Two Little Stones

Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Fri May 15, 2020 4:32 am

You pronounce it like I've said it. Yes, that's it. It's simple, and what's most important is that you are loud about it. You should be heard, and only when your throat is raw or broken should you stop.

It was midday when Corm MicKinnon left the Inquisitory, left Gloria Wynsee to do as she desired with her captive. He had his instructions, and would perform them to the letter. He and a gaggle of volunteers — some Junior Inquisitors, all fresh-cheeked and eager to oblige a task that did not involve ink-fingers or parchment-cuts — strode toward the woodline beyond the Broken Dagger. He'd given them all their commands. These ones, the ones dispatched to other edges of the forests, were told them exactly what he needed...

Here, you hold them just like this. Between the thumb and middle finger. Like so. Then you simply scrape, and — look, look!

But not all of them were members of the Inquisitory. Some were commoners drudged up from the Low Streets, their mouths dry for a bit of whiskey or their hands shaking for the poppy-milk. Wynsee hadn't asked for them, but no matter. He made executive decisions. Elsewhere, there were two members of the Myrken Wood Guard — you owe me this, remember — and Julius de Lanz, who had a birth-stain on his cheek. And Andra Goldsmouth, a refugee from the Derry crisis, who dipped candles the way her father did. And Kelmin Avafor and Lady Stockton Crowley and her cuckold's two teenaged sons and girls from the Bazaar and young men who bored of chopping wood and had a vendetta against it, as if shouting this name might be appropriate revenge...

At four hours past Sunpeak, they started shouting the name into the woods, and some of them even strode boldly within.

"Fionn," they said, almost a chant. "Fionn, Fionn!"

A group — Corm McKinnon's group — yelled it just on the outskirts of the forest near the Broken Dagger.

"Fionn!"

South along the woodline, closer toward Aithne, another group chanted it, spewed the name like bile.

"Fionn!"

From the east, between the lip of the lake and at the foothills of the forested mounts, another group striding inward, saying that name, saying it, saying it. Some didn't know why, and some knew exactly why; some cared immensely, and others didn't care at all, it was just something to do, some budding possibility of adventure, or danger, or something else.

They could be heard almost into Myrkentown proper.

Fionn, Fionn, Fionn...
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Fri May 15, 2020 7:55 am

Three things happened at once, though one would be hard-pressed to be the right position to see all of them.

The first:



A black bird, big as a hawk, took off across Silver Lake toward the wharf.


The second:


At the point of the lake a little southward of the Dagger, a grey-haired, leather-skinned volunteer clicked his stones in monotonous rhyme and in a gravely voice droned Fionn, Fionn, Fionn with all the passion of a weary farmer calling home a balky cow. A trickle of sweat ran into his eyebrow. He paused to remove his felt hat and run a sleeve down his face. The wineskin at his hip contained nothing more potent than switchel, better than water on a warm afternoon. He took a swig, then politely offered it to his neighbor.

As far as anyone could tell, he'd been there the whole time.


The third:


Though the sun was high enough to guarantee a few more hours of daylight, the shadow of the Woods' border began to lengthen, leaning townward. It would not take very long at all to notice that the shadows leaned entirely the wrong way entirely the wrong way for this or any other hour. They leaned against the sun.

Those who still remained outside of the Woods might find themselves a little nearer than perhaps they meant to be.

From the Dagger's worn front porch, the trees seemed taller, blocking out the line of blue sky above them.

It would not take long to realize that the trees were no taller.

The Woods were coming nearer.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Mon May 18, 2020 2:28 am

They chanted her name. And perhaps it possessed no power, functioned as no cantrip or spell that could break a life across the hard border that separated worlds, but still they barked it, cried it, mumbled it, some misguided and some inspired. Their feet crunched across the hard, winter-burnt grass and tread upon the leaves of seasons gone.

Some of them just held fast to their stones. Others clicked them, snapped them against one another, tap-tap-tap, like prayer beads in a temple.

Beside the man with the wineskin, a slim woman with an overbite and a straight back considered the wineskin, and then took it and swigged. Hers was just a splash to slake her thirst. The bitterness struck her tongue unkindly. "Obliged," she said, and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. Just then, the two little rocks squeezed in her fist began to tremble, and what issued from them was a rough, scraping sound. A voice. A voice comprised of those tiny stones' whole history: their formation in bubbling magma, at the hearts of old mountains; their years and years of sunshine and rain, all whistling out of their tiny pores like last gasps...

