Rain dotted the lichen encrusted stones beneath Penny and Folwor as they stood, tense, before the ensemble of Cull. Thole, inhabiting a massive bear, stood before the others, his matted fur slick in the increasing downpour.
“Will you yield?” he said.
“What do you think?” Penny shot back. Folwor gave her a look, but Penny didn’t care. The might of strength stone swirled around inside of her and she felt she could do anything. She scanned the tree line, counting off pairs of golden eyes. Twenty-one versus just two.
“What I think,” Thole said, “is how little you understand.”
“You’re monsters,” Penny said, trying to buy time to think. “What’s there to understand.”
“We weren’t always like this,” Thole said. “We were once…but what does it matter?” He widened his stance, the others in the trees lying into crouches. “Words will not help you.”
Penny spread her wings, Folwor’s growl growing into a snarl beside her. “Then stop talking.”
The clouds overhead had brewed into a full storm, painting the forest in broad strokes of shadow and water. Neither party moved as the rain tumbled down on them. Penny eyed the enemy line, trying to gauge who would move first. Droplets glistened on her crystalline feathers as she stood still. The Cull seemed to be waiting as much for her a she was for them. No one stirred, the only motion the churning of the air with rain.
Then a flash. Lightening cracked a cross the sky and in the instant the world was capture in black and white, the Cull charged into the clearing. Penny set her jaw as she and Folwor launched themselves into the fight.
Daniel stumbled to the ground, landing on his palms. Thorns and bristles dug into his hands, but he didn’t notice. He pushed himself back to his feet and cast a glance behind only long enough to see flecks of golden light pursuing him from behind.
He tore his way through the underbrush as the Cull seemed to gain on him. Branches scratched at his face and he could feel small rivulets of blood trail down his cheek. But he kept running. Legs burning, he couldn’t stop. His man wound in circles as he ran, the same image of Charley and Pam being dragged down into the Cull’s lair. In one fell moment, it had all been lost.
Panic drove him on. He came to a wide swath of boulders with no immediate way around. He jumped on to the shortest one. Wet with the oncoming rain, his hands protested as he he tried to take hold of the slick stone, digging his fingernails into the thin veneer of moss.
With a yell, he hoisted himself up on top. He reached for the next rock, but his foot slipped. He fell backwards and clawed at another stone to try to steady himself when his hand caught a nook on the surface. It left a gash in his palm, but he was able to right himself.
Crimson rainwater dripped down to his elbow as he clambered over the other boulders. Streams poured from his soaking hair. He brushed them aside leaving red streaks on his forehead. He was so tired. He practically flopped onto the top part of the rock pile, exhausted.
Daniel spun to see a host of twin dots emerge from the woods, like pairs of haunted gold coins. Cull sprang from the drenched canopy, they looked to have been foxes at one point, not that it matter anymore. Daniel swung himself over the other side only to be confronted with a steep drop. He didn’t have a choice. The pursuing Cull were making short work up the side of the rocks. Daniel took a deep breath and jumped.
The forest floor was wet with mud and he slid as he landed, rolling into the muck. He wasn’t hurt, but that gave him no respite. His shoes threaten to betray him as he tried to sprint out of the mud, just as the Cull crested the behind him.
He had to find Penny or Folwor. It was his only chance. But for how long could he run. He didn’t dare think about it as he shielded his face against the oncoming limb of a pine. It scraped along his arm as she shoved passed it, running he knew not where.
Penny threw off a Cull possessed badger, her bladded wings slicing off its hind legs. That was five down, mostly some of the smaller ones. The clearing the fight had begun in was now littered with stray samplings, trees, ivy traps, and sink holes she had created to even the odds against their attackers. To her left, on the other side of a thick patch of aspens she had conjured, she could hear Folwor tustling with one of the Cull bears. Hopefully it wasn’t Thole, although in the confusion, Penny had lost track of him.
