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William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Chapter VI

   © Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl

I saw a blade
all doused aflame
the colder when it cut

- Travelling Coins/Hollen the Bard

Beneath the mountains of Skreeholm, there is a teeming hive. No man could count the dim embers of their eyes, the only light reflected in the pools and drifting currents. Two rivers flow under the mountain, coming together to emerge as a single beast out of the eastern slope. It is called Lumeae in the foothills, and Avaea when it nears the coast; the Light River, for it glimmers and sparkles when it comes out of the stone and for many miles after.  A story of treasures hidden in the earth flows with it. Those who go in search of it find Skree, and darkness, and that is all. The Skree call it their little mother because without it, their forefathers could never have spawned.
            Tiddles returned with Fatetaster to the territories marked by Greyscales, and his new name was given as a matter of fact to anyone who was curious. The congress had been inconclusive as to what such a name actually meant, and because it was inconclusive, nothing would be done. The body of Fatetasters agreed that something important had happened, and most of them had agreed that Tiddles should be sent home until they had more information. Tiddles was at peace with this. Being the center of attention wasn't what he wanted. It was enough to be among his own kind, to be able to talk to someone, to be able to learn. He loved knowing, though he couldn't quash the thought that they were as bad as wizards when it came to pretending to be wise rather than acting wisely.       
            Over the coming months he became an apprentice Fatetaster as he had once been an apprentice mancer. It was the easier of the two by far. Tiddles had been an excellent prentice, even if he wasn't as strong as many others. Magic was in how you used it, but there was only so much power you could squeeze into a creature his size. He could already speak Draconic at least as well as Wiseclaw, though he couldn’t mimic the peculiar twists and intonations that the vocal folds of an unaltered Skree allowed. His teacher, unimpressed, had him fetch their meals every morning and clean out the chamber they now shared.
            Tiddles had an anthropological interest in his occupation. A Fatetaster was part witchdoctor and priest, part advisor and chieftain. Though the tribe had a leader, Tiddles wasn't wholly certain how he was selected as such, and the big male generally deferred to Wiseclaw in matters that affected the group. Wiseclaw also monitored their fungal crops, their fishing zones, and the education of their hatchlings. His most important and most mystical duties included the tending of the sick and the naming of the nameless. Naming was what made Fatetasters Fatetasters, and it was a process Tiddles had not yet grasped.
            Many cycles passed. Tiddles was fetching their ration of mushroom caps from the storehouse. The Skree did not have a system of writing beyond their rudimentary boundary signs, and those were based on Draconic runes. They kept the measure of their stores by the use of small river stones and braided fiber ropes made from the sinews of dead Skree. Resources were scarce in the warrens, and nothing was wasted. The Skree that managed the stores kept track of the cycles and distributed stone tokens to be exchanged for rations. The Fatetaster also tracked the cycles, but only as a check against corruption. He rarely interfered.
            As Tiddles began the trek back to their chamber, he caught sight of Eyebright exiting another passage. They had never spoken, but she was easy to remember given that her irises actually did gleam yellow in the total dark of the warrens. It wasn't bright enough to be noticeable in full daylight, and yet to creatures accustomed to navigating by the heat of their bodies against the coolness of the earth, they were as radiant as beacons. She caught sight of Tiddles and veered to meet him.
            "The mountain greets you," she said.
            "The earth knows you," Tiddles hoped he said. He knew precisely what the phrase was supposed to sound like, but he couldn't manage it. Eyebright didn't appear perturbed, though it was still difficult for him to read Skree body language. Tiddles caught himself looking for expressions a reptilian jaw couldn't accommodate, and then shrugged, a further anachronism. The Skree didn't shrug, they trilled.
            "You hear me?" Eyebright asked. "You know my words?" 
            While still beats behind in translation, he did know her words, essentially. So he made an approximation of the sound that meant an affirmative.
            "They speak of you," she clicked. "They say you know the elder tongue. They say that wizards gave you robes and spells."
            Tiddles fingered his increasingly ragged garment. There wasn't any point in denying it.
            "Show me spell." The demand was intense, punctuated by a rattle that came from somewhere deep in her throat.
            Tiddles hesitated, considering the consequences of both compliance and refusal. He held up a claw.
            "Adyt." A yellow ball of light sprung up in his hand, blinding to their dark accustomed eyes. He hadn't prepared himself any more than she, and he dispelled it immediately. 
