Tuesday, June 7

The Incident Under the Hill

It has been a long day. I hope I'll be able to read this later. I'm still shaking. I can't calm down. I did... something. And I don't know how or if I can do it again, or if I will do it again at the wrong time, without control. Something is happening to me, and I am afraid. Worse yet, Gloria watched it happen, she was almost hurt. I need to study. I need to find out what this is, before I hurt or kill someone that I care about. I still can't think clearly. I hoped writing things down would help. But I can't do it all at once. I'll start at the beginning.
We woke up early for the festival. Over a quick three course breakfast, Mr. Boflin explained about the festival, which is held every year in midsummer. It's called the “Leavetaking Festival.” Traditionally, the border between spring and summer is considered by Halflings as the luckiest time for traveling. So once a year, there is a farewell party. Gloria was one of the honorees this year, and we were humans, just along for the ride. After breakfast we hiked to the top of the hill for a religious service. I didn't want to go, but Dad gave me one of his looks, and that was pretty much that. There was already a steady stream of pilgrims going up the hill by the time we got outside. I figured that my rare height advantage would make things easy, but the townsfolk were surprisingly quick and agile. I was practically running to keep up. My father was working just as hard. The road up the hill, at the very least, was not too steep. The road was paved in brick, and the hill formed a wall against one side. A wooden railing, at waist hight for a halfling, protected travelers from wandering off of the edge. In the hill itself had windows and doors every few feet. Occasionally, as we passed, new members came outside and joined the march. They were singing a song, but it was in Halfling, and I couldn't make out the words. Dad told me it was a song about a gathering, a traditional travel song and processional.
We cleared the top of the hill, and there was an amphitheater cut into the top. The entire floor of the theatre was a massive mosaic shaped like the holy symbol of Barley, the Halfling goddess. It resembled a golden stalk of wheat crossed with a black sickle. The Boflins went to their usual seats, quite close to the front. Halflings aren't overly concerned with rules, but they cherish respect, so they sort of live by an unwritten, unspoken consensus. Dad and I went with them, even though Dad had to sit on the isle because he couldn't comfortaly on the half-sized benches. I sat on the end, and hunkered down in my seat. The woman behind me gave me a nasty glare, as though I was purposefully trying to block her view.
On the other side of the theatre was a set up for musicians and effects. I watched as the technicians pulled some levers, and the sunlight filling the amphitheater was suddenly prismatic. The musicians began, and the congregation began to sing, again in halfling. I tried to find a prayer or songbook, but there was nothing to follow along with. Dad whispered to me that the song was a prayer of thanksgiving for the new day and for the fertility of the fields and the growing things. During the song, the celebrants, two men and an elderly woman, came down the center aisle. They blessed people and shook hands as they came down. She gave the service in Halfling, and even though she pointed at me several times, I have absolutely no idea what she said. The woman behind me kept shushing Dad every time he tried to tell me.
The service was surprisingly short. It couldn't have lasted more than one half of an hour. There was a short reading, a response, and a little sermon. I don't know what she said, but the congregation spend much of it laughing. Even Dad chuckled once or twice, although I think he looked embarrassed. After the ceremony, there was a sort of informal town meeting, with lots of shaking hands and jokes. Dad and I were introduced as good friends of the Boflins, and friends of the town. There were many stories told about my grandfather and Mr Boflin's mother. A few of them were told in common, but I'm certainly not going to write them here. Who knows who might see it. Still, if half of what they said was true, I didn't know the old man had it in him!
The meet and greet went on for a long time, then the congregation broke for an early lunch, which to the Halflings is an official meal, followed by late lunch, tea, and supper. The entire congregation moved to the row of stalls and tents on the main street. The fair was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. There were rows and rows of stalls selling food, trinkets, and just about anything you could imagine! There were these totally boring displays from the local guild, showing new pony carts and barrels and thing like that. Barrels! Who would want to go see a display about a new kind of barrel? I was bored off my feet, but Dad and Mr. Boflin were strangely interested. Gloria and I tried to slip back to the midway, but Mrs. Boflin made us take Tarry with us. Tarry has some kind of problem, I think, but nobody talks about it. Even though he's my age, he's kept on a string, to keep him from wandering off. It wasn't like this last time they visited. I wonder what happened.
We took him back with us, and we grabbed some fish and chips from one of the stalls, and we watched the performers. Tarry watched happily, and he seemed normal enough, but Gloria kept looking at him; watching him out of the corner of her eye, as if he were about to explode or something. It freaked me out. The wandering performers were jugglers, bards, and clowns, who wandered down the streets and stopped at some of the tables. They were actually quite good, particularly the tumblers. A few makeshift stages were also set up for concerts, plays, acrobats, and even a magician!