A set of teeth digging into her back forced her to wheel about. The mountian lion hung on with a determined and vengeful grip as she tried to shake him off. The strength stone allowed her to heal quickly enough, but it couldn’t stop the initial pain from the bite.
Penny flared her wings and flipped herself forward landing hard on her pack, hammering the Cull to the wet, stone ground. That finally made him let go and she cut a deep gash in his flank with her wing-feathers. He cried in pain and when he tried to regain his feet, she toppled to the side. She must have severed a curcial ligiment in one of his legs.
The bite on her back closed over as she healed herself and she noticed with a disturbed sense of reality that the once seemingly limitless power of the forest was percetibaly lessened from the extended fight. With what wounds she’d needed to heal from, all the plants she’d created, and rocks she’d thrown, the might of the forest was draining fast.
She pushed the thought aside. She’d use it while she had it. The Cull mountain lion was trying to get back up. Grimacing, she imbued the ground with magic and sharp pine sapling rupture up from beneath, spearing through the monster. His eyes dimmed after a moment, and Penny was tempted to relax but not before four other Cull broke through one of the barriers around her. Two boars, an elk and some bird or other, although with the gross mutations of the Cull she couldn’t never be certain what they had been before.
Determined, Penny braced herslef as her new attackers began the engagement afresh.
The ground ran with a dozen burgeoning streams as Daniel ran through the downpour. A bolt of lightening would crack overhead, freezing the forest around him in blistering moments, the world split into extremes. There was white and there was black, there was nothing in between except the rain.
His shoes squished with each sprinted step. Even through the curtain of perception that draped over everything, he could still see the pairs of lights bobbing just yards behind him, their growls and unsettling cries of the chase mingling with thunder and splashes.
Daniel turned around only to abruptly stop. The mud unobliging, he slipped and fell flat on his back. Groaning, but not having the time to dwell, he sat up and surveyed the path before him, or rather the lack there of. The ground had given way to a slurry of dirt and runoff that went tumbling off the edge of a roughly ten foot ledge where at the bottom, the water refuse was swept down hill at an alarming speed.
Daniel glanced between the high jump and viscose mud and back at the Cull chasing him. They were getting close now, but where slowing down. The wet ground hindered their progress and the thick weather was making hard for them to see him. Because of their glowing eyes, the problem didn’t extend in the reverse.
The water below churned with grisly brown foam as it began to wash out the the forest floor. It was either that torrent of mirky water or face down the Cull. Or both? He got an idea.
His fingers slipped soaked, rough bark, but he eventually managed to break off a decent sized tree branch. His hair and clothes sopping wet, he crouched down behind a stump near the edge. The first Cull came over not a few seconds later, sniffing and checking around the bases of trees. The body of the decaying fox was still a rusted red and was easy to see even given everything.
Daniel waited until the creature had its back to him. He slipped out from behind his cover and swinging his make-shift club in two hands, drove the end of it into the Cull’s stomach hard.
The monster reeled from his attack, stumbling backward to just where Daniel wanted him. He charged the thing and it tried to brace its stance, but the muddy ground was in Daniel’s favor. He swung at it again. The Cull unable to evade the attack, caught the branch mid-strike in its mouth. Daniel tried to pry it free, but the thing had a tenacious hold. It seemed to grin at him as parts of its body began to unfurl, alien limbs emerging from its back and sides.
They were close enough to the edge. He might loose his weapon, but it was worth the risk. Instead of pulling away, Daniel shoved his weight against the creature pushing him back. Again, the Cull tried to get a good footing, but the edge bluff was mostly stone and was soaked with rain and mud. Daniel pushed him right up against the cliff it finally managed to get a solid foothold. The wrestled back and forth again as the Cull tried to bring its other limbs to its aid.
The other Cull would be close by, he couldn’t spend this much time and if it got its tendrils out, he wasn’t sure he could beat it, even one on one. Taking a deep breath and not entirely sure what he was doing, he dropped the stick. The Cull stumbled forward, not expecting the move and Daniel, as fast as he could, placed his hands on the stones and kicked the thing in the gut, sending it careening backward, over the edge, and into the nightmare of churning mud and water that then ran off down hill.
