Outcasts pit their gifts against an ancient foe hellbent upon the destruction of the world
|The smoke from their meager campfire settled at least a quarter mile in every direction. In the waning, amber dusk it seemed to blanket the entire forest in a haze. Nevertheless, its warmth was a comfort against the oncoming chill of night, and the twigs and brambles Sebile had taken the time to gather flared and popped happily. The obscure glade in which they'd settled felt brighter, a little more hopeful for at least a little while longer.
Sebile plopped down and propped herself against a fallen log. She extended her bare feet toward the warm light and flexed her toes as grayish clouds lofted skyward among the branches toward the darkening sky. She sat and she watched and she waited, listening to the little crackles from the fire, and after a while, she grew bored.
She wondered at the time noting the elongating, purplish shadows beyond the ring of trees at the center of which they'd decided to settle. She craned her neck and scanned the heavens for signs among the stars, but the hour wasn't late enough yet for the celestial spirits to speak. She scanned around, left to right, straining to hear over the mounting trills of forest crickets and frogs in the nearby stream. She spun on her heel and scanned beyond her fallen log into the distance beyond but could only get a sense of insects rising and field mice foraging and bats ranging overhead.
After a while, Sebile began to feel drained. She squatted near the welcoming warmth and extended her arms toward the flickering light of the fire. She pulled the warm light inward, filling herself with it, until the fire began to ebb and spare energies began to grow. She focused and found the center of the heat source, created a naked extension of herself and allowed her spirit to be consumed by heat and flame. She writhed in it. She bathed in the energies until she felt invigorated, all the while nurturing a spark to guarantee the little fire did not wane entirely.
Eventually she recognized a feint hint of dampness, cooling the skin beneath her spare doeskin tunic.
She breathed deeply of the forest and the smoke and stared content yet inert watching the flames rekindle and rise anew as she released her grip upon their energies. Flickering yellows and reds and oranges once again forced the shadows to dance around the glade.
The tattoos running the lengths of both her ruddy arms began a slow undulation in step with the light and within herself she felt satisfaction. She felt full.
She exhaled slowly and settled once again into the soft moss at her feet until her shoulders found the weight of the log behind her. She closed her eyes and let her lips work a modest tribute to Nyx, thankful for the passage of another day and the oncoming night.
Another moment and she found herself counting the brightening stars beyond the lingering haze.
A chill breeze flung a gout of smoke full in Sebile's face forcing her to avert her eyes against stinging tears.
She doubled up, head between her knees, and cleared her throat, knuckling her eyelids. She leaned to one side and blew snot from her nose into the moss before turning her attention back to the fire.
Beyond the treeline, darkness pushed in around her. She leered at the shadows marveling at how quickly nighttime always seemed to come. At the same time, she began to wonder, seriously with a modest amount of concern where ...
There came a sudden crash in the forest beyond the treeline over her right shoulder.
Bramble, thistle, thorn snapped. Branches shifted and shuffled with the weight of an impact from something just beyond her line of sight.
Sebile crouched, adding her shadow to her log's shape against the firelight as a tumultuous chaos of snapping, rustling, thrusting and thumping ensued among the low, tangled branches making up the inner ring of their campsite. The noise grew louder and a shape lumbered between the trees, moving closer.
Sebile gathered her legs beneath her, readying to spring. She began a low, whispered chant allowing only the briefest, silvery reflection from her eyes beyond the log.
In the heaviest, deepest shadow beyond the staghorn and pine surrounding the camp something moved. A dark mass plodded awkwardly forward toward the light.
Sebile watched silently as the thing came thrusting through low branches, recoiling at their resistance, before squatting heavily and grunting. Whatever it was, it was clumsy. But it was larger than a small wolf or a nightfox. Wolf maybe. Definitely not a bear.
She summoned an once of her newly refreshed energy. She felt electricity surge, curling among her tattoos. She glanced about and cursed the light calling into the darkness. Cursed the smoke for making her cough. The silver of her eyes blazed yet she waited for her moment.
The clumsy thing crashed hard among the trees. Low branches were yanked forcefully. Appearing first to go left and then back and to the right.
