Esterra Stake stumbled over a human ribcage, twisted almost beyond recognition. She landed on her crippled right arm, which buckled and dumped her face-first into bones and grey powder. Lifting herself up, she spat out a mix of saliva and bone-dust, swearing. Her bags were coated in flakes of the damned stuff, as was her entire front. She continued walking between the close-packed trees, which spun a web of twisted roots beneath her boots.
Dust everywhere, without a drop of moisture in the air. This tract was different from any of the magical wastes she had yet travelled. Bones ground into dust, giant trees with the deformed skeletons of various animals crushed in the folds of the trunks and branches, and not a blade of grass to be seen. The distant red sun, setting just over the tract’s wall, gave little light here, even less than normal. But the pale yellow glow from the leaves above illuminated the horror of this tract all too well.
Stake didn’t mind the animal bones. She didn’t mind the human femurs and skulls either. But the twisted nature of the bones suggested a high magic count, one which affected creatures when they were still alive, still growing. Her atrophied right arm was already throbbing. It wanted to play.
Hefting her pack, she cocked her head, listening. Dead silence. She spat to the side again. The last hollow had been waterless, too. Thank the stars it had at least been cold. Heated hollows could fry a person, especially if the licht, the magic, had seeped into them. Enough licht could make any place unpredictable, and the confines of the hollows only increased that.
Her right arm hadn’t broken in the fall, thank the stars. She knew when to count her blessings in this merciless world. As much as she hated her condition, it could be worse. Dark thoughts dragged her mind over the broken glass of her memories, remembering the twisted mutations she had encountered in her travels. The things she had seen, the lines of humanity blurred indistinguishably with those of animal, of monster, and of things yet unnamed. Yes, she should count her blessings, indeed.
A sudden hooting sound filled the air, ending in a dying shriek. Damn it. She’d been right. This tract wasn’t as dead as it appeared. She ducked under a branch and began to run. She had no time to look back, focused completely on the roots, stepping with her toes. One slip between them and she’d break an ankle. Dust puffed up around her quick, silent steps. Her right arm hung useless, a counterweight she managed with years of habit. She could only move the shoulder and upper muscles these days. From the elbow down, it hung dead.
Every step shook some grey-white dust from her ragged, chestnut coat and grey pants, leaving a trail hanging in the air behind her like a ghostly retinue. The silence was broken only by her pattering footsteps, and her heightened breathing. The dim light of the leaves made her run treacherous, and she had to force her eyes back to the ground, even though she knew something was tracking her.
Somewhere behind her the hooting shriek came again. Closer. Her right arm throbbed with a dark need. Esterra ground her teeth. Distracted, she slipped in the dust, crashing down onto her back. She grunted, glad her head hadn’t slammed against wood, then rose to her feet. Now she had to face what was going to eat her.
A dark grey wolf was loping toward her. It had no eyes, just ravenous jaws and flaring nostrils, and three legs. The elongated back leg protruded forward between the forelegs in each step, the three clawed toes gripping roots before hurling its weight forward. It stood about six feet, she judged. Damn. Her right arm spasmed, insistent. No, I will not.
She turned and ran, ducking between the trees and clambering over twisted roots. The wolf behind her did not slow, saliva frothing on its razor teeth as it charged. Roots cracked under it’s weight. She wasn’t shocked by its uncanny ability to dodge trees without the faculty of vision. She had seen stranger things in the past. The bone dust billowed behind her feet as she stepped and jumped and slipped through the forest. Mere seconds later, the cloud tore apart as the wolf burst through, mutated teeth slashing at nothing.
The creature closed in, biting at her heels now. Esterra dived behind a tree, shoulder slamming into the roots. She swore, jumping up as claws slammed down right where her feet had been. She only had a knife, and she’d be dead before she came within arms-length of the beast. Her vision was blurred by the clouds of white dust that the hunt was raising. The sick yellow light of the leaves cast deceptive shadows. Esterra bent down, frantically searching through the decaying bones and fallen branches.
Claws flew toward her, and she screamed, lifting a bone as large herself upwards as she fell back. The wolf slammed down into it, the jolt smashing into her arm and chest, winding her. Black blood splashed down on her as the unnatural femur ripped through the beast’s dark grey fur. Esterra rolled to the side as the thrashing animal collapsed, the femur snapping, shards of bone flying. She ducked and crawled away from the claws, trying to breathe, but the dust choked her. The creature’s back leg kicked out and hurled her against a tree, winding her again. Darkness filled her vision, and she gasped, breathless, heart beating in pure panic. The sound of the wolf’s dying movements, and her own choking, filled her ears.