It let out a howl as it plummeted below. Daniel whipped around as the sound drew the attention of the others. He kicked the stick into his hand, fumbling it a little. He then took a stand on the edge and watched with mounting dread as sets of eyes emerged from the gloom. Four Cull foxes crept forward, their tendrils out and teeth beared. Daniel tightened his grip and dug his heels into the mud.
They came at him in pairs, wicked limbs flashing through the dark air. Daniel ducked under one and managed to bat another away as the two Cull descended on him. One jump up in the air jaw wide. Daniel jabbed his branch between the monster’s teeth as its weight shoved him to the ground. Stronger, it pushed its maw closer and closer to Daniel’s face. Out of the corner of his vision, he could see the second Cull as it came at him with the barbed ends of it tentacles.
Thinking fast, Daniel kicked the back legs of the Cull on top of him. In the brief moment when it was off balance, he pulled his branch to the side. The Cull’s teeth were buried deep in the wood and so he yank its head with the move. The rest of its body followed and it fell over just in time to block the barbs of his companion. Fortunately, the first Cull had tangled its tendrils with the second as it growled in annoyance.
The first got to its feet, but kept getting yanked back by the second as it tried to extricate its limbs. Seizing the moment of confusion, Daniel dug his feet up under the first Cull and pushed it over himself and off the edge. Its entwined limbs jerked the other Cull over the side with it, but Daniel didn’t get a chance to celebrate as the remaining two move to avenge their fellows.
He tried to get up, but the wet stone proved as treacherous to him as it had been for the first two Cull. His feet couldn’t find purchase on the rain soaked rock and he struggled to get up, only having success by getting on his hands and knees. He was instantly knocked down, however, by a swipe from a tendril.
Daniel tried to grab his branch but a red tongue of flesh wrapped around his arm, yanking it away. The same with his other arm leaving him lying on his back, rain pelting his face. Dark faces peered down at him, eyes aglow.
No, it wouldn’t be like this. They had taken the Blairs. They had taken Pam and Charley. His family. He tried to break free from their grip, but to avail. They watched him squire something akin to amusement. He heard the slurry flow below him churning as it blasted through the woods, a flash-flood of debris and mud.
Daniel turned to the watching Cull who seemed in no rush now that they had him. He couldn’t life his arms, but the rest of him was still free. It seemed the only way out. He met their eyes and gave a grim smile. For the Blairs.
The Culls’ smug expressions, realizing too late what he was about to do. Daniel rolled to the side and flung himself off the edge, the Cull’s tendrils still wrapped around hid arms. They tried to let go, but he held onto the tendrils as he fell. He had the satisfaction of seeing them pulled off the slippery rock outcropping just before he hit the water.
The world became a chaotic whirl. He was shoved under by the force of the current. Panicking, he swam for the surface but was blocked off as a large log washed overhead. The water was crowded with branches and forest fodder as Daniel fought to get air. The tumultuous current threatened to pound him into the riverbed. Stones the size of his head battered along the bottom, carried along by the rain turned rapid.
He tumbled end over end, trying to get to the surface, but it was impossible to tell up from down. The water was dark brown, almost black in every direction. Sand and sticks pelted his face. His hands searched, blind in the torrent of leaves, wood, and debris. A rock, tossed in the rush, struck his back, knocking what little breath he had out of his lungs. A break in the surface. He struggled to swim upward, extending a hand, trying to just reach open air. But then a shift in the onslaught obscured the opening as a tree-trunk set adrift dropped into the flood. So close to the surface, it struck Daniel square on the head. Chest burning for oxygen and his vision dimming, the world went dark
“AAAAAAH!” Penny yelled, throwing her assailant off. A pair of Cull mocking birds that had dug their gross elongated talons into her back. She spun around, splashing up water. The clearing had begun to fill with it, the storm having become a maelstrom.