            Eyebright had covered her face, but when it was gone she said, "Again, hold it."
            Tiddles complied, this time bringing the spell to power gradually enough that they could adjust. His basket of mushrooms, the dripping stone, and the bifurcating passage were illuminated in a stark detail the second sight of the Skree could not allow. Even to Tiddles it was strange, after months in the warrens. For Eyebright, the light would have been magical without any magic involved. She stared for long moments, and then fled. Tiddles shrugged again and allowed the light to fade.
         On occasion, Tiddles was asked to sniff newborns. "Clacker, maybe, or Rosedelver?" He attempted to put words to the scents.
        "No," the Fatetaster would inevitably tell him. "That is incredibly wrong. I do not know what Rosedelver could be."
        "It’s what I smelled," Tiddles maintained.
        Wiseclaw would give them names, and touch those names where they were inscribed on his wall, or scrape them into the soft rock surface if the name was new. Destroyer of Worlds was there, underneath Falsebeak. They were in no particular order. 
        One cycle later Eyebright found him again, fetching water from a pool. Tiddles still hadn't figured out how they made reed baskets leak proof; something to do with fish oils.
         "We are going to starve," she told him.
          "When?" Tiddles asked, hoping he wouldn't be expected to contribute much more to the conversation than that.
            “A long cycle," she said," two, three."
             A few years then. The Skree measured the seasons by which way the fish were swimming, and what temperature was nearer the surface. It wasn't an exact science, but still probably better than astrology. Tiddles considered the evidence. "I would have said the same when I arrived. It doesn't make any sense to try to keep this many animals alive underground. There's a reason the Skree are the biggest things around, aside from the spiders that fill in theie predator niche. Nothing else can farm, and the growth rates on these mushrooms are absurd. There's definitely magic here somewhere. It could be the touch of one of the exalted, though I couldn't guess which. Worm was the only one who spent his life underground."
         Eyebright chirped her confusion.
         "Erm, sorry." Tiddles said. "Fungus. Lots."
         It was mangled, but she understood. "You must listen. The elders won't. There is enough now, there is enough next cycle. There is less each time. Soon it is not enough. Since the poison happened in the above, it is worse."
         "Fine," Tiddles said, not having caught all of that. "It is fine."
          Eyebright was suddenly fierce, pressing her snout against his. "It is not fine. The fish will not spawn this cycle, not enough to feed the mountain."
         Poison? Tiddles had been topside when it happened and it hadn't seemed like poison. There had been an explosion outside Mondane, and whatever happened had upset the local mondial, the world soul. Tiddles could see that whenever he activated his mage sight. Would that have an effect on the wildlife in the area? It had been a while since Tiddles read anything on the ecological influence of mondaic fluctuations. That had been an exciting course of study. If it was bad enough, it probably could have done something to the migration patterns of the fish.
        Tiddles gave sign that he was listening.
       "The others are afraid," she said. "You are almost an elder, and you are different."
        Tiddles had no doubt that the "body" would ignore signs of imminent doom until there was nothing that could be done about them. It was one of the most human qualities the Skree possessed; pretending a thing wasn't happening so that they wouldn't have to deal with it. The mountain had been their home immemorial. Could they even imagine leaving?
        "Scaletongue?" he asked.
        "I understand some."
         That was something. They both spoke a language the other understood, just not the same language.
        "Find someone who can translate for me, talk for me. So you can understand better."
        Her head quirked to one side, bobbing in acceptance. "I know someone, yes. Then you help?"
         Tiddles trilled yes. Eyebright touched her snout to his again, less threatening than before, and skittered away into the warrens.
        The incident faded from Tiddles mind in the days that followed. He did not see her in the regular course of things, but her warnings remained with him. When Wiseclaw counseled with those who worried there would not be enough fish this season, and when an entire clutch of hatchlings had to be drowned for their deformity, Tiddles remembered. The Fatetaster took sick soon afterwards, and someone was needed to fulfill his duties. Tiddles was a capable hand, but his inability to communicate effectively with common Skree meant someone else had to be called in. Wiseclaw had trained another apprentice before Tiddles, a young male who had left the Greyscales to find a mate in another tribe. There was some ill feeling over the incident still.
           The new Fatetaster was named Coolhands, as he had circulatory issues. At least, that is what Tiddles assumed.