Finally her lungs drew in a deep breath. She coughed, spitting out dust as her vision slowly cleared.
Having allowed a few minutes for her heart to settle, she stood up. Her grey clothes were streaked in black blood and white dust. Her right arm quieted down, the deep need to be used falling dormant once again. Esterra frowned, watching the twitching muscles till they stilled.
The wolf lay in a bloody mess, its body coated in white like a shroud. Its back leg still spasmed, but it wasn’t breathing. That had been pure luck, and she knew it. She circled around to look at its malformed face. Teeth as long as her fingers, and a jaw as long as her forearm. She hoped this was an older one. I’m dead if this was a youth, she thought to herself. Thankfully, no other hooting sounds followed their battle. She still had a chance.
Esterra continued her trek through the silent forest. It was unchanging, trees as far as she could see. No other creatures made an appearance. The air didn’t hold the smell of animal waste or dirt. Just the stink of ground bone.
“I name you Bone Forest”, she said as she walked. Esterra named all the tracts she visited, ever since she’d walked her first one at the age of six. “Damn if I remember what I called that one”, she muttered. “Twenty odd years and counting. Alone for most of it, Bone Forest. I feel you haven’t heard a human voice before. Just the wolf shrieks. My hoarse voice must be sweet beyond compare for you then, forest.” She smiled grimly. When had she last seen a human? Her thoughts wandered back, through the hollows travelled between tracts. Four tracts ago. She shivered at the memory. The Green Plains. I should have had killed that man. Stars above, he deserved it.
She stopped. Running water. She turned toward the sound and breathed in. Vague hint of wolf, but not overbearing. Nothing to see between the grey trunks. With her boots crunching on the decaying bones among the forest roots, she made her way forward. The unnatural light threw a glare below her feet, but thankfully she didn’t step wrong. With one arm already dead, she was especially careful with her remaining limbs.
Ahead, the trees ended at a shore, with water lapping darkly along the edge. Esterra studied the bone dust for any tracks. None whatsoever. Stars, this better be drinkable, she thought, dropping down from the thickness of roots to the water below. The stream was shallow and wide. The luminescent leaves reflected on its rippling surface. She cupped her hands into it, enjoying the feel of liquid, watching the white dust wash off. Bending down, she breathed in gently. No odd scent, no scent at all. Probably contained some bone dust, dissolved in it. That was fine. She lifted her cupped hands. It was clear and clean. She sipped a very little. Taste was normal. No salt. Good.
She filled her waterskin, and drank mid stream, where it flowed quickest. The water reached mid calf, and she wiped what blood and dust she could from her clothes and skin. Hopefully it wouldn’t contaminate her body any more than it already was.
Someone whistled, and she whipped her head up. A knobbly cane propped up a wretched ghost on the other shore. The dust covered the figure, from the crude bow in its hands to the scarf that covered its face, all the way down to its twisted and malformed leg. Tufts of grey hair poked out between the bandages, one dark eye peering out as well. “Come here”, the figure said, a female voice, but pitched low and rough, “Throw your knife first”. Esterra tossed her knife onto the shore, then approached as the women retrieved it and redrew the bow. “From the hollow?”
“Aye,” Esterra answered, walking to the shore.
“Heard a wolf not half an hour past.”
“Yeah. Won’t be hearing that one again.”
The woman raised her single white eyebrow, glanced at Stake’s knife. “Never killed it with this, I know. You blessed?”
Esterra laughed. “Not to my knowledge. Cursed more like, and damned hungry, too.”
“Don’t be making jokes about curses here, girl. You going to be trouble?”
“Not if I have no reason to, ma’am. What can I call you?”
“Kera, if you must. Yourself?”
Kera nodded, and lowered her bow, returning the crooked arrow to the quiver on her back. She gestured for Esterra to walk ahead, cautious. Esterra nodded and walked.
“Is there a village in this tract, Kera?”
“There ain’t nothing in this tract, Stake, except death. You’ll be safe enough if you stay with me, though.”
The old woman growled, and Esterra turned to face her. But she simply hobbled after her, crutch sinking into the dust, raising little clouds which drifted away in the gentle breeze. Esterra faced forward again. The growl had seemed inhuman. Suspicions began to form in her mind.