"—inwards, go inwards, and keep calling the name, be sure—"

* * * *

"—she can hear you," Corm McKinnon said into the rocks in his fist as he began to break embark into his adventure into the woods. His boots crushed the thorns and briars, and his lanky frame cut its way like a blade through the brush. "If she is fae, then we encroach upon what she believes is her territory. Be mindful of trickery. Her lot puts it to good work."

Just then, a man as tall as unthreshed wheat — somewhere behind Corm, not far, ten or twenty paces at most — felt weak in the knees as the woods themselves seemed to begin leaning over him, pressing in on him, consuming him. He gave out a thoughtless gasp, swiped uselessly at the air, then began to scramble back, back, toward the safety of grass and beer. Corm McKinnon, whose sweat was an old soldier's, tightened his shoulders and continued inward.

"We sniff her out, one way or another," he said.

Others, hesitating in their steps, or wondering how tall these Woods could become, might not have had the same thought.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Mon May 18, 2020 7:33 am

On the southward point of the lake, the treetops rustled. The narrow strip of grass and sand between forest's edge and lakeshore shrank. Not by much. But enough to be noticed. For every step the humans pushed in, the trees pushed back.

Now the Dagger's lawn dwindled as the Woods rose like a river at flood, creeping up the slight mount on which the tavern and its outbuildings gathered. A mass of roots swelled like a rising sea-serpent, the grassroots above ripping, black spring earth crumbling away before it submerged and stretched outward--the only visible sign. The rest of the march was slow, almost subconscious. Look away quickly, then look back: something had moved, only you couldn't lay a finger on what it was. Only that it was nearer.

Now further down, the wide margin to either side of the main road became perceptibly narrower as the trees hung their shadow over the pale gravel and dust.

Now the clearing surrounding the great estate of Aithne became a tightening noose. The greater trees reclaimed the first-flowering tame walnuts in the outlying orchard, welcoming them into their embrace like long-lost cousins.

And now the old man hesitated, voice faltering to a halt. Now the sweat he rubbed from his brow was pure nerves, and the hands that settled his hat more firmly on his brow were trembling. Not a lot. Enough that he fumbled with the stones as he tried to find his pattern once more.

"You seeing that too?" he said, in a rough, uneasy whisper--as if the Woods might overhear him--to the woman a few steps away. "Maybe we might ought to tell somebody?"

Somebody had the rasp of accusation. Somebody was Corm McKinnon, who'd gotten them all in this to begin with, or else it was one of them Inquistory folks, who knew what the hell they were looking for, or at least they sure acted like they did. They'd better know what all this was. They better know how to stop it, too.

But for those who pressed onward, the forward movement of the trees took place behind them. Within, the trees seemed still and solid. No birds. No clatter of young squirrels in the branches. No tracks. The mat of last autumn's leaves absorbed all other sound, so that every shuffling footstep became crisp, distinct, and total. Every huff of breath. Every muttered instruction passed between two volunteers. The clack of stones felt like a hard snap between the back molars.

All alone. In the Woods.

And darker every step you took.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Mon May 25, 2020 10:49 am

Maybe we might ought to tell somebody?

The woman's eyes seemed wide enough, hungry enough, to swallow the shadows of the shifting, changing woods around her. She turned, swiped her hands in a wild scrawl above her head, slashing at encroaching branches, slicing at phantoms. She would have responded, but instead all she managed were a few labored gasps, and she spun as if threatened by some creature that just permanently resided beyond the periphery of her sight...

In all the other parties, some reacted riotously: one fled on stumbling feet — a young man whose mind was not suited for it all — while others flinched, blinked, tried to minimize themselves into nooks and crannies of trees and bushes that allowed for the most breath, the most safety. And some of them — like Corm — knew this, expected this, awaited this: they tightened their fists until their knuckles nearly burst from beneath their flesh, or the voices native to the backs of their minds told them to run, run, and they denied them.

One man fell nearly back into Corm McKinnon, whose spindly body barely flinched against the intrusion. Instead, his free hand shot out, cuffed the man across the inner cup of the shoulder, and turned him that they could face each other. "You turn away and leave the rest of these men and women to manage the danger, that is a coward's move. Damn yourself a coward on someone else's watch, but not mine."