There came a grunt, an audibly exhausted kind of a noise against resistance within the shadows.
Then there was silence.
Sebile's eyes grew wide, all seemed silence, completely still.
A shrill curse followed. A sound uttered as if an infant were pinched by a mean, ill tempered parent. The branches danced violently with a tumult of heaving and grunting until finally, midst an undeniable odor of sweat, sage and exasperation, Nimue burst headfirst into the campsite.
Nimue, first consort to Merlin, great Highpriestess of the Order during the time of Arthur, King of the Britains, flailed into the firelight, froze and stared about. Her one good eye flashed while the hollow of her other fell intent, almost angry, upon Sebile who bowed, speechless yet respectful in the presence of undeniable greatness.
In truth, Sebile fought back a grin and a smirk against the arrival of the Highpriestess. There was a time when the power and the legacy of one as this was unquestionable, but on this night, during this time, and after extensive travel and companionship, Sebile would be forced to confess she found Nimue almost cute, like someone's rancorous and difficult grand-mama. For one, Nimue was nowhere nearly as young as she used to be. She had wrinkles upon her wrinkles. Her skin sagged, and she went around barefoot covered mostly in beads interlaced with cords of hempen yarn and bits of string over an ancient patchwork robe of various animal skins. Around her neck a multitude of tiny animal skulls clacked together, beaks, teeth and fangs outwardly protecting her breast from overzealous eyes.
Nimue drew herself up, wobbled a bit, and Sebile came forward to relieve her of the two armfuls of firelogs Nimue began to wrestle awkwardly beneath her shoulders. No matter the perception Sebile could not deny Nimue's strength when considering her crustiness, even though Sebile could not quite pinpoint exactly how ancient Nimue truly was. The age of Merlin and of Arthur was well and truly before Sebile's time.
Before Sebile could lay hands upon Nimue's burden, Nimue spat, which forced Sebile to pause. Sebile considered Nimue might not actually know she was near as she considered Nimue's eye socket. Nimue fruitlessly luggled her load before losing her footing and crashing to the ground in a heap of skulls, beads and logs.
Sebile gasped and looked around for a sturdy splint best used to set a few old bones.
"Thrice damed forest!!" Nimue shrieked, shaking a fist to the sky.
Sebile crept hand over foot to Nimue's side and helped her elderly cohort to an elbow before Nimue slapped her away.
"Don't you try sneaking up on my blindside girl!" Nimue cackled. "I know you're there."
Nimue's steely eye impaled her younger companion like a dagger, and Sebile froze in place, momentarily.
Sebile turned away and began gathering loose firewood strewn about.
"Yes yes sister. Nimue the all-seeing. The all-knowing." muttered Sebile before straightening and piling the logs at the side of the campfire. She threw a medium sized piece atop the little flame sending sparks flying. "I was beginning to think you'd fallen into some deep hole somewhere ..."
Nimue jerked herself to her feet and began swatting away pine needles, dust, and splinters. "Well, if you should know ..."
"Was hoping anyway ..." Sebile muttered with her back turned.
"What was that??!" Nimue lurched forward, lightning quick, accusatory finger extended toward her companion.
"Oh nothing." Sebile shrugged.
Nimue cocked her eyesocket. "I should hope not."
Sebile met her gaze, hands raised.
Nimue had been in service longer. She had all the tenure. She deserved respect, and she made the rules. For all intents and purposes, Nimue was senior. Until her end, at least.
Sebile watched as Nimue retrieved an old cooking pan from her pack. As she approached the fire upon her return, Sebile asked: "That a new one?" her eyes flicking toward Nimue's necklace as she poked absently at the fire with a stick.
Nimue gathered the blanched little skulls between her knobby fingers, turning each as they slid around the thong around her neck. She considered each fondly before pausing at one, particularly fresh. Seemed to be a squirrel skull newly deprived of its essence. She scowled down at it before picking a bit of detritus from its snout with a splintered, cracked nail.
"Hmmmm. Oh yeah." she uttered absently, scouring away filth. "Put him on yestermorn. Calls him Larry. He bit me. Little bastard."
Sebile's eyes brightened with anxious curiosity.