The wounds in her back quickly healed over and once again she was aware of how finite her power was. There was still a lot there to draw from, hordes worth, but not unlimited. She cast the thought aside as the birds came back in this time with help of a possessed elk, its antlers massive. Penny set her jaw, bending low to the ground. She could feel the dormant seeds buried in the soil. She couldn’t summon plants from nothing, but if the right ones were there…
A mess of ivy erupted from the ground. She turned it in the air as it sailed into the air under its own momentum. It acted like a net, tangling the Cull birds in its knots. Penny yank it down into the rising water and commanded the plants to hold fast beneath the surface.
That down, she turned her attention back to the elk just in time to get rammed by the rack on his head. Penny gasped, the pain arching through her body like the lightening above. Anger replaced shock, however. She infused the ground with magic and a patch of bristlecones rose from the earth like gnarled hands of some ancient being.
The elk tripped up, getting caught in the knotted wood. Penny took to the sky, but the constant rain made it difficult to stay aloft. But the rain also allowed the bristlecones to grow faster and she urged them on, imprisoning the Cull elk in a bramble of contorting and interlocking branches. The wounds from getting impaled closed up as she swooped low and using the razor ends of her wings, sliced of his antlers for good measure.
While above, she looked for Folwor. She had lost her in the chaos. She saw fallen Cull scattered throughout the clearing, several immobilized, others floating limp in the storm water. She say a bear’s body gruesomely torn apart. That was one out of three. Her strategy to break up the clearing into sections with trees, to divide the Cull ranks seemed to have worked well, but it also made visibility from above poor. She couldn’t—
Something swatted her out of the sky. She plunged into the water below which was now a good four feet deep. When she tried to get up, she was grabbed by the feathers atop her head and shoved back underwater. She slashed about with her wings, tried to knock off her attacker. She made contact with something long and thin and jabbed the sharp-edge feathers on her wings into it. It recoiled from her blow and she pulled her head from the murk, sucking in air.
Thole stood before her, a tendril of his had a long gash on it that was dripping something black.
“You again?” Penny said, coughing up water.
“I’ll be sure it’s the last time,” Thole said, unleashing a volley of limbs at her.
She evaded as best she could, striking back in turn. She practically had blades at the end of her wings with those crystalline feathers and she sliced trough as many of his tendrils as she could. But it was her two wings versus his dozen tongues of flesh. A strike on her shoulder, a cut on her leg, a sting to her face. She just couldn’t keep up with the onslaught, but was holding her ground.
“I thought it would be different,” Thole said.
Penny spun around, gliding up into the air several feet and chopping the ends off of six of Thole’s tendrils. She landed back in the water, grinning. “It is.”
Thole roared, charing for her, but she was prepared. Let’s see how you like it. Vines as thick as a man’s arm exploded from the ground at her feet. Thole pulled up, parrying with his own tentacles. But while his were fixed in number, Penny could bring as many as she wanted. Bunches, dozens of them shot from the water, whipping at Thole’s flank. She managed to snag one of his legs, dragging it down. He cut the vine holding it, but three more took its place.
She went for his feet, trying to pin the massive Cull down when another roared sounded to her left. One of the other possessed bears came barreling towards her. She dodged out of the way, but with her concentration broken, the vines latched on to Thole simply fell away, limp.
The two monster bears came at her from differing angles. She tried to erect a wall of trees to stop the second Cull, but Thole was too quick. With one of his remaining tendrils, he snapped at her wing, breaking. She stumbled back, forcing it to heal as fast as she could, but the second Cull was already on top of her. He wrapped his tendrils around her wings, pinning them to her sides.
“Do you haver her?” Thole asked the other Cull.
“Yes,” he said. Penny fought against the bonds. They stretched, but did not break as the Cull with a groan of effort tightened his grip. “But taking her back will be difficult. Did Wlite say we needed her alive?”
Thole met Penny’s eye. “No.”
The second Cull lifted his massive paw, the claws dripping black water, but he never got the chance.