          "Destroyer of Worlds," Coolhands bobbed his head to Tiddles when they met, "I am glad we could come together."
         "The mountain greets you," Tiddles said.
         "The earth knows you," he replied. "For one who cannot speak Skreelan, your mastery of Scaletongue surprises me."
        "Thank you," Tiddles said. This was more compliment than Wiseclaw had ever given him.           "It is something I learned when I was a hatchling. I was given many languages to study."
        "You mean human ones?"
        "Yes." Tiddles could see that Coolhands was uncomfortable with the thought. "I know more of their world than ours."
       "That is a sadness," the Fatetaster said, and Tiddles bobbed his head in acquiescence. The longer he stayed with the Skree, the smaller their realm became. They were cleverer than humans in some ways, but they had no formal education. They used their cleverness to grow mushrooms and catch fish. It wasn't enough for Tiddles. When he dreamed, it was the Tower that he saw, the mancers and their wonders. He missed his tablet terribly. With the knowledge it contained he could have changed the way the Skree lived and worked, if they wanted to be changed.
        He accompanied Coolhands on the usual rounds. Three hundred Skree managed to generate enough troubles; Tiddles couldn't guess how tribes of thousands made do.
        Three families were feuding over the disposition of a female desired by two of them. Tiddles suggested they cut her in half so that both prospective mates could have an equal part. He was politely asked to leave.
        He went to the nearest drinking pool, and saw a Skree resting by its shore. Dilating his eyes, Tiddles saw that the body was only a whisper warmer than the stone beneath it. It was pressed awkwardly against a rock, and he approached cautiously to investigate. Something was wrong.   He could hear a group of hatchlings approaching from another aperture; the cadence of their claws was different than that of adults. The body, for body it was, seemed deflated. His hands explored its head, found a pair of puncture wounds each as wide as his thumb claw. The realization struck him like a curse.
        "Run!" He shrilled at the hatchlings, just then emerging into the larger chamber. "Run home!" They froze, confused, so to punctuate his imperative he threw up an orb of brilliant light, shielding his own eyes as he did so. Then he dove into the pool.
         It was chill enough to lower his body temperature instantly, and he held himself beneath until his vision had adjusted to the brightness.
         Surfacing slowly, he scanned the chamber. It was rimmed with stalags, and crouching within a small grouping was a cave spider. Its carapace was translucent, putting its various inner fluids on display. Its venom sacks were visible behind its mandibles, and its digestive track was engorged with what had been a Skree, but was now a bloody slush. It was completely blind, relying on the warmth of flesh to guide it, and the vibrations received by its long, pale hairs. By dunking himself, Tiddles had confounded it for a moment, though the noise and motion he created had caught its attention. He swam to the edge of the pool opposite the spider, watching it for any signs of aggression. Maybe it was full.
         As soon as he was on solid ground it leapt, actually overshooting as Tiddles fell to his belly. The reflex saved him, though the spider landed and spun with frightening speed. He didn't have time to stand. Tiddles flung his arm as if he was slinging a stone and shouted, "MAHOMISAIRU!"
         A bolt of violet force coalesced in the air beyond his outstretched claws and slammed into the spider. Its carapace popped like ripe fruit, and its viscous innards poured onto the cavern floor. Off balance, the monster stumbled, one of its forelegs dragging uselessly. It came at Tiddles, but he was able to roll back into the water and kick deeper. At its center, the pool went down twice his height. The spider was larger than he was, but it couldn't swim and couldn't reach so far. He held his breath as long as he was able, then surfaced and saw it was huddled again between stalagmites. The wound he had inflicted was large and weeping. Its body was so low to the ground that he thought it might be dead. Coming out of the pool, he faced the thing from a few paces away. It was absolutely still, and its blind eyes gave no hint of consciousness. He cast the spell again, and at the sound of his voice the spider leapt, coming down directly on top of him as mantic power leapt from his hand. Its mandibles scraped the stone, and one of its feet tore at his back through the robe. 
        The hatchlings had run to fetch their minder. They told her Destroyer of Worlds was going mad and setting fires by the drinking pool. A half dozen Skree and a few hatchlings who could not be dissuaded from coming arrived at the pool and found Tiddles curled beside the corpse of a cave spider, jaws clamped on the tip of his own tail.
         "He's been bitten," one of the young ones said.