"He bit you?" she considered, tossing her stick into the flames. "But that's not ... How does that even work?"
Nimue grimaced and let the skulls drop back atop her chest where they belonged. She held out her middle finger, thrusting it into the firelight for Sebile to see.
Along its length there was a puncture halfway to the fingertip with a blackened stain of dried blood running a double rivulet almost to her wrist.
Sebile tore a strip of hide from the sleeve of her tunic, gently yet firmly took hold of Nimue's hand and bound the wound tightly.
She inspected her work, rotating Nimue's wrist slowly. Representing initially as bloody tracks, blackened veins threaded their way down the inside of Nimue's right arm. A no doubt certain sign of sepsis ... Sebile raised her eyes in concern ...
The slap came, a stab of white hot lightning, tattooing Sebine's left cheek unexpectedly and causing her to flail backward in shock and confusion.
Nimue snatched her hand away and recoiled beyond arm's reach. Her face projected a particular wide-eyed ferocity causing the fine hair at the back of Sebile's neck to stand on end. She scrambled backward upon the ground toward their bedrolls holding her face, both reddened and stinging hot. She understood perhaps she'd overstepped, taking hold of one so ordained and revered was certainly frowned upon, but this ... something was drastically wrong here.
Sebile resisted an urge to call her inner energy, yet still, she felt a familiar tingle at the corners of her eyes.
"... you ..." choked Nimue clutching her wounded hand to her breast and taking a step forward. All the little skulls at her throat appeared to be staring accusingly at Sebile. "Impudent ... little ..."
Nimue's glare seemed an embodiment of both hatred and of suspicion. She drew herself to her full height and took a single step forward glancing at the binding around her fingers. Sebile rose to her knees, dropped her hands to her sides and lowered her eyes to the ground.
"HighMother." she uttered softly, flatly, keeping her eyes focused upon the soil just ahead of her knees. "I thought only of your health and your well-being in light of your suffering. There is nothing I wouldn't do for our order. I'm only concerned for the Highpriestess's ..."
Nimue took another step. She erupted, her voice rising to a raging howl.
"So you seek to claim my place!! Is that it?!! My rightful place ordained before the dawn of time itself. You WANT what is mine?!!"
Sebile's eyes snapped to Nimue's face in horror and in confusion. She instinctively brought her energies to bear. Heat erupted down the lengths of her arms, her eyes blazed in silver reflection of the campfire between them.
"I'm sorry, HighMother, I sought only to ..."
Nimue's arm shot out and bright light and thunder crashed together forcing Sebile to cringe and to shield her face. When she looked again, Nimue towered over her.
Nimue held her staff over her head, and its finial jade blazed in resounding crackling energy. Her good eye shown as wild, green, pulses as if timed to her beating heart. Sebile froze in stricken awe. She had only heard but had never seen the extent of the HighMother's fury.
"Oh gods. She means to kill me." thought Sebine slowly rising.
Tendrils of green and yellow fire erupted and swirled all around Nimue. The jadestone in her staff crackled, and she drew her lips back slowly showing her teeth.
Sebile felt the air abruptly constrict around them. Suddenly, she became aware she was having trouble breathing, and she clutched at her chest with the effort of sucking in air.
"Please. No. Nimue-Most-High, I seek only to understand ..." she croaked.
Nimue crouched and began a slow circle to her left, the staff thrust before her. The dirt around them swirled and became a maelstrom. Sebile pawed at her throat. The skin at the top of both shoulders constricted, tightened and began to tear. All around her the wind howled, and the dust and dirt born upon that wind enveloped her.
Sebile thrust instinctively out. She felt a prominent wave of energy surge and centralize within her, at her very core, and she let it loose, unfettered and unbridled. The air encircling her flared bright red and heat erupted from her every fiber, pushing back against the forces threatening to do her harm. She heaved a mighty breath at her energy's center and the space around her was cleared by fire leaving her protected at its center as if a curtain were being drawn.
And beyond the curtain stood Nimue. Her face a grinning skull. Her body was wreathed in a cloak of licking flames of green and yellow. She'd become the embodiment of Death, and she strode forward, pushing through Sebile's orb of searing fire.