“How did all these bones come to be here? Do you remember?”
Kera hacked out a laugh. “Remember? I’m not so old as to remember the First Lichtvallen. We settled here from another tract, and the bone was always here, and the trees. Long before the blessings took ahold of this tract.
“What are these blessings you speak of, Kera?”
“You been living in the hollow your entire life? Those blessed by the licht, fool girl. Why, a man was through here just a few moons ago, asking fer any blessed.”
Esterra slowed to walk by Kera’s side, nodding. They call the curse a blessing here. Curious. But so do others, apparently. “Was he a hunter?”
“No weapons that I saw. The man was blessed through ‘n through. Blessed mind too, I’d wager. Could barely speak a word of sense. Left In a hurry.”
“Which way did he…”
“Enough of your yabbering, we’re here.”
They entered a clearing in the trees, a wide circle of thirty or forty paces across. A single gigantic tree twisted up into the sky, dead branches clawing at the setting red sun. Its trunk was knotted like old fingers twisted in some final prayer before death. Bulging and grotesque, the folds of the trunk crawled their way up each other, with dead branches tearing through the scaly bark at unnatural angles. Unlike all the other trees in the forest of bones, there were no glowing leaves on this one. Only pointed twigs at the ends of branches scratching harshly against the evening sky.
Wind whispered from the forest, and Esterra scanned her surroundings in the twilight. Her arm quivered softly. There was magic in this clearing, a little more than in the forest. Erratic as always, the magic followed no rules of geography or logic, only its own madness. She had met mad travellers who swore they had figured it out, nevertheless. They’d pull out scrolls and books and scribblings and lecture her on their formulae and algorithms. The diagrams and ravings only proved one thing, in Esterra’s opinion: their naive idiocy. There was only one certainty about magic, and that was that one could never trust or understand it. Much like the madmen who studied it. Usually when they saw the disbelief or condescension in her eyes, they grew violent, or tried other foul things with her. She’d laid many to rest with a blade in the gut for such behaviour.
Kera led them around the tree, past the massive prints of wolves in the dust. Some looked recent. The roots spread far, and the old woman hopped nimbly up them, following a path only she could see. Esterra followed, carefully planting her feet on the exact roots the old woman chose. They circled the tree in this manner. On the other side, now a few metres above the clearing floor, the trunk was split open. The opening was wide enough for a person to step into if they twisted sideways. The broken skull of a wolf hung above. Kera entered, and Esterra followed.
The cramped interior reeked of herbs and smoke, but was spacious enough for the two of them. Mouldy wolf-skins made a carpet, and a rough shelf of intertwined twigs circled the inner trunk. Bones, rusty knives, and various bundles of herbs and lined it. Kera hauled a heavy curtain of skins across the entrance.
“Sit, child”, she said, taking down a dusty bottle, and swigging some liquid. She didn’t offer any to her guest. Esterra sat down with her back to the wall opposite the entrance.
“You are blessed, aren’t you?” Kera asked.
“Aye, and you are too.”
The old woman grunted. “Not a high-blessing like yours, Stake.” Esterra blinked, not understanding the strange terminology. “The wolves used to be people. My people. Families. We shouldn’t have stayed here so long”.
“Do you have any remaining kin?”
“Husband died early on, neighbour Jed ripped his head off after changing. I ended the bastard, though. My two sons both changed too. I think you killed one, recognised his howl.”
“Would have killed him myself, so don’t apologise. His brother’s skull sits on my door-frame, as you saw. I’m the last human here.”
Esterra stayed quiet, observing the long fingers, the tufts of hair poking between the bandages, the expanded irises of the eyes. The licht was deep in the old lady, and had gripped it’s white talons around her very bones. The bandages could only cover so much of the changes. The way the old woman sat with her one leg bent before her, it was clear she hadn’t lost the other. Rather, the magic had forced them together, fusing them into one. Esterra’s gut twisted.
“Why did you stay?” she asked.
“Because by the time I worked up the guts to set out on my own, I was blessed. The Valley would accept no blessed ones.”
Esterra’s eyes flared, and she ground her teeth. “The Valley? Ha, they’d kill you before you even entered.”
“They’d do the same to you, high-blessed or not.”
“I wouldn’t give them the chance.”
The woman’s eye sparkled with interest, the iris pushing the white away as it expanded. Esterra frowned.