The side of Corm's temple began to pulse, pulse, and he found himself surrounded by an iron-maiden thicket, slithering at his legs, crawling up his sides, lapping at his ribs. He clenched his fists around the two tiny stones, then spoke into the crease between his thumb and forefinger, as if blowing his voice into the wind..

Each pair of stones spoke out to the world, from Aithne to just beyond Myrken Wood:

"Heinous things can be done with names, Fionn. How much longer until we know every letter of it? Show yourself, woman: I give you my promise that no harm comes to you, should you choose to smother this trickery and come to call."
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Tue May 26, 2020 2:56 pm

The grey-haired man in the hat did not chuckle when his companion turned and fled. Normally he might have. They were frightened of the Woods, as they should be, and he meant them to be well and truly frightened now. Let them remember why they feared it. Let this be their new nightmare: that the Woods might walk, that the thing they thought penned up by its own borders could escape and tear down all that was straight strong walls and square streets. Crawling in his gut was the grim satisfaction of order restored. No pleasure in that.

His stones were not among those that spoke. They were two black-crusted lumps filched from the campfire once he’d spied what everyone else was doing. His recently departed neighbor, however, had helpfully dropped hers before she sped off. Now they buzzed and chattered like a tin cicada in the crisp yellow lake grass. He strolled over and grunted as he scooped them up, turning them over in his big, rough hand.

How clever. How very clever. And how useful. He wondered where they’d come by them, or how they'd crafted such a thing. He might have kept them were they not so damned incriminating just now.

He squeezed the stones in his hand until they cracked together and was so surprised at their responding buzz that a jolt went clean up his backbone as if he’d bitten down on a tin coin, his whole arm going stiff and cold.

Heinous things can be done with names, Fionn. How much longer until we know every letter of it?

Show yourself, woman. No harm will come to you.

The corner of the man’s iron-grey moustache twitched. Probably the fellow was speaking the truth, as much as he knew. Probably the harm would come later. But he wondered how well that promise could be kept once a gaggle of panicked Myrkeners got a look at the monster in their midst. He could be a magnificent monster, should it come to that.

Silently he started deeper into the Woods, further from camp. The trail here was a good one, an old one, though not one of his. Once it might have been a deer-follow, from the days when the city was small and the deer would risk drinking from this side of the lake. He was not trying to hide himself, but he did remind himself to move slowly, hunch his shoulders, remember to hobble on his shorter leg, and to call out his own name whenever he paused to work his way through an obstacle.

He didn’t much care what they did with the name just now. He was more concerned with what they’d done to get it. Two people on this side of the water knew that name. Catch wouldn’t have told even if they’d thought to ask him—and as he was now, he wouldn’t give it up solely for being asked and they would not dare force it from him. Glenn wouldn’t either. If not out of loyalty, he’d hold out from of sheer stubbornness, to spite them for the almighty indignity of being inconvenienced. Unless they made him, and damn Benedict for ever introducing that notion into his head.

Benedict would wait until moonrise. Moonrise was plenty of time. They wouldn't want to be in the Woods after dark. Benedict would wait.

Unless they knew about the raven, too.

Biting the inside of his cheek, he pushed his way through a tangle of white-foamed elder bushes.

If Gloria would put a blameless man to torture solely to find me, she’s more petty than I gave her credit for. And if the whole rusting Inquistory went along with it, they’re naught but a pack of hounds, too—all that proud prattle about protecting Myrken and none of it worth the breath to speak of it. Unless...unless...

He ducked under a storm-broken branch, one hand on his hat.

There were too many unlesses.

On the edge of hearing, on every side, came the thin echo of his own good name—Fionn Fionn Fionn—some asking it like an awkward introduction, some growling it in anticipation, some soft and fearing they would be answered. A dozen unfamiliar scraping voices, like coins jingling in a cashbox. He wondered idly if they were being paid, and how much. How would the fine upright Myrkentown Inquistory like it, if he turned up to claim his shilling at the end of the day along with everyone else, and then shuffled right past them? If he could pull such as that off, he’d send the coin to Gloria, tell her to buy something pretty. Some front teeth, mayhap.

A cautious look to see where the nearest one was before he raised the stones to his mouth as if to muffle a cough. From his lips issued a frail, shaky woman’s whisper: “Hallo? Hallo? Can you hear me?

