Cuana Chapter 10 Entry 9

The darkness was everything – it swirled about, gentle currents moving without direction or purpose, filling the vast realm of eternity with a primordial nothingness that hinted at sentience. Motes of light, multihued and tinier than specks of dust, blinked into existence in every direction, some floating lazily upon the currents of darkness, others seeming to struggle against the flows, like fireflies caught in the winds of an evening storm. Their flickering light began to strengthen, growing brighter as they increased in size. Their movement became less random, more uniform, following a wide, circular path and gradually increasing in speed as they continued to form a massive spiral in the thick, eternal darkness. As the lights grew in both size and speed, a distant sound became discernable. At first it was a faint hiss, such as the sibilant voice of the serpent, but as the lights grew brighter and increased the speed of their circular path, the hiss grew into a familiar sound – a voice, and I was suddenly aware of a sense of self. The voice had a familiar quality to it, but I was unable to place it. The lights began to coalesce, forming odd shapes of color within the darkness. More voices, and suddenly a tremendous sense of pain washed over me, threatening to plunge me back into the soft, comfortable darkness. A second voice – also familiar – cut through the pain, and I was aware of hands grasping me, pulling at me, and more pain wracking my senses. The light began to intensify, becoming nearly blinding in its radiance and I noticed in its center a darker shape was coming into focus. It was this that I concentrated upon as detail became clearer to me, ultimately resolving into the image of The Hyrkanian, a look of grave concern upon his face. I tried to speak, but only a rasping croak issued from my lips, whereupon he poured a few drops of water into my mouth and cautioned me to move with care. Recollection hit me like a sledgehammer, and I realized I had been pulled from the brink of death after having been skewered by that swine Gasparus as I lay helpless from the wracking pain magically inflicted upon me by that she-ape, Arisawe. I tried again to move, this time able to push the pain back far enough to climb to my hands and knees, fighting back a wave of nausea that nearly overwhelmed me. I remained as such for a few moments, collecting my wits as best I could until anger began to take over, lending me strength to seek the traitor who had struck me in such cowardly fashion. Rising to my feet, I saw my sword lay where it had slipped from my grasp at the edge of the pit. Gasparus lay still and pale in a pool of his own blood, the Stygian hovering over him. The witch lay dead a few feet away, an unnaturally pale – hued panther lying dead nearby. I turned to thank Xacksmith for his help, but he apologized for his inexpert work in stitching my hide, and credited the Northman in saving me by digging through my pack and finding the healing salve that he had applied to my wounds, thereby being the first to attempt to pull me back from my journey into the shadowed realm of death. I had to smile at that – as far as I am concerned, I am in debt to both of them for saving my life.

Tullweim and Dhak said they were going to put the spirit of the Pictish witch to the question before returning to the lair of the so-called demon lord of worms, and asked me to keep Lady Coelia away from the immediate area. I approached the Lady and asked her to walk with me for a short while, that the others had grim business to attend and that like me, she would wish to be away from it. She immediately assented, casting nervous glances back toward my friends as if she was starting to fear or mistrust them. I had begun to notice a difference about them as well, as if they had been beset by a dark mood, an irritability showing in their manner which was especially foreign in the normally jovial Aesir. The Hyrkanian followed, and we slowly made our way toward the outer rim of the sacred grove. Mist was heavy in the surrounding forest, limiting our vision past the edge of the grove and magnifying the sounds we made as we moved through the tall grass. As we were walking forward, Xacksmith called out that he had spotted movement in the misted tress ahead. That quickly drew the others, who investigated for a few minutes before declaring that who or whatever it had been was no longer there. The three of us sat down to rest while both Tullweim and Dhak returned to the altar and pit, and their grim preoccupation.

Nearly two hours passed before the two emerged, telling us to continue to the edge of the grove and to prepare to leave, and to avoid looking back as they had one more grim task to perform. I pulled Lady Coelia closer to me and in as soothing a manner as possible, advised that not looking back would be a very good idea indeed. She had become visibly frightened of my companions, especially the two who were heading back to where Gasparus lay unconscious. Lady Coelia slid in close to me, I placed my arm about her shoulders as she rested her head against mine, and the three of us relaxed, getting what small rest we could sitting at the edge of the grove.

The other two soon rejoined us, and after the Northman had stacked the bodies of the Druids upon a pyre and set it ablaze, we left the sacred grove heading southwest through the misted forest. Once again we entered the nearly impassible undergrowth typical of this godless tract that this accursed subhuman race of savages calls their home. We were barely out of sight of the grove when we were struck by a hail of arrows. Lady Coelia staggered as two of the shafts tore into her, the Stygian suffering likewise as at least two or three arrows hammered into him as well. The Hyrkanian dropped like a sack of rocks as a feathered shaft appeared to spring from his chest, and I took a nasty gash as a large arrow fired from a more powerful bow – possibly a Bossonian longbow – raked across my thigh. Tullweim chuckled grimly at the sound of two loud metallic clinks as both missiles fired at him ricocheted off his armor. I attempted to move in a direction that would place a large tree trunk between myself and the bowman that had already hit me, but I was struck once again and nearly lost consciousness, dropping to one knee and using all my concentration to keep my head clear. Summoning up the last of my reserves, I climbed back to my feet and managed to get to where the large tree trunk was between me and my attacker. A few deep breaths and I was able to steady myself. Quickly looking around I saw that Xacksmith was back up on his feet, both he and Dhak firing off arrows as quickly as they could load them. Tullweim was knocked down as one of the savages charged him, but he quickly climbed back to his feet as soon as that pale Nordic backside of his had hit the ground. An arrow or two flew at me from a new direction, my having moved out of sight of one attacker and into the range of another, but the missiles missed their mark and sailed past, leaving me unharmed.

Moving quickly, I came around the far side of the tree and rushed the bastard that had stuck me but wound up flat on my back as he managed to trip me up once I was close enough to strike him. This one was bigger than the rest and wore some kind of war mask typical of his kind – one that looked a bit like a startled beaver with a few feathers stuck onto it. Before he could make another move against me I was able to climb back to my feet and hack his shoulder so badly that his arm nearly fell off. His last few breaths gurgled in his throat as his lungs filled with blood, and another Pictish war chief was off to languish in the hell that awaits all such forest swine.

By this time, all the savages that had not fled were lying about in bloody heaps or with multiple shafts protruding from their carcasses, so we spent a few minutes patching ourselves up as best as we could before continuing on to the south-west. Sore and tired as we were, it was almost a pleasure to not have to endure the pompous ramblings of that swine Gasparus as we picked our way through the forest. The journey back was just as lengthy as it had been getting to the Ligurean grove, but this time we managed to avoid any truly serious attacks, encountering only small parties of the forest vermin that we were able to deal with quickly. Whether we were just lucky in not encountering any larger forces, or that they were all off in a different part of the forest as part of a mass attack on another settlement, we couldn’t say. When finally we did encounter a village of settlers after returning to the Westermark, we learned that much fighting had occurred in our absence, and that a number of settlements had been attacked and overrun, many settlers slain or forced to flee. I learned that the refugee settlement where I had left Hema and her sister was one such place, and I grew eager to learn of her fate. I asked many people – everyone who was there that I thought might have heard something of survivors from the village, but none had heard of a girl named Hema, or could anyone give me a clue as to what may have befallen her. I still carry the strip of purple silk she had given me for good luck.

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Cuana Chapter 10 Entry 9

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