“You’ve been there?” Kera whispered.
The woman gasped, her claws scraping in the dirt beside her crossed legs. The bandages were beginning to fall away, and the old lady’s face was lengthening below the scarf.
“Oh high-blessed, take old Kera there, I prithee,” she panted, kneeling before Esterra, her twisted wolf claws holding her aged body up. Esterra rose, and unsheathed her knife, adrenaline flooding her muscles. Howls and shrieks broke the night as the woman before her twisted and writhed. The single leg kicked out, large talons gouging the earthen floor, a deep smell of dirt and blood filling the heavy air. The scarf fell to the floor, and a toothed maw gaped where the face had been, blind eyes covered in a layer of dark grey fur. Drool slathered the yellow teeth, streaking across the dirt. The old woman’s beseeching had turned into the mewling of a wolf cub, but was growing deeper and more aggressive by the second.
“Damn you, woman,” Esterra said, “I didn’t want to do this.” She leaped forward, hearted pounding in her chest. Her knife stabbed down, blade sinking deep into the wolf’s neck. The howl reverberated through the tree, and Esterra was almost thrown off as the beast tore through the door’s covering, squeezed through the opening, and burst out of the trunk. She clung on to the knife, her legs gripping Kera’s sides as they bounded into the clearing. Black and dark-grey wolves emerged from the trees, cautious but hungry. Esterra barely registered them, her attention on the bucking creature beneath her.
She screamed as the beast turned and leapt onto the gigantic tree that was once its home. Its long claws dug deep into the scaled bark, ravaging the wood beneath, back claw scrabbling for purchase below as it tried to escape the pain of Esterra’s knife. The wolves in the clearing were hooting and shrieking up at them, pure rage filling the air as the pair climbed the dead tree.
Esterra’s right arm hung useless at her side. You cannot make me use it. The wolf flung its jaws blindly at its left shoulder, where black blood spurted around the knife, wedged deep between bone and muscle. You cannot force me to use it. The howling beast leapt upward another few metres, using its teeth and claws to climb ever higher. You cannot make me fall. They were halfway up the tree now, and Esterra’s grip on the blade was slippery with blood, her legs aching and threatening to cramp. I am Esterra Stake. She twisted as the beast leapt onto a wide branch, the knife jerking, the beast losing its balance. And I am my own woman. Esterra jumped at the last instant, ripping out her knife. She watched the creature spin off the branch and fall, breaking a leg against the trunk before slamming into the roots and earth below.
She breathed deeply, leaning back against the trunk of the deformed tree. Her heart wanted to break a few ribs, it seemed. She spat to the side. The light wanted to come out. She gritted her teeth, and massaged her right arm. Esterra closed her eyes, willing the tears back. She couldn’t lose focus, couldn’t let the magic win. Yet, her mind argued, your arm will matter little if you die here today.
The howling wolves below seemed to agree.
She began to climb, a necessary skill she had taught herself ever since the crippling had set in. Her experience didn’t make the task any more enjoyable, though. Her legs did most of the work, and she had to rest at every branch.
The trunk beneath her shook as the first wolves began the hunt. Some fell, while others fought together and crashed to the earth, covering the white dust in black blood. Esterra looked down, dismay filling her soul as she saw five or six of the beasts, perhaps hungrier than the rest, climbing with teeth glistening in the light of the forest leaves, and the fitful burning of the distant sun.
She forced her eyes upwards again, and climbed harder. The branches were thinning out, and twigs were breaking off below her feet as she jumped and shimmied her way up. She heard the harsh breathing of the closest wolf, and swore as she looked down. It would be ripping her leg off in just a few more metres. The scaly bark slipped under her feet and hands, threatening to throw her grip at any moment.
Adrenaline flooding her veins, she leapt across to another branch, and clambered up the trunk’s twisted knots and growths. Tensing, she noticed that she was near the top of the tree, and all that rose above were twigs and dark sky.
The hooting and howls pitched upwards in a mad cacophony, and the entire tree was shaking as the wolves climbed and jumped their way toward her. Dozens of metres below, the bone-white earth was filled with wolves, some more deformed than others. Teeth snapped on the other side of the trunk, and Esterra realised that the moment had come. She could try to fight as a human, or she could fight as one of the cursed. Her right arm throbbed, begging to be released. The slavering jaw of a wolf peeked around the trunk, nostrils flaring as it blindly tried to circle around. Twigs snapped beneath its weight, and two more wolves lurched up from below.