His breath hitched in a half-stifled sob, and the words spilled out so fast that they stumbled over one another. “Please, is someone there? Where are you? I don’t know what I’m meant to do. Where do you want me to go?
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Sat May 30, 2020 12:36 pm

Such strange stones.

The wonders water and wind could do. The wonders of years, of pressure and heat and time, of the patience inherent in stone and earth. Trees, stones, even the tiniest ribbons of grass, they all held such power. But these — in the man's hands, they seemed simultaneously electric and void; they hummed, but not with the countless aeons compressed into the usual pebble. Here, the porous, white stones might as well have been foreign artifacts, or unique coins smuggled from some uncharted shore. They always seemed to roll close, close, closer still to one another. Should one be at the left side of his hand and the other at the right, they'd roll toward one another, clack and clatter, like magnet-rock mined deep from within the earth.

As Fionn, Fionn continued to echo through the Wood, the man might find himself unattended. There was so much Wood, to be separate from others was hardly a challenge: some continued to stride within, while others occasionally stopped, glanced left and right for the source of some ominous noise, and either promised themselves bravery to continue. Or they turned, and began to crunch their way back out, some with a quickness.

There was no one near enough to hear the cough let alone the frightened whisper filtered back through the rocks.

Some moments passed between its transmission and the eventual response: Corm's voice, falling softly, if impatiently. "If you've lost yourself, woman, then take a moment to get your bearings. And if you must make your way back out, put the sun to your right shoulder, keep walking, and the South Road shouldn't be far beyond. Do you remember where we said to convene?

"The rest of you: use violence only if absolutely necessary. Do not flee these Woods. Tricks that trigger your fear will rarely do anything to hurt the mind. She is here, and we will root her out. This simply means we are drawing near..."


To some, it certainly seemed as if sunlight had begun to fade. The afternoon shadows stretched, long and exhausted. Birds purred their last calls of the day. Two hours, perhaps three, separated day from night.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Mon Jun 08, 2020 6:37 pm

The wise ones turned back. Good.

The stalwart ones, the hard-hearted, the hard-headed; the ones who were warned all their lives about the dangers of the Woods but had never seen anything more magical than mosquitos (but who, in a secret room of their hearts, hoped that one day, maybe, they might catch a glimpse of something), the ones who had seen, and in seeing once, had seen enough; and the ones too cowardly to let the rest know they were afraid—these persevered.

And here he was, left on his lonesome in the middle of the Woods with a pair of stubborn rocks that kept nipping the skin of his palm in their eagerness to cleave together. The response, when it came, was exasperated but not unkind, making him wonder if the tone was any indication of the voice’s owner. Probably not a very bright idea, to feel warmly toward anyone in charge of your own manhunt.

He squeezed his hand shut so that the stones would not register his snort of amusement. Well! You try to turn yourself in like a proper, humble criminal, only to find out the hand of the law won’t have you. Near on insulting, that was.

Still he could not shake the eerie certainty that this was all for his benefit: that they knew he would somehow be spying. Every line rehearsed.

Use violence only when absolutely necessary.

Well, that was comforting, anyway.

He paused to consider a direction. Around him, the shuffling of feet and the crunching of leaves drifted neared. He had plenty of time. More time than they did, anyway.

Glamourie was fun. That was the thing the tultharian never seemed to understand, the thing Glenn never understood—though Glenn was not the best example, since he didn’t even understand ordinary fun, let alone pure unhinged abandon. Oh, perhaps they thought of it as a wicked, heartless sort of play, cat toying with a mouse, the delight of cunning and capture and trickery, but glamourie itself was joyous. Inside the old man’s chest, a younger and wilder heart raced with excitement and delight, and his weathered face twitched as though on the verge of weeping all to keep himself from grinning like a mad fool. Because it was fun, it was blissful, and he even felt a touch sad for the poor townsfolk that they would never be anything but afraid of it. He wished he could snatch it out of the air and thrust it into their faces in a ludicrous bouquet of generosity: Look! See! Isn’t it pretty? Because he had so much, and they none at all.

After a moment to set his mouth straight, he raised his hand to his face again. This time Corm McKinnon’s own voice crackled across the speaking stones: “All right, you lot, that’s enough. Fall back. No good keeping you in there after dark. We’ll make another go of it tomorrow morning when there’s plenty of daylight. She can’t hide forever.