         "No, he hasn't." Tiddles got woozily to his feet, taking pains to adjust his torn and soiled garments. He summoned what nonchalance he could and said, "He was just resting."
          It was generally agreed thereafter that he had just been resting. Cave Spiders have a core temperature roughly equal to the ambient background, and are therefore virtually invisible to the Skree's thermal vision. It was an inherent magic that made them the most perfect killers in the warrens.
          Growler had come when he heard the Robewearer was losing his mind. A dead cave spider was not what he expected to find. Having never approved of Tiddles continued existence; he nevertheless discovered a budding respect for the outsider.
        "They can kill five or ten of us before they are discovered," he said, "more before we stop them."
         "You're welcome," Tiddles said.
          Growler nodded, making a low sound in his throat that was his namesake. "We will tell the chief what you have done, and Wiseclaw."
          “Thank you." Tiddles felt uncomfortable under so much scrutiny, so he turned to the only direction there weren't any Skree and went in it. Sliding around the spider, he went deeper into the warrens.


                                                                                            *          *          *


         Eyebright caught him some cycles later. She had been absent from the Greyscales for a time, which was not unusual for a young Skree in search of a mate. They sometimes joined another tribe entirely, and Tiddles half hoped it was the same with her. He did not desire the complication she brought into his life. Eyebright caught him by the shoulder, pulling him suddenly into an alcove as he walked by. He yelped, unable to contain it. "What!" he hissed when he realized who had grabbed him.
         There was a second Skree in the alcove with them, a male with a very pronounced forehead. "She brought us to meet you," he said.
         "I don't want to meet anyone," Tiddles complained. He had been jumpy since the spider incident and was letting his irritation rule his response.
       The stranger switched to Scaletongue.  "My name is Bigheaded.  I taught myself to speak this way, but the elders would not allow me to be a Fatetaster."
          This piqued Tiddles interest. "Why not?"
          "Because I am bigheaded. I want to make things different than they are." 
          "Same," Tiddles said.
           Eyebright put her claw on his arm again. "You can help us save Greyscales. Bigheaded will speak for you. Tell us what you need to tell."
          "What? Oh, right." Tiddles hadn’t thought much about her prophecy of doom since they last spoke. Recent events did give her credit though; the scarce fish and the sickness.
           "You want to have everyone leave the mountain, don't you?" said Bigheaded.
            Eyebright trilled uncertainly. "I do not want to leave. I want to know why the fish bring sickness, and why the gardens shrink. We should heal what is broken, and then we will not have to leave."
            Tiddles whistled. "That will be difficult. I don't know if it can be fixed. Would you leave if you had no choice?" 
            Eyebright waited for the translation, and bobbed her head when it was finished. "I will do what I must."
            Tiddles addressed Bigheaded directly then. "Do you feel as she does? Will you go above to find the sickness."
            "Yes," Bigheaded said seriously. "I want to show them they need change. They took what I wanted most from me, and I hate them for it. But I won't let Greyscales die because of my anger."
            "We may not find anything," Tiddles warned. "Or we could find things we cannot change."
            "I understand," Bigheaded said. "We have to try. You are like a wizard, aren't you? We need what you know to do this."
            Tiddles sighed.
            "What are you saying?" Eyebright had been looking back and forth between them, trying to follow with her limited knowledge of Draconic.
            "Nothing important," Tiddles said. "We're going to save the Skree."
            Bigheaded translated.


                                                                                                   *         *         *


            Tiddles decided he would wash his robe. It was the cycle after his conversation with Eyebright, and he would be meeting with them again soon. The robe was tattered and stained, but it made him feel whole. When he moved to exit the sleeping chamber, Wiseclaw shifted in his nest.
            "Destroyer..." his voice had suffered with the sickness. It was rough and almost as ungainly as Tiddles own. The younger Skree stopped still, listening.
            "I know the meaning of your name," the elder said. There was a long pause, and Wiseclaw shivered inside of his skin. His tongue slipped in and out.
            "When you return, make them take you to the eggs."
            Tiddles crouched over his teacher. "What eggs? What are you saying?"
            Wiseclaw said no more. He was still breathing, though it was slight.
            In the tunnels that lead to the world of light, Coldhands met Tiddles on his way to the surface.
            "The Fatetaster is growing worse," Tiddles told him. "You need to see to him."
            Coldhands was squatting where the paths split, barring the way with his body. "Where do you go?"