Esterra gave in.
She let her crippled limb raise itself horizontally. White light streamed from her extended arm, flinging out tendrils which whipped together to form a blade as tall as herself. Her arm from the elbow down to her hand was sheathed within this blade. The light was blinding in its intensity.
Stake spun as the beast attacked, slicing the bottom jaw from its head, and nicking it’s hind leg. It shrieked, and swung its head at her, teeth flashing in the light from her blade. She jumped back, balancing on the shaking branch. Her arm pulsed, and her mind was filled with the roar of magic. Soaring adrenaline only added to the internal clamour. She had to finish this quickly, or stars knew how far the magic would spread.
The wolf turned toward her, black blood pouring in a flood down it’s dark grey chest and mixing with the bone dust on the wood. It steamed and hissed, the magic-tainted liquid reacting with the physical. The beast gripped the branch with its forelegs, leaping toward her with it’s hind leg extended, claws forward. Her blade twisted and thinned into a whip, which she flicked right through the wolf. The waving cord ripped through the creature, and as she leaped above the hurtling body, she sliced through the branch. It cracked under the weight of the howling beast, and sent it crashing to the ground below. Esterra landed on the branch beside the trunk. The feeding frenzy that ensued below made her throat tighten. Black blood splattering across the tree and dust, hissing. The hooting shriek died in the thing’s throat as it was torn to pieces.
Two more wolves were closing in on her. Her arm burned, the whip involuntarily flicking through twigs and smaller branches, sending them down in hissing pieces. Esterra focused on the closest wolf, whose frantic leaps were shaking the dead tree to its very roots. She realised she had to reach the ground before the entire tree collapsed.
Dropping toward the beast, she swiped her arm out, some deep part of her relishing the feel of splitting wood and bone and flesh as she sliced down through everything in her path. The shrieks fed the madness which the magic of her arm so loved. She caught a branch, and swiped the white whip through the second beast as it lunged at her, blood arcing in the harsh glare of her weapon. The corpse fell in pieces to the wolves below, who hooted and shrieked in delight at the free meal.
The remaining wolves on the tree leapt down to join the frenzy, and Esterra managed to make her way down to a wider branch.
Now came the hard part.
Gritting her teeth, she pulled the light back into her arm. She grimaced as it fought back. Her muscles spasmed, the whip light flicked through the tree, slicing right through the trunk. As the tree began to fall, Esterra roared and pulled the light back with all her will, forcing it into her skin. The glow disappeared, and all was still. Her right arm hung by her side again, veins protruding, skin burned red.
She clambered down the side of the trunk as it fell into the bloody mess of wolves, who continued fighting and killing, their blood-lust long past sanity. Tears in her eyes from the burning pain of her arm, Esterra ran in the opposite direction, toward the trees with their yellow light. She entered the stillness of the forest, the sounds of cannibalistic madness dropping into the distance.
She collapsed to her knees in exhaustion, forcing her eyes open. She had to know. Scanning her arm, she measured the red burns. They hadn’t spread beyond her elbow. Not noticeably, at least. She leaned back, sighing with relief, crying freely now, letting the terror of the last hour out. Her inner voice, usually so strict and vicious, couldn’t berate her for this respite. Sometimes losing control was the only way to survive.
After a few moments, she wiped her tears away and walked deeper into the forest. She swished her mouth with some water from the canteen, and spat it out. This wasn’t the worst tract she’d come through, and it wouldn’t be the last. But somewhere out there, she knew there must be a place where one could at least carry out some semblance of life, without the magic’s influence. Some place like the Valley, but without the cold-blooded pragmatism that had thrown her on this path.
Ahead, the cliffs of the tract came into view. Rising more than a thousand metres into the air, the walls of each tract were simply the edges of a gigantic crater. They were the wounds of the War of Verpace, the First Lichtvallen which had turned the entire planet into a pockmarked corpse of a world, many decades, or even centuries, ago. No one remembered. Time was lost to humanity, and only the death bell held any meaning now.
The entrance to a hollow lay before her, a dark opening into a darker cave, like the mouth of some mountainous creature just waiting for its prey to step in. This hollow would lead to another tract. The hollows always did. If she survived them. I’ll always keep going. I must keep going.
As she entered the hollow, she didn’t look back. But if she had, she may have noticed that, among all the stars in the heavens above, one had gone dark.
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