And, because he was nothing if not dutiful, the old man stretched his legs on the long route toward the Woods’ edge. Back behind the Dagger, where Catch kept his little cabin. Where he could get a glimpse of them.

Meanwhile, the glam sprawled outward, languid and inexhaustible.

Meanwhile, nearly four miles out of Myrken, a carter slowed his wagon in astonishment as the road he had traveled this morning was now almost too narrow to scrape through. Above, the branches to either side merged into an unbroken archway into darkness.

Meanwhile those clustered on the Dagger’s lawn would find themselves hemmed closer and closer to its porch.

Meanwhile the first branch scratched the curtain wall of Myrkentown.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Fri Jun 12, 2020 12:12 pm

Corm McKinnon's fist tightened around the stones as he heard his own voice echo out of them, gently crooning with every year of its age and weather. He could have been startled, surprised, or even exasperated. Feeling fell away like crumbling stone. He had expected this. Glamourie was fun, after all. That was the thing humans never seemed to understand. But some of them, very few of them, could appreciate it, for all its remarkably clumsy application. The moment he heard his own voice — did he really sound like that? — he swallowed the taste of cool metal at the back of his throat.

To some — to many — the woods became a disease, rustling and darkening and growing, and they seemed hungry and ready to consume, reaching out on their heels, pouring over their heads. Men and women and children could be broken fairly easily by their own fears, and it was no surprise when several more cried out in the woods, or began to argue or bicker or even lash out at the branches and foliage around them. Occasionally, a knife flashed in the fading day, or men fought unnecessary battles against offending thorns. That was the way it went. Men and women and children could be broken fairly easily by their own wars, their own safe battles. The ones they chose. The ones that distracted them from the matter at hand. So Corm McKinnon, on sure feet, stepped further and further into the woods, and against the edge of his lapel, he could not help but—

smile.

Raising his hand, he spoke into his fist, into his stones.

"I wonder if you still feel them, or if you still hear them. Do you, sometimes? Do they wake you, fae, from a dead sleep? I am curious to know."

* * * *

Hours before, underneath a bland sun, Corm McKinnon gave them each their two little stones and told them exactly what they needed to do.

"Here, you hold them just like this. Between the thumb and middle finger. Like so. Then you simply scrape, and — look, look!"

There, before all the curious eyes and angry eyes and frightened eyes, he raised the two pieces of rock. Between his fingers, he flicked them, snapped them, and the two rocks flashed with mighty flame. A young man shouted in surprise. Corm instantly threw the stones to the ground, where they roared with a fire so condensed and blinding and white, so hot it could not help but nearly reach out to bite their shoes. Everyone scuttled back and witnessed as the white flame spread like starlight across the tips of grass and weeds and burnt them to a glow, then to black.

"When I tell you to leave, and I will, you do exactly this: you snap these stones together, you drop them in the woods, and you run. You run. And the hardest part of it all," he said, "is over."

* * * *

Snap. Snap, snap, not all at once, but like a rattling rhythm all throughout the woods, some miles off, some so close. Some hesitant and waiting too long, while others were right on time. Men and women, they snapped their stones in the dark, vile shadows of the woods — "They aren't working," one shouted, before someone else barked, "Let me have them, then!" — and pockets of light and heat bellowed to life in the underbrush and among the dead leaves, a fury so powerful, so hot, so unnatural that the very woods for which Myrken Wood was named seemed to burst with a cosmic brightness. What feet remained soon turned and fled. One woman frantically beat white flames from her kirtle. A teenager, fascinated by the sudden, magical havoc, gave out a whoop at the encroaching woods, then darted for the safety beyond...

The dry season. Dry earth. Grass like tinder. Curling bark. Sun-crisped leaves. Fire so hot, it abandoned orange and became galaxy-white.

In the woods, smelling smoke, breathing it in, Corm McKinnon watched a new artificial day began. Felt a gust of warm wind. Scorching. Unrelenting. Pockets of fire began to crack and hiss in the woods, biting at pine, scorching syrup, leaping for oak, and flashing across the woods' shed skin of a hundred years of fallen leaves.

Only one other pair of stones remained other than his. So he murmured with softness and ease, the way one spoke to old friends.