What looked like a gray boulder came flying out of the corner of Penny’s vision and slammed into the second Cull. He released her, sprawling backwards from the impact. Penny got up to see Folwor standing between her and their two adversaries.
“Are you alright?” She asked Penny.
“Better now,” Penny said. A long gash ran the length of Folwor’s side. It looked deep. Other cuts and scrapes dotted her friend’s body and all but one leg was bleeding profusely.
“Let me heal you,” Penny said.
Penny didn’t think that was a such a good idea, but then again Folwor was probably right. They didn’t have time for that at the moment. “The rest of the Cull?” Penny asked.
“I didn’t see anymore,” Folwor said.
Penny nodded. Then these were the last two. The second Cull who was slightly bigger than Thole, was just picking himself up out of the water after the knot from Folwor. Thole had been gradually circling to their right and that’s when Penny noticed he’d positioned himself such that she and Folwor were in between him and his companion.
Should have been paying better attention, she scolded herself. Nothing for it now. “You take this one,” Penny said, looking at Thole. He stood knee deep in storm runoff, his tendrils gently glancing across the water’s surface in a patient pattern.
“I’ve already fought one of these monsters,” Folwor said. “I’m more prepared to deal with his friend.”
“Fine,” Penny said. She didn’t like it, but there wasn’t time to argue. She just hoped Folwor could take the larger Cull.
A tense moment. Both parties waiting for the other to move first. Rain drops caused a flurry of ripples in the growing pool at their feet, distorted, dark reflections acting before their real world counterparts.
Penny had locked eyes with Thole. Her body poised for action. She watched for a hint, a tell. There, a twitch in his lower lip.
A pine burst from the water, shooting straight at the Cull. He dodged in time, but Penny didn’t plan on giving him any breathing room. She pressed her attack, ripping the pine needles from the tree and hurling them at him in force. They clearly hurt him, but he just plowed through the shower of green spears, crashing into her.
He tried to immobilize her wings, but she slipped away, flying upward a bit. She caught a glimpse of Folwor in her fight. She was on the Cull’s back, trying to get at his neck, a mess of tendrils trying to throw her off.
One of them from Thole nearly clipped her wing. He stood down in the water, trying to reach her. When it became apparent she wasn’t going to land, he made a beeline for Folwor. Penny dived to intercept, but he spun around, getting a good strike in on her chest. She managed to stay airborne but only just. She reached out for the vines from earlier. A handful sprung up around Thole, twisting about his legs and pulling him into the shallows. But no more came up. There must not have been enough seeds in the soil.
Penny looked between Thole and the other Cull. She was too slow on the ground what with waist high water, but up in the air Thole just ignored her and went to attack Folwor.
Then let’s narrow the playing field. Just as in her first fight with Thole, she summoned a ring of stout oaks around him. That ought to buy me a few minutes, she thought as she dove towards the other Cull. He was too busy with Folwor to see her coming. She met him head on, driving her sharp wings deep into his side.
The Cull screamed, a sound so loud it Penny could feel it. She pushed in deeper, but had to eventually pull away as a wave of tendrils came at her. He tried to turn toward her, but she had given Folwor an opening. The great she-wolf tore into the Cull’s throat and its cries were lost in the gurgle of something foul. Black ooze poured from the wound, staining the surrounding water like tar. Folwor joined Penny as they watched the Cull stumble around. It tried to reach for them, but the wound was mortal and it collapsed into the now tarnished black water.
“Thank you,” Folwor said, trying to catch her breath. “I—” A deafening crack issued from behind them as Thole broke through his make shift prison.
Penny looked to Folwor. “Later,” she said. Folwor actually smiled at that before they both turned their attention back to their last foe.
Thole looked from them to the fallen Cull. He scanned the now submerged clearing. Cull corpses drifted on a gentle current along with scattered wood that had drained into the area.
Even in the rain, Penny could hear him speak. “So many…”
“Give up,” Penny said. “You can’t possibly hope to win.”