            "Up," Tiddles said.
            "Is there a raid?" Cool Hands asked. "I do not see anyone else."
            "I am going to see about the sickness in the mountain. I believe there is something in the human city that is killing us."
            "It is dangerous." Cool Hands made no sign that he would open the way. "You should speak to the chief before you leave the lands of your clan. You are new to our life. No one expects you to know these things, though you must still follow them."
            Tiddles had a moment of pique, and instead of continuing the conversation, arguing or tricking Cool Hands into letting him pass, he put him to sleep. It was a simple spell, ineffective against a prepared mind. He mentally plucked a few strings around the other Skree's brow and watched him sink to the floor. It felt good to use magic again, there had been so little of it since coming below. He had been so focused on learning what it meant to be a Skree that he had forgotten the advantages of being Tiddles.
            There was only one passage leading to the surface used exclusively by the Greyscales. It was barely more than an interstice where it opened onto the side of the mountain, tight enough that Tiddles had to scrape through. His robes snagged, and he had to hold his breath to carefully remove it from the sharp edge of rock that had caught it.
            Bigheaded and Eyebright were huddled under a stone overhang, staring at the sky. Silver flowers dappled the dome of night, and the moon was a coin sharp enough to cut. Tiddles was taken aback by how large it was; the expanse above expanses. Having been months in the warrens, he could imagine what it looked like to someone who had lived all their life in the confines of the caves.
            "It is so much." Bigheaded said.
            "This is the world," Tiddles said.
             "Where are we going?" Eyebright asked.  Her discomfort at being in the open couldn't have been clearer.
            “We go there.” He pointed to Mondane, laying dark and fallow in the foothills. It would be too much to hope for to find his tablet lying in a bush somewhere. He didn't know if he had been brought down this way or another. Anyone could have picked it up in the time since.
            Tiddles stood straighter than he had in weeks, surveying the fall of the land as his eyes adjusted. His mage sight revealed the twists and whorls of the mondial, and the strangeness over the city.
            "Whatever happened was on the other side. We must go through the human warren."
            They followed him down the slope, invisible in the shades of night. Only their eyes gleamed, catching what light there was and reflecting it back into the world. Mondane was dormant. He took them as far around the city as he could, not believing it could be empty. The walk took the better part of two hours, and they were weary by the end of it. The open ground was easier travelling than the underground, but the stress they felt at being exposed was increasing.
            On the far side of Mondane they found ruins; buildings blown over, trees uprooted as if by a great wind. There was a pond at the center of this destruction. The earth had been shaped by some bright violence. The water rippled ceaselessly, a memory of the forces that had struggled there.
            "What is this?" Bigheaded asked. They could not see the lines of power, but they could sense the wrongness in this place.            "Something died," Tiddles said, "or was broken in this place. It is the source of the sickness."
            "Are you sure?" Eyebright asked after hearing the translation. "How can we heal this?"
            Tiddles shrugged. "I don't know that we can. It may dissipate on its own, or it may not. Things like this don't last forever, but they could last a thousand years."
            Eyebright's snout fell so far that it touched the soil. This wasn’t what she had wanted to hear. Bigheaded chittered dejectedly.
            Tiddles hissed. Men were appearing out of the ruins.
            "Don't move now, lizard. We won't hurt you."
            Tiddles understood them perfectly, though it was a rustic dialect. His companions were shrinking towards the water as they were quickly becoming surrounded. There were five men, all with nets, and the circle was closing.
            Tiddles straightened, and brushed off his robes.
            "Let them go," he said. "I will go with you willingly." 
            That stumped them for a moment.
            "Did he talk?"
            "That's him. That's the one he wants, in the little dress."
            The first man moved closer, net taut between his hands. "Why you in a dress, Lizzy? You a girl?"
            "It’s a sorcerer's gown."
            "That's him all right," the man said. "We better take ‘em all to be safe."
            Tiddles closed the distance between them, casting a light into his eyes. "Run!" he shrilled.
            They dashed for all the open spaces. Tiddles was netted quickly. The man snapped the net angrily down over him. Eyebright slipped in the confusion and was caught, while Bigheaded disappeared into the gloom beyond Tiddles spell.
            The man flung Tiddles over his shoulder, thoroughly sacked, and they headed into Mondane proper.
            "Boss has been lookin’ for you," he said.
            "Oh," Tiddles said, "that sounds nice."