"I saw you in the cards, Fionn. Through other eyes. And when I died in Razasan, bleeding all over you, I wondered, for all your capacity for tricks, if you could also fall for them."
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Mon Jun 22, 2020 6:34 pm

He made a long, ambling, crescent-shaped trail, with only a tiny glam layered over the first to make himself uninteresting in case someone noticed him. He scarcely needed to bother. Unsupervised, with only loose instructions, the search party was already deconstructing into single stragglers and small clusters. Behind and around him, voices squabbled and cursed and quavered, fighting the forest. With so many turning tail, no one kept track of who stayed and who went.

So he went, sticking tight to one of his own peculiar paths. His feet found the path without needing to look at it. He could have walked it in the stony dark. He could have walked it blind.

His foot came down on a patch of dirt and the ground vibrated ominously beneath it.

He went still in the way of a deer, hardly seeming to breathe. The smell. A faint hazy quality to the afternoon light.

Smoke.

At the same moment he heard the rustling change course. At the same moment, in the distance, a shriek cut through the quiet woods like a knifeblade across a throat.

At the same moment, he realized what had happened.

They brought people. Their own people. Into the Woods. And then set it afire.

The enormity of that revelation chilled him right down to his heels, even as he drew his first lungful of warm air.


* * *


Each spark spread rapidly into a net, finding one another and interweaving into a glittering tapestry spreading forward and backward and outward, fast as a man could run. It scaled fingers up the bark of trees and gutted the carpet of leaves that had lain for many, many summers untouched upon the Woods’ floor. Dead thorn and bramble, dry as straw, crackled and burst alight before the flame even laid a hand to them. The fire seemed to whip up its own hot wind to propel itself. Like a live thing, once awoke, it roared with rough laughter and leapt forward to seize up fistfuls of wood and leaf and bush and stuff them into its maw.

But beyond a certain point, the Woods resisted. A charmed circle of trees surrounded Darkenhold and the Dagger and a wide margin to either side of the main road to Myrken. Smoke seeped from the ground, but the trees themselves resisted.

Glamourie did not burn.


* * *



The hot wind sheared the glam aside like a thin veil. Wide-eyed, furious, not quite panicked, she stood with her feet planted on the path even as a man all but shoved her out of his way, ricocheting off her arm as he bolted—the idiot!—directly toward the white-gold heart of the burning. Again she found herself so stunned at their arrogance, their madness, that she could not even form a word to encompass it.

“The lake!” she shouted—too late—after him. “The lake!”

The roaring swallowed up her warning.

No time. She yanked at her sleeve until the shoulder-ribbons ripped, doused the cloth in switchel from her wineskin, and clapped it over her mouth, sweet-sour vinegar apple seeping between her teeth and stinging her eyes worse than the encroaching smoke. Somewhere behind her, someone was screaming: wordless, mindless, without purpose—just a series of short, sharp, distracting shrieks going on and on until she wanted to bark at them to shut up or else start screaming herself. Before she could reorient herself to make for the lake, her palm buzzed and chattered. She had to clutch the stones tight to her ear to hear them.

I saw you in the cards, Fionn. Through other eyes. And when I died in Razasan, bleeding all over you, I wondered, for all your capacity for tricks, if you could also fall for them.

The knowledge fell on her like a shower of cinders. The taste of copper bled down her throat as her teeth gritted in fury.

Tricked. Tricked.

She cheated me out of a clean escape, she cheated me, she cheated, and now…and now…

Whoever had been screaming fell abruptly silent.

A fine wire twisted tight in her head. Her jaw snapped. Her wrist jerked the stones to her lips. The voice that came out—calm, pleasant, cordial, and her own—did not feel like it was coming out of her own lips.

“Oh. It’s you, then, is it? I have not spared a thought for you since you dropped. But it is sweet of you, my dear, to have given so much thought to me.”

With the stones as close to her face as she dared, she smacked her lips in a loud, wet kiss—mwah!—like a clap across the earholes, before she flung the stones as hard as she could away from herself as a white flash rushed toward her.

She caught it from the corner of her eye and twisted herself away from it in the half-heartbeat before it cracked across her back and lashed the side of her face. Brilliant light dazzled her, but no heat, no pain—not yet; it happened too fast—inextricable from the sound of thousand tiny crunching, fizzing mouths drowned all sound in her left ear. Tiny hot droplets pattered down her cheek and shoulder before she dropped to the ground, frantically scrabbling her claws through the blanket of leaves and scrubbing a fistful of dirt against the side of her head. A smoking coil of hair broke loose in her fingers, stinking of burnt rope.