He slowly turned his head to her. “Our ‘hope’ was to go back to our home. Take a look blue one; what good would hope serve these now?” He began walking towards them.
“You don’t want to do this,” Penny said.
“Because it will end badly?” Thole said, not stopping. “Because you will kill me if I do? Then end it.” His tendrils hovered over the water’s surface, twitching with suspense. “Finish me. Destroy me. For too long I’ve suffered having bee cast from my world into this hell, but at least I was not alone.” He paused. His face became one a singular sorrow as he again looked at the dead around him. “These were some of the last of us and if I am to join them.” He turned back to her, a fatal look in his eyes. “Then so be it.”
In a flash, he closed the distance between them, unleashing a hurricane of attacks. While alone, Penny might have struggled against him, with Folwor they were more than a match. Penny dodge between strikes, cut slicing at him when she found openings. Folwor took him head on, shoving him up against a tree. He tried to fight back, but Penny swooped down, throwing herself against him. As she hit, there was an audible crack. The tree behind Thole splintered at the base. They had pounded him against it so hard, it had broken the trunk. They moved to the side as it fell, but they must have broken something inside Thole as well because he didn’t move as it crashed down on top of him.
He lay still. Folwor and Penny stood by, waiting, but it seemed for nothing. He didn’t get up and didn’t stir.
Penny breathed a sigh of relief. She waded through the water over to Folwor. “That went better than I thought.”
Folwor didn’t seem to share her sense of ease. “There will be more.”
“There always is,” Penny said. “And we’ll face them just the same.”
Folwor gave her a half smile and a raised eyebrow. “You’re awfully cheerful given our present circumstances.”
“I don’t know,” Penny said, thinking about. “We just defeated a bunch of Cull.” She smiled, oddly. “I’d say I’m feeling pretty good.”
“Some of us are not,” Folwor said, gesturing to her wounds.
“Oh, right.” Penny stepped up and breathed out on to Folwor’s injured side. The cuts and gashes closed over, healed as Penny moved to Folwor’s legs.
“Thank you,” Folwor said.
“I should be telling you,” Penny said. “Without you I don’t know if…” What was that? Penny trailed off, looking over Folwor’s shoulder.
“What is it?” Folwor said, following her gaze.
A dark shape floating in the water. “I’m not sure,” Penny said. It didn’t look like a Cull or another piece of flotsam. It was drifting along, almost like a lump on the surface of the water. From here it didn’t look much like anything, so why did she feel it was familiar. She crossed through the water to get a better look. It was a hiking backpack. How had that gotten down here? Probably the runoff from the storm. She could see several spots on the rim of the clearing where flash floods had eroded the soil away.
She was still mulling it over when she noticed the pack wasn’t alone. Someone was wearing it. “There’s a person over here!” Penny hollered. She rushed over and flipped the body over. Daniel’s pale face rose from the water. “No,” Penny said. “No no no no no! Daniel can you hear me?” No response. His eyes were shut. She bent down. He didn’t seem to be breathing.
Folwor came up behind her. “How did he get here?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” Penny said. Oh please, don’t be dead, Daniel. Please. Folwor said something else, but Penny didn’t hear.
“Penny!” Folwor barked. She snapped out of it. “We need to get him to dry ground, I said.”
“O-okay,” Penny said. She lifted Daniel in her wings. They hurriedly waded to the far shore for the clearing was now more of a pond. She set him on a patch of moss. He was covered in scrapes and cuts. Nothing looked too bad, but then why wasn’t he waking up? She exhaled over him, trying to repair the damage. The cuts closed over, but he still didn’t wake up.
“Come on, Daniel,” Penny said, fighting the tremble in her voice. “Please. Please come back.” She tried again, but to still no effect. “Why isn’t it working?” She tried it a third time. “Why isn’t it working?!” She checked the reserves of her power. She hadn’t run out, so what was happening? All the power of the forest and it seemed to mean nothing.