The magician was unbelievable. He wore a black robe embrodered with red roses, and his tall, pointy hat matched. He threw fire, he lifted a brick without touching it, and he pulled doves from out of thin air. It was amazing! I hope that when I become a mage, I'm half as skilled as he is. I was watching the performance with Gloria and Tarry, who kept trying to run off. She said she wasn't impressed, that he was a fake, but at the end, when he disappeared in a flash and a cloud of smoke that smelled like flowers, I thought, this is what magic should be. His placard read "Periel the Magnificent, Magician to Queens and Emperors." I guess there is much more to magic than running a dusty old shop or exploring moldy ruins. I just hope I can enough control.
I was so wrapped up in the performance that it wasn't until it was over that I noticed that Tarry had run off. Gloria hadn't realized it either. Somehow he had slipped out of the hold on his wrist, and tied his end to a chair instead. Then he sort of tipped the chair so it would feel like he was still tugging on the line. He must have done it and been gone in less than a minute. Gloria immediately panicked.
"We should go find your parents," I suggested.
"No, they'll only chide me for losing him, and it's getting dark. We have to find him and get back to the inn before supper." She was starting to calm down, but I doubted that we could find him on our own. We didn't even know where he had gone. I didn't know where to start looking. The city was a mystery to me.
"I know where he's gone. The same place that he always goes. The reason we have to keep such a close eye on him is that he has... wild blood in him." She said it gravely, as though it were a curse, or a fatal disease, but I had no idea what she meant.
"Wild blood? I don't understand." She looked at me as though she shouldn't have to explain, like I was an idiot, or a foreigner, but I am the later. She sighed and started walking, motioning me to follow.
"Before we settled here, ours was a wandering tribe. The Halflings would go from place to place, seeking a promised land, a shire we could call our own. It hasn't been long since we settled here. But something of the old ways still survives in us. It was a gift of the our patron, the Goddess, Lady Barley. Some of us are born warriors, with powers that could be used to protect us, even against foes twice or three times our size. It is a power of chaos that served the tribe well. But we have since settled, and there is little use for the old powers of the blood. But it pumps in his veins, guiding him to the one place he can really use it." We took twists and turns quickly, as though Gloria had the route memorized, had taken this journey many times before. We sped into seedier, darker parts of the city, past tanners and blacksmiths, as the light of the afternoon faded around us.
"So he's going somewhere to pick a fight?" I couldn't keep track of the turns we were taking. I'd have to rely on the two of them to get back to the inn. I was worried, and in the back of my soul, the worry was spinning, like a top, only faster and faster. Something bad was about to happen, and I could feel it starting to uncoil.
"Something like that," Gloria said through panting breaths. She was racing to overtake him, but we could barely hear his footfalls. "You know how children like to play heroes, and adventurers? We found out the hard way that Tarry wasn't playing. Last year, one of his friends almost died. Then, the unthinkable happened."
"What? What happened?" I asked as we turned a corner. Suddenly I knew. In front of us was the base of the hill, and set into it was a crack, black and menacing. It was just large enough for me to squeeze through, if I tied. Gloria stopped, and I slid to a halt just behind her. Tarry had gone into the ruins.
I still don't know a great deal about the ruins of the old town, but that temple on the top of the hill, and that giant holy symbol, were supposed to lay the spirits of the dead, the ones that had died in the disaster, to rest. But something happened twenty years ago, during the war. I heard the rest of the story from Gloria, in whispers as we entered the cave.
"Do you still have your knife on you, the one your Dad gave you for protection?" She was deadly serious. I produced it.
"We aren't going to have to fight anything in the ruins, are we?" My mind raced through what could be in there. Bats, darkmantles, mindflayers? I was suddenly terrified.
"I hope not. But against what's in there a knife won't do much good. Hold it out in front of you, yeah like that." She said it without looking up. She looked squarely at the knife, and started waving her hands overing, saying complicated phrases. I knew she was doing magic, like the performer had done, but it felt, different somehow. It made my skin itch. She finished, and said the final, keystone word of the spell. "Light!" As I watched, the knife began to glow, dull red at first then orange-yellow, like it had be thrust in a fire, but there was no heat. "At least it will give us light to see by. We've got to hurry, though. The spell only lasts an hour, and the other spell I have is reserved for an emergency." I held the knife in front of me and we stepped into the cave. Well, Gloria stepped in, I squeezed in behind her. Once we were inside, I was surprised to find I could stand without difficulty. This portion of the hill was like a stone shell, covering the ruins. The ground was uneven, and covered in uneven mounds of debris. There was something like a path, winding through them. Gloria motioned me forward, and we walked down it, into whatever was waiting.