The leading edge of the blaze swept over and past her, but now the fire was on all sides, herself in the middle of it, crouched on her true and inviolate path.

Paths, paths everywhere. Some of her own, some the deer-tracks, some long-trod by human feet, some belonging solely to the Woods and so ancient that their roots ran deeper than the trees.

Blind with fury, she reached out for them, as many as she could find, all of them. Her right hand tugged ineffectually, while the left—always her strong hand, her bow-pulling arm—motored by a power that felt wholly outside herself, ripped free the paths free of their moorings like so many unraveling seams. Silent, teeth gritted, eyes streaming with smoke, she wound the paths about her wrists, twisting their thin threads into a single unbending shaft. The burned skin on her shoulder stretched and split in agony as her left arm drew back…and let fly.

A wedge of force bent three centuries of oaks backwards to either side, roots ripping up out of the earth, a long straight black gash unzipping. Overhead trees overbalanced and toppled, branches crashing down to add to the burning chaos; below earthworms and beetles that had never seen the sky writhed for cover. At the end of the gouge, the lake glimmered cleanly in the day’s last light.

Too numb with astonishment to do anything but stare at what she had done, she huddled on the ground, staring one-eyed at the tear she had leveled in the Woods before dumb animal instinct set her scrabbling toward it.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Sat Jun 27, 2020 2:10 pm

Fire in the cup of a candle, fire in the heart of a hearth, it seemed but danger to flesh and flesh alone. Creatures, in all their arrogance, had attempted to tame fire and heat to the point of servitude, and so it burned in these Woods as if out of vengeful appetite: it leaped from one tree to the next to the next, consuming brittle leaves in flashes like wild lightning. Smoke began to blot out the day in a long, greasy smear across the sky. Where glamourie still thrived—

Where it still thrived, image and power, it bordered the chaos sparked within the woods, as if trying to stifle it. But as far as Myrkentown, as far as Darkenhold and Aithne, the world by degrees grew hotter. Later, as far as Lothbury and Fitchton, men and women would talk how they saw the smoke, and the soldiers stationed on the Red Gate found themselves coughing through their sleeves as a front carried the woodsmoke on peals of wind that would coil for miles...

Corm McKinnon touched the edge of his lapel as if to shield himself from a rain and began striding forward into the spreading flame. When his stones ceased to hum and whisper, left with the echo of a kiss, he discarded them under his feet. Maybe a thousand years would break them down. Maybe less. Squinting through watering eyes and clutching the bulb of a tiny bronze perfumer, the fire opened its mouth for him. In the distance, a rumbling in the Woods — distinct, in that it was a menace of the soil and earth and not just of flame — drew his attention. Trees split, crashed, peeled away, a quaking that told a tale to the soles of his boots.

"There," he said.

He lifted the perfumer and gave a few short puffs against the raging world. Smelling of roses and sulfur, the perfume blew the fire away in great ribbons and left only a path of smoking ashes in front of him. Once, he thought he saw a body, so he gave it a wide birth and hoped the fire would make even shorter work of it. In the distance, Silver Lake winked and gleamed in peaceful counterpoint.

He could not hope to be as quick as fire or fae.

He did not need to be.

A droplet of blood, barely the size of a needlehead, splashed in the ash.

A blink.

Next—

He peeled the smoking shirt off his loose-skinned body. It tugged at his damp sweat and hair. He stood shirtless on the edge of Silver Lake, a crown of burning Wood behind him. Steam rose in wisps from his bare shoulders. His chest sagged with age and weight, as if the nipples were just two bags of copper coins. His belly, simultaneously thin and bulging, breathed with freedom. A pair of leather braces bit into his shoulders, the only manner by which his dull trousers still stood. He bent over the water, wet the shirt, and then wiped his face with it.

In the cattails and weeds, with startled waterbugs darting like arrows in the shallows, Corm McKinnon squatted at the end of her artificial delta, as if he'd been patiently waiting for her the whole time.

Looked back, to where she crawled, scrambled.

Smiled.

With three silver teeth.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Sat Jun 27, 2020 4:54 pm

One knee then the other and she made her way upright. Now the pain arrived, tracing out a map on her upper arm and her shoulder and one side of her back where flame had peeled a good quarter of her tunic to a loose flap tucked into her belt. The heated gold torc had flash-burned a band of blisters around her neck. Towering over all the rest was the dizzying pain of her blistered scalp and ear and the eyelid that was fast swelling shut.