She slumped to the ground next to him. She just stared at him. She would never get a chance to tell him. Tell him she regretted what she’d said. Folwor came up beside her. She looked between Penny who was beginning to cry and Daniel’s body. Casually as if just take a step, she placed her paw on Daniel’s chest and pushed down. Daniel spat out water and began choking.
“You’re alive!” Penny moved to hug him, but Daniel sat up, ignoring her. He bent over and coughed up the rest of what was in his lungs and perhaps what was also in his stomach.
“Ugh,” he moaned lying back against a rock. He blinked several times, come back to the present. He squinted. “Folwor?” He asked confused.
The she-wolf gave a full smile. “Glad to have you back.”
He gave her a confused look. “Where did I go?”
“Some place,” Folwor said, “we were afraid we couldn’t help you.”
“Wait,” Daniel said, rubbing his eye. “Was I underwater?” Folwor just shook her head, still smiling.
Daniel turned finally seeming to notice Penny.
“Hey,” Penny said.
Daniel rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah…”
“Look,” Penny said, “I’ve been…well…”
Daniel let out a long breath. “I know. Me too.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, looking down, “And I’m really…”
Penny smiled, almost tearing up. “Yeah, me too.” She frowned, however. “Wait, why are you sorry?”
“Back then, during that afternoon,” Daniel said, “I didn’t get why you couldn’t just stick around for a while and do the Bright Jay thing. I thought were just being selfish.” He looked up, “But I get it now. I’m sorry I didn’t understand before.”
“But I was being selfish,” Penny said, “I may not want this,” she said, looking down at the gemstone on her chest. “Actually, it’s kind of cool, but,” she shook her head, “the point is, that doesn’t mean I can’t help. I was given this and need to use to as best as I can for however long I need to.”
“Hopefully not long,” Folwor said. “If we can find the Cull’s den, then we can end this.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Penny said.
“Oh no,” Daniel said. They both turned to him as he tried to stand. Unsteady, he stumbled to the said, catching hold of Penny for support.
“Daniel, what is it?” She asked, he brow deep with concern.
“My parents,” Daniel said. He must have hit his head, it was hard to remember but that afternoon began to come back to him. “They were taken by the Cull.”
Folwor stiffened. “How?”
“We were on a hike?” Daniel said, holding is forehead. “They wanted to take me to see this old shack in the woods. When we got there, all the plants were sick with some kind of black slime. We went inside and there was this large pit in floor. By the time I put it all together, they were already gone, dragged down below.”
Folwor stepped up. “Do you remember where it is?”
Daniel tried to stand again, this time with more success. “I think so. I could show you.”
“Alright,” Penny said, “Folwor and I will go down and—”
“I’m coming, too.”
Penny gave him a skeptical look. “No offense but—”
“I know,” Daniel said. “I’m the only non-magical person here. Believe me, I know it’s a bad idea. But they’re my parents.” His brow knit together, his face hard with resolve. “I’m part of what got them into this, and I’ll have a hand in getting them out.”
Folwor studied him for a long minute. “Alright,” she said. “Now, where is this place?”
Keltos stood in the midst of Cull. His body was taller than most with some sort of wild horns growing from his head, although it had a large scar across one eye. The body had been found that way and there was not getting around it.
Wlite had ordered everyone into the antechamber. The high ceiling caught the furtive whisperings of the throng. Why where they here? Where was Thole, their top commander? Where those humans they’d seen being taken below. Before him and the others stood the black veil to Wlite’s chamber, coils of something like dark smoke drifted from the threshold. Keltos hoped that at the very least she might give them some answers. She had been withdrawn as of late. Usually she spoke to them, counseling with them for their nexts steps. The last time she had emerged from that dark-hold was five days ago, although it was hard to tell the passage of time from underground.
All at once her voice boomed out from the doorway. “We are close, my friends,” she said. Her voice still sounded like the sweetest thing he’d ever heard. “Our home is within our reach. Before long, one of ours will bring the blue one back, and we will be able to return.” Keltos along with the others cheered at the news. Some even cried. They were finally going back.