"The hill was raised in a ritual, so most of the ruins are untouched. The crack formed later, as an effect of the summoning."
"The summoning?" I asked. "What summoning?"
"I'll tell you the truth about what happened twenty years ago. Do you know of the fall of the Sheild-biters?"
"Of course. It was an important event in The War. The god Hattori was trapped by an army of demon-blooded orcs, and he called a spectral army to fight for him." It was a famous story, one of the rare early victories against the orcs, and Hattori had done it without calling upon his mortal servants.
"Where do you think that ghost army came from?" I stopped in my tracks, and stared at her. She turned back to look at me. She was serious.
"So the army, was the souls of those who had died here? And they still remain?"
"No, thankfully. Although there were an unusually high number of recorded hauntings after the battle, the priests have sent the souls on. What waits below are the bodies."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"When Hattori called back their souls he also called their physical remains, sealed here for a century. The body strives to reunite with the soul, the spark, which it has lost. When Hattori made an army of ghosts..."
"He created an army of zombies as well?"
"Some zombies, mostly skeletons. Nothing but animated, soulless killing machines, struggling for an exit. Fortunately, they haven't found one. The holy symbol is strong enough to keep the corporeal dead in the ground, but they still walk these halls." She broke into a run again, desperate to find Tarry before something horrible found him first. I kept up, the knife-torch shaking with my footfalls.
What was left, in the torchlight, was a dusty maze of devestation. A hundred years ago, it was a village. Now, it was dust, stones, and the debris of lives long since lost. Mercifully, we didn't see any bodies, or people, or skeletons, I guess, but we saw lots of tracks in the dust. We managed to follow Tarry's fresh, clear footprints in the dust, on top of so many other strange marks, left by shambling yet tireless feet. We tracked him through the crushed, burnt out ruins of what were once homes. We could see the signs the lives these unfortunate people had left as we passed. There were dolls moldering in the dust and tools slowly fading to rust. The air became worse, and it was hard to breathe. We must have been traveling for twenty minutes when we heard the sounds of fighting ahead of us. Tarry had found an opponent after all.
If anything, Gloria broke into an even faster run, and left me behind. Tarry was holding a torch in one hand, one he had made himself, I guessed. It certainly wasn't a magical one like mine. He was using it to fight wildly, swining it like a sword with his left hand, and punching with his right. I couldn't make out the figures clearly in the low and wildly flailing light, but I knew he was facing several opponents. They must have been skeletons, I reasoned, by the high, echoing impacts his attacks made against them. He was shouting, but they were deathly silent, moving relentlessly forward with dry, clicking steps. His blows had a ringing quality, and his right hand flashed in the fire from the torch. He was wearing some kind of gauntlet, and using it to surprisingly good effect against the skeletons. He punched a small one, that might have once been a child, or possibly an an adult Halfling or Gnome, in the hip, and it shattered. The sinister red glow of its eyes faded as it fell. But there were many, many more of them. I could see the pinpoints of light as I got closer.
Tarry had them at some kind of a choke point. Perhaps it had once been a city wall, or an alley between two buildings. In any case, they could only come at him two or three at a time, and he was holding his own, but I could see him tiring. Whatever madness had overtaken him must have been fading, and with it, that chaotic strength that Gloria had told me of. He couldn't fight an army. He was a child, after all.
Gloria reached him first, and tried to pull him back, shouting. He pretended he didn't hear her, or perhaps he couldn't hear her. He brought his fist and torch down in a two handed attack on the ribcage of one of the skeletons. It went down, but another took its place. There was no end to them. I finally caught up, panting. Tarry was coming back to himself. He looked at me and his eyes were clear. There was triumph in them.
“Come on, we have to get out of here!” Gloria shouted, and Tarry looked out over the skeletons, with what might have been regret, but he didn't say anything. He patted his pocket with his mail-gloved fist and nodded. Suddenly, there was a huge skeleton in front of us. It blind sided Tarry, and he fell over, clutching his chest and wincing. I moved to catch him, but gloria was already in front of him, chanting. Her left hand started to glow, faintly, with a violet, chilling light. She reached out and grabbed the skeleton on the tibia. The glow spread from her hand into the monster,and the glow in its eyes faded. It toppled, once again lifeless. The two of them ran back towards me. There was a look of horror on Gloria's face as she looked towards me. I didn't know until too late that it was a warning.
