drew blood. A single drop fell from her mouth, landing in the still wet and glistening pool slowly oozing out from Brilliance’s fatal wound. The pool began to ripple like a pond when hit by a pebble, but it didn’t stop, it kept on going. As if the impact of the drop was repeated in a tangled loop of time.
The dream tent, thought Brittle. That’s what was doing it. Like when Briar had danced ailments and curses out of the bodies of the sick. Drawn out from their mouths, their nostrils, from every orifice, black miasma turning into creatures from the worst nightmares of the diseased. Then mother had…sniffed them. Inhaled people’s deepest terrors made manifest by the tent’s proximity to dream. Through the nose. And rattled all of her bones. „Don’t worry, little Brittle“ she had said, on more than one occasion. „It can’t hurt me. Not me, Briar, the Dancer on the Precipice. Plants thrive on shit. This is no different. To me, this is forest grape juice“.
This, however, this rippling blood, felt different. The braided girl was fixing all her attention on the perpetual red surge. She was muttering to herself.
„Iron. That’s its name. Iron. Iron. But not red and gold, like the suit of Bray. Black. Tinged with red. Iron. Iron. Iron. It craves blood because it is blood. Blood that is twisted and shorn off from the pool of life.“
In response the red pool swelled, forming an upright pillar, flat, like a board with sharp edges and a pointed end at the top. „Swwwwword“ continued Branch. „By our sword shall you perish. By our fire shall you be consumed. That’s what they said. That’s what they….shouted“.
The…sword…collapsed back onto itself and reemerged in five smaller versions, each one held by a curious figure of blood. They looked like humans encased in a layered shell, like the crayfish she remembered flourished at the bottom of the lake outside. They all raised their swords in one synchronized movement.
What? Brittle turned around, but all she saw was Cutting.
Brittle shook her head and returned her attention to the five figures. Their swords were all pointing towards the sky. Branch, still in her trance, chanted „Their eyes were burning. Their Deephearts churning. We have come to finish what was started. We have come to cleanse it all. We are…“
Two more figures grew out of the deep, dark redness. One tall, one small, connected by a braid. They held out their hands as if to ward off or placate. One of the five sliced the midsection of the tall one with his weapon.
As the tall one fell to the ground, all of the blood subsided and turned still. Branch blinked, her face ashen white as if her own veins had been drained to feed what they had just seen.
„And that is all. Brilliance fell and the next thing I recall is the two of us in the water, in the middle of the lake. I am swimming on my back, trying to hold her head high. As if it mattered. And the fire. The heat. Even that far out. Everything burning. It was like they said. The fire felt alive. Aware. Angry that I had escaped its grasp.“ Branch looked down at Brilliance and softly stroked the old one’s cheek. „I thought she could survive here, in the dream tent. But she had probably left me already, out there in the water.“ A look of grave concern crossed her face. „Did you see them out there? The ironclad ones?“
„No“ said Brittle, „Only the fire. But for all we know they might be here still, on the other side of the flames, admiring their handiwork“. Brittle’s tails shook slightly. „How can five people make a bonfire to rival the sun?“ „I think“, said Branch, „they are not people anymore. They felt empty to me, like discarded shells left by moulting crabs. As if they were mere vessels, their Deephearts engorged and deformed by…by whatever Scourge is, maybe the flames themselves, or the mangled spirit contained within them“.
„We will see if they have left“ said Brittle. „I will come with you“ said Branch, touching her braid, „Do you have a knife?“ Brittle was going to reply, but Cutting was quicker. He moved over to Branch and accompanied by a sharp, precise smell he quickly grew a viciously sharp and curved thorn from the back of his hand. With two snips he cut off the shared braid close to Brilliance’s skull. „Thank you“ said Branch, her calm composure still a marvel to Brittle.
Leaving Brilliance behind in the centre of things, the three of them exited the tent.