Madmen know. They shout it in the streets and in the fields but go unnoticed. Those dying know. They whisper it with their last breath but no one understands. The dead know. They touch the living in warning, passing silently over what were once their homes, yet go unheeded. And I know, though I no longer bother to tell anyone. I will tell you, though I do not do so in warning for it is already too late. I tell you more out of a desire to understand what has become of our world; what has become of me.
It began years ago, in the silence of man’s ignorance. Warroks, they are known as. They were once men, fools who dabbled in what they did not understand. They were the first to see that essence of our existence, that whisper of magic which lives within our world and all things upon it. When understanding came, they began to leech it from the earth, living on it as man lives on bread, ravaging it until it became as rare as the life it once sustained. It is the reason for our existence, and our end.
I have run from them since I was a boy. I remember a late morning not long ago, standing in a forest. They had been closing on me lately, though I still could not understand what they wanted of me. Weeping branches hung above, lifeless forms reaching down with their cold touch. Cadavers of wood littered the rise of ground, limbs frozen by death in a last futile gasp for light. A smell of putrefying wood wrinkled my nose; one can become used to the decay when constantly faced with it. Amid a swirling mist that gave life to the decomposed, I barely noticed it anymore.
A forest stream ran through the birthing bog, gurgling with pity for the death of the land. I knelt before it and, throwing back my hood, careful not to wet the ends of my cloak, I splashed my face, enjoying the coolness and sharpness of life for I was alive. I stared at my reflection then, its form broken in the foraging water. Amon Rush is my name, though I no longer recognise the man that goes with it; black eyes set within a pale face, hair and beard rusty red as the mulching leaves at my feet. A thinner form that has lost its youth, though I am no more than twenty five.
For as long as I remember I have run from them and their hunger, wandered through the dying lands in search of peace, for hope is too much to ask for. I had wandered into a valley in the Arfael region that day, somewhere in the Northlands. I had hoped I might find a place to rest for the night, for forest land offers neither food nor shelter anymore.
Beyond the forest I found a village, seeped of life. I walked towards a nest of buildings; wounds for windows and doors, bleeding blackness in the soft rain. Nothing stirred within, nothing lived save a breeze that chased itself between the lonely stones and rotted roofs.
I stood in the heart of that village, my face upturned to the raindrops that had begun to fall, their touch all the life remaining in this land. When I lowered my head and opened my eyes, I caught a flash of movement behind a house to my right. I stepped through the mortal husk, tumbled stone strangled by weed and time. Felled rafters crumbled at the touch and something scurried beneath my feet. Not all life had been leeched from this land, yet.
“You should not be here,” said a voice. “Leave!”
I whirled to find a shadowed form in a corner of the ruin. A face oozed from the gloom, lank hair framing windswept blue eyes, which for all their youth, pierced me with age, knowledge, and hatred. A girl of about twelve stepped forwards.
“You should not be here,” she repeated. “They are all gone and there is nothing for you here.” Small fingers clenched and bunched into fists, a lower lip frayed and bloodied. Her dress once white was covered in mud and tatters, her knees scraped and raw. “Leave here, before it is too late. You should not be here.”
“You are all alone?” I reached deep within my cloak and felt for something I could use to reassure her. “I mean you no harm. Here,” I said tugging forth with some effort a smooth stone. A band of colours adorned its centre and handing it towards the girl I felt a pang of loss. I had found it years before, hiding from the Warroks. Often when alone in the dark hours, I would rub it between my fingers, my eyes captivated with the colours and the lie of life within.
She regarded me a moment. “You should not be here.”
With a sigh I replaced the stone and wrapped my cloak closer for a chill pervaded the ruins. I had taken my eyes from her for a second and she was gone!
I left the hovel then, wondering where the girl had gotten to and how she had survived here alone. The sun had reached its zenith but little light pierced the clouds which shrouded the land.
Once more I caught the flash of movement, and hurrying I followed it through a necropolis of blackened forms, the broken backs of oaks strewn like kindling. Amongst them I could see outlines that were once flesh and bone and it became clear what had become of the villagers. I averted my gaze and followed the girl into a clearing that opened to reveal a sight I had not seen in years. The child stood beneath the living boughs of an oak tree, surely the last of its kind. She seemed Lilliputian beneath the arms of life’s last hope. Yet it was not the oak which grabbed my attention nor the girl beneath. It was the presence of another who steadily approached. The mist had once again turned to rain, droplets landing playfully among the dead boughs of the forgotten, chasing the light inevitably to darkness.