A force, thin but solid, came down on my shoulders from behind. I dropped the knife, and the blade clattered to the dusty stones. I dropped to my knees, and I twisted to see the skeletal face, emotionless, of course, standing above me. I tried to push back, to kick it with my feet, anything, but it was like a nightmare. There was no way I could escape. I backed up like a crab, moving out of fear, staring into cold red starlight eyes. Eyes that maybe didn't really see me. I ran into something, and I screamed. Fortunately, it was Gloria and Tarry. The bad news is that we were being over run. More skeletons were coming, and they had found a way to block the path in front of us. Tarry struggled in his sisters arms, arguing with her to let him protect us. She refused.
"Can you do that spell, whatever it was, again?" I asked, staggering to my feet. I felt sore, but I wasn't too badly hurt. In the dim light, I saw her shake her head.
"Grandmother taught me how to disrupt the undead, to drive them off, but I'm drained. I can't cast anything else today. I saw how suddenly tired she was, and I knew it was true. We were doomed. I felt the chill of my impending death come over me. Not a sweat, or a panic, but cold certainty that I had reached as far as I could go. I was suddenly very angry. The undead came closer, two of them were in front of us, perhaps coming the way we had came. They blocked our path. I didn't want to die. A skeleton behind us swiped at Gloria, missing her by inches. I knew I had to do something, but I didn't know what.
I have never, I will admit, been religious. I respect the traditions of the Five People, and the Six Heroes, of course, but I've never respected and venerated the Great Lord the way I should. I've only ever paid him lip service. But I whispered something like a prayer, not really conscious of the words, just asking for deliverance, and then, I was. It flashed so clearly in my mind, I can't now fully recall it, but I thought about what I wanted to happen, made a wish, and watched it come true. It was so much like that one time, when my father was being taken away, but greater, more wild, more complex, I didn't know what I was doing, or how I was doing it. Everything I've ever learned says that this is impossible, but I did magic. And it was stronger than anything I'd ever done before, either willfully or on accident. My fists were shaking with rage, a burning, fiery rage, and I wanted to see the world, and all the ruins, and all the monsters in it burning, and then, somehow, my hands were small flames. I thrust them outward, and the fire was a wave, no, a pair of waves, spiraling around each other, two sudden white contrails in the dark. They connected with the skeletons squarely in their chests, and they froze, their tattered rags burning, before collapsing back into lifeless, disjointed bones. The path ahead was clear, and I was filled with sudden energy. I reached for Gloria with my left hand, picked up the knife with my right, and ran as fast as I could, barely glancing behind me at the shocked expressions on my companion's faces. I did magic, powerful, violent magic, without even knowing how. And in the brief moments in the dark, running through the tunnel, I didn't even question it. I simply reveled in how indescribably wonderful it had felt, like I had stretched a limb long disused.
We slowed down once we reached the crack, and squeezed through one at a time. Gloria insisted on going last, either out of nobility, or out of fear of taking her eyes off of me, I can't be sure. We walked back to the inn in the last embers of the sunset. I felt as though the day had slipped through my fingers, like sand. We passed the closed stalls and shuttered shops. It was fully dark when we reached the inn, after a journey that felt like a thousand miles. Mr. Boflin was waiting for us on the porch with a lantern. She berated her children for being late, and told us we had missed supper. Gloria said nothing, and held Tarry's wrist tightly. His other hand, with the incriminating gauntlet, was thrust deep into his pocket.
"Well, I hope you ate, for I'm not staying. We will be late for the fireworks." It was apparently, the end of the discussion. She herded us out to the green, where our fathers were waiting. I was quiet, and Dad asked me if I was ill. I shook my head and didn't look at him. The two men made a small joke, but I wasn't listening. The fireworks began, filling the sky with light and smoke and noise. I couldn't bare to watch them. I just kept thinking about those thirty seconds in the dark, when I pulled fire from thin air, like a magician. But I'm not a magician. I'm just a girl. I can't do that. I shouldn't have been able to do it. What if I do something that powerful again? Without trying, without warning? I could burn down a building, I could kill a person!
The oil is running low in the lamp. It must be close to dawn by now, and I don't know how I feel. Something between elation and terror, I suppose, but it's faded, with the night. I have to go to Carabos, I need to know what is happening to me. I need to talk to someone, but I don't know what to say. I should try and get some sleep. We're leaving town early in the morning.