“But first,” Wlite said. “We must tend to our own. I need five brave enough to aid in this next step.”
“I’ll do it!” Keltos shouted. If they were about to leave, what was one last assignment. Four others readily presented themselves.
“Step up to the veil,” Wlite said. The five lined up. Keltos looked at the others. It was hard to tell who was who these days what with their present condition, but he thought he could detect traces of their old selves in this new bodies. It took a moment, but he was able to place all of them. Jetwel, he had been a notable scholar in the old land. Gilla and Riässa, the sister fisherwomen from down at the pier. Drult, an aged weaver he didn’t know much about, Keltos had only met him once before. And Wirdlow, a candlemaker and carpenter.
Keltos turned back to the veil just as Wlite spoke. “Step forth.” Keltos braced himself as did the others as they moved through the inky smoke.
It was totally dark. He had never personally been into Wlite’s chambers, but the rumors had undersold the darkness. He had gone only a short ways in, but when he looked back, he saw nothing. The doorway didn’t appear to be there.
He took a deep breath to push down the innate unease he felt. This was Wlite. She wouldn’t ask them here unless it was important. So why then was nothing happening? He frowned. Should she have said something at this point? He just stood there in the dark, waiting. “Hello?” He said. “Gilla, Jetwel, is anyone there?”
Nothing. His frown deepened. “Is anyone there?”
He thought he heard a reply. It was quiet, but it was also close. He inched forward, trying to find the source, all the while weary of his footing in the dim confines. There it was again, a little louder this time. It couldn’t be more than three feet away. He leaned forward. It sounded like a whisper. “Hello?” He said
Then a noise like someone being gagged, followed by a voice. “Keltos.” It was Riässa.
“I don’t—” She sounded like she was being choked.
Another sound. Keltos spun around to face the noise. That of rushing water. Like a tide coming in only it seemed more directed.
From behind him Riässa said one last word. “Help—”
Then Wlite spoke. “Four will do for now.”
“For what?” Keltos said, looking around. What was happening?
“Those within me need light,” Wlite said. Her tone wasn’t like it was normally. It sounded…disturbed. “Light,” she said, her voice fracturing into many, “light, light, light!”
A ball of white brilliance exploded from Keltos’s right accompanied by a terrible shriek. It was Galla being upheld by some black liquid and silhouetted against a blazing light. Her scream grew more intense as she began to burn away.
Then it was over. Keltos stood still in the dark. The image of a friend being burned alive engraved in his memory. He began to shake, fear digging into his chest.
Another explosion of light to left, and another. Riässa and Wirdlow screaming as they evaporated into nothingness before his eyes.
“What are you doing?” Keltos demanded, searching about him in the dark.
“They need the light,” Wlite said. She sounded unhinged. Another blast of brilliance. Drult, writhing in Wlite’s grip.
“No!” Keltos shouted. He charged at the liquid arm holding the Cull and tore through it with his antlers.
Drult fell to the ground. His body was small with a red coat and pointed ears. Keltos could hear the liquid churning around them. Drult was weak, but he crawled onto Keltos’s back. They ran. Aimless in the dark, but away from where ever they heard the ripple of water.
“It is necessary,” Wlite said, he sweetness back. “To save those in me.”
Keltos didn’t reply. This was madness. He dashed around, looking anywhere for the entrance, but the dark had moved in again.
“It. Is. Necessary,” Wlite hissed. It came from all around them. Keltos could feel liquid knick his heels. It had to be around here somewhere, it had to—they stumbled back out into the dim light of the antechamber. Dozens of Cull stood watching the veil. Those nearest jumped back as Keltos bolted through them. He looked back as cries of alarm rose from the others. Arms, black as ebony erupted from the veil and began dragging Cull into it haphazardly. There was mass confusion, but Keltos didn’t stop. He ran with Drult on his back, up the path ways towards the surface as Wlite’s haunting words echoed from below.
“They need the light.”