Sebile gazed upon her in trepidation behind the light and between the flames as she drew closer.
"Nimue, Sister, please! I meant no harm!"
And still Nimue came, undaunted.
"You think me unworthy. You seek to take what is mine!!"
"Not true!" shrieked Sebile. "Nowhere near!"
Sebile flexed her hands, touching her ring fingers to her thumbs and exploded in a great gout of focused heat. Her skin began to crackle and to smolder and little flames ran up her legs and her arms, cleansing her. She embraced her transformation. She willed it on.
Nimue grunted at the eruption of fresh heat, yet still she pressed through until Sebile was easily an arms length away. She thrust her staff into Sebile's face. Blue starlight erupted across Sebile's eyes, and she screamed.
Sebile batted the end of Nimue's staff away and swatted Nimue's eye with a flaming claw that left a firetrail in its wake. Nimue seemed unaffected and slapped her back with a palm thrust to her chest.
All around them, Sebile's firewall failed, collapsed. Sebile flew through the air a handful of paces. She hit the ground hard, rolled over, tossed a fireball or two that Nimue easily slapped away, and she knew that she was doomed.
Nimue came forward until she was a great swirling pillar of death directly over the flaming Sebile. She raised her staff high in both hands. The jadestone became a white hot star holding back the night. Sebile could see nothing aside from the bright beam from that staff. She reached into the earth. She tried to gather every ounce of energy from any and all sources around her. But the earth remained inert, and the forest was all silence.
"Now we shall see." crowed Nimue in triumph before striking the butt of her staff hard against the ground.
There came a flash of white and a simultaneously massive concussion of thunder..
Sebile felt her fiery form heaved into the air and vaguely acknowledged with a tingle of fear she was flying. Her breath was ripped form her lungs. Her body slapped fully against a pine. Flames snuffed out, she found herself face down in moldy, damp undergrowth at the edge of the stream, some 15 meters. She sputtered, felt wetness running down her arms but could not tell if she'd been harmed as pain flared and erupted from every ounce of her being. Slowly, she rolled over, tasted tin in her mouth, pushed herself up, fell back face first in the muck.
She pulled her chin out of the slime, blinked and looked.
Nimue was coming. All the surrounding dark and shadow retreated from her awful light. She was Death's head, and she demanded she collect her pay. Sebile grinned at that because it was a good comparison, and she was proud of herself for thinking it through. She slowly brought herself up upon an elbow and watched her Sister come.
She pulled and willed her flames back to their place but could scarcely manage a sputter. Her arms were bleeding. She felt an odd tightness around one of her eyes, and her fingertips were wet and slippery and sticky all at the same time.
As Nimue drew closer, her staff erupted again in that horrid, bright light. The greens and the yellows continued to dance around her, and her face was gone. All that remained was that gruesome skull this time wreathed in a white glow.
Sebile shielded her eyes. She held a defensive hand up and cried.
Nimue drew her staff up high once again. White hot light blazed a final time.
Then there came a foreign, unnatural cry from the forest. A sound startling enough Nimue faltered, if only for a moment, and turned her head.
Behind them, the trees shook and thrashed and there was an enormous splash downstream.
Then it came through the darkness.
Two pinpricks of ruby red speared out from the treeline and grew large as cartwheels dancing among the shadows. The roar sounded again, but this time it was unyielding and deafening and undeniable.
"No!" Nimue cried.
And then she was gone.
In a gout of wind and with thudding pulses from what seemed a receding earthquake, Nimue simply was no longer there.
In the distance, trees shook and came crashing down until there was only sweet silence and the babble of the stream nearby.
Sebile rolled over blinking back tears and stared a moment or two at the blanket of stars overhead.
"Close." she hugged her arms to herself. "So close."
Again there came a shrieking roar although it was considerable diminished by a considerable distance. Sebile turned her head against the moss and the slime and willed away her pain.
Some ways away, a white light flickered silhouetting the boughs around their glade before all was again plunged to darkness.
A sound like a massive tree toppling before crashing down.
And BOOM - another explosion before a final silence.
All was still.
The crickets resumed their cacophony, and the frogs began to chirrup. And the forest reclaimed its innocence.
... because Morgana had come home.