From within the depths of carnage stepped forth a hooded figure in black. It was shrouded beneath a cloak that snipped and spat. The Warrok, its face hidden, withdrew from within its cloak a tall staff of hewn oak. Knurled hands, that once belonged to a man, gripped it tightly and I was unsure where the creature ended and the staff began. The staff was living, budding at random points and yet the buds gave forth black leaves. The rain parted at the creature’s approach and shadows followed it as though urging it forwards.
“Leave us alone. You are not wanted here, why do you not leave us alone,” screamed the girl.
The Warrok did not listen but continued to approach until it stood before the oak tree. “You cannot deprive us of what is ours,” it said eventually. Its voice was grating, like ten-thousand snakes burning alive.
“You have no place here,” shouted the girl, “you do not belong. You are a sickness, a black plague. I will not let you take all I have left.”
The Warrok shuddered then as though in laughter and took another step closer. “This world is ours and all within it. It’s life surges through us. What are you but a husk of memory, a recollection of what was. You are all but extinct.”
I stepped towards the girl, thinking I might protect her. The child glared at me, her face contorted in hatred, her eyes a wild grey as she backed against the tree. Perhaps she thought she alone could ward off the creature. Her bony arms stretched behind her as though a mother protecting a child.
I stared in fascination as the Warrok raised the hewn staff, angling its tip towards the trunk of the oak.
“Why are you here,” the girl croaked, tears strolling her cheeks. “Leave us alone. You have torn the life from this world. You have taken everything from me, WHY?” She sobbed, runnels of water and dirt marring her cheeks.
The staff began to grow, lengthening as the budding leaves grew into strangling vines that writhed about its length. The black vines then stretched from the staff towards the tree entwining themselves about the trunk before climbing steadily, entangling themselves within the boughs and branches of the trapped oak. I struggled to reach her, to stretch out towards her and pull her from the obvious fate which awaited her. I was bound to the spot where I stood, immobile, a prisoner. Somehow the Warrok’s power would not let me close the distance between us and I stared, a helpless fool.
Before my eyes, the girl began to change. She was hunched down before the tree, the vines extending from the staff now entwining themselves about her.
Her eyes were fixed upon the creature, their colour changing, deepening to a grey haze, like hurled waves in a storm. I shuddered for I recognised something in that child but could not have said what. A wind rose then and buffeted the land, tearing at the corpses of trees like driftwood tossed at sea. The ruined hovels collapsed, stone tumbling to a final resting place. The earth beneath my feet began to split and divide, exploding fissures of water shooting upwards. It was then I understood the girl was not a child, but something else.
Yet the Warrok was unaffected, its cloak merely appearing to breathe in the rising storm. The oak tree wilted. Its great limbs split as the creature leeched the core of its being. The bark cracked, the oak’s life force oozing, as the leaves wilted and blackened, raining about a child huddled and dying. I screamed then until my lungs gave way; I strained to reach her one last time but found myself held in a blackness I could not explain. The girl lay upon her side beneath the dying oak, her eyes filled with hatred and acceptance. It seemed as though she had known this day was coming, as though she had been waiting for the creature’s return.
The vines retracted, the staff shortened and the Warrok lowered its arm. The earth stopped moving and the winds abated as its billowing cloak settled like a living creature at rest. Then it turned towards me.
I could partially see its face, though shadowed by its cowl. Something about it caused my heart to pound, a thrumming in my ears; it stepped towards me. My heart froze then to a beating slush as I saw it for what it was. A beard and hair rusty red framing a pale face with dark eyes. Staring back at me was Amon Rush, a face I knew too well.
Those dying know. They whisper it with their last breath but no one understands. The dead know. They touch the living in warning, passing silently over what were once their homes but go unheeded. And I know. The blackness has once again taken me and buried me deep within the heart of a creature I loathe. I cry in the darkness, a coloured stone my only companion, weeping for a nameless elemental child beneath an oak tree, weeping for the earth I have destroyed. A single word echoes through my mind, a child’s voice, a question I cannot answer – “Why?”
About the Author: Darren Joy has been writing fantasy stories for a few years and has previously published a short story with http://www.aphelion-webzine.com. He is an avid fantasy fan and lists his favourite authors as Tolkien (goes without saying) and Robert Jordan, whose “Wheel of Time” series is killing him with the wait for the final book – he should have read slower. Darren also enjoys David Gemmel and Terry Brooks, among others.
(c) 2008 by Darren Joy firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago draws what he sees, which has NASA worried.
(c) 2008 by Romeo Esparrago