Grimly she struggled onward, one foot before the other, reminding herself that hurting was good; hurting meant she was only seared, not charred. Her right thumb ached in a way it never had from twisting paths, as if she had sprained it. The left felt as if it could wad up the world and hurl it aside like a ball of wool.

A black branch lay across the path before her. She picked it up in both hands and cracked it across her knee, then marched on with her right hand clutching the wet sleeve to her nose and a jagged spike gripped in her fierce left.

Blink.

Between one step and another, she squinted through the smoke to a dim grey frog-shape. A man, crouching. Her chest flooded with a relief so intense, the heat momentarily drained from her back: one of them had found his way, at least.

Muffled and hoarse, she called out to him: “Be there any others?”

The wild wind whipped smoke and strands of her own hair into her single open eye. She grimaced, then drove back against the smoke with a swift breeze to whisk clean the path between them as she stepped into the open. The empty space captured them in momentary tableau—the Queen of Fairy, framed by fire, tattered and smoke-smudged with a single bare shoulder, and the half-naked man who grinned with three inexplicable silver teeth—long enough for the hope in her eye to harden to mistrust.
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Tue Jun 30, 2020 6:04 am

"Any others? Of me," he asked, and then jerked his chin toward the burning woods. "Of them?"

He stood ankle-deep in the shallows, which clicked and clucked around the cracked leather of his boots. Day had started to wane, half by smoke, half by fading light, and flashes of fire shone across the waters like smeared strands of sunlight. The wonder of fire was that it did its work unceasingly, and with every moment, it required more bodies, more water, to buy its silence.

As she emerged from the smoke, from the flames and heat, it was as if she'd been pieced together from ash and memory. She lumbered, twisted, a water-colored travesty stumbling toward him. Smoke clung to her. The world stunk of burnt wood and scorched leaves and charred dirt. Witnessing this creature's strange, damaged transformation forced him to consider his own. The hand gripping the wet tunic turned over, and there, pink wetness glistened up at him. A long strip of scorched flesh had peeled away from knuckles to elbows. He sucked in air through those three silver foreteeth. Realization brought pain. Pain happened. Pain would do.

He turned to her. Corm McKinnon turned to her. Some of the black soot smeared itself like wet kohl on his shining teeth. But now he seemed to move with all the strange stiffness of a throttled puppet, or of a weakening, exhausted creature.

"They are going to come running. Some to see the commotion, some to see the destruction. Some to see what's caused it. Some to see why."

He wiped his forehead, then threw the shirt into the lake, where it plopped and bubbled up with trapped air like a fat jellyfish.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Fionn?"
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Niabh » Sat Jul 04, 2020 6:54 pm

“Anyone. Anyone!” Her right hand swept away from her face in a broad swing and the trees, obedient, fluttered aside like a curtain. No one else on the green span of shore. No people. Nothing. Her foot stamped in impatience and her hand slapped the illusory curtain closed. “Did anyone else make it out, thou omadhaun?

Pain and outrage left her dizzy. All she could think was that they had hurt their own people to hurt the Woods and they hurt the Woods to hurt her and none of it even mattered because the Woods would only be all the greener for it next summer while the ones who died were dead for good.

Myrken burns its dead.

As he spoke her head twisted suddenly, her good eye riveting on his face, both her eartips craning forward. Her shaky breath and trembling chest calmed; that hurt worse, that took effort, when all she wanted to do was gasp for air. She listened as if the world were not burning at her back: as though she had all the time there was and as if he were a dear friend making a few valid if unwelcome points. Her name was like a tap on a still pond: when he spoke it, her whole face, blisters and all, rippled, and she took a single sharp step nearer. The torn shirt did not mend itself, but her arm, covered with raw turquoise-blue patches, turned firm and brown.

“They will come.” She spoke so curtly, she seemed not to move her lips. From perfect stillness she exploded back to radiant life, cheeks aglow, and stepped nearer again. Her knees wobbled under her own weight. “They will want to know how this happened, and why. I should hope there will be someone left to give them some answers, don’t you?”

The half of the hair that was left stuck to the part that wasn’t and the strands felt like so many papercuts. She picked them away, winced, and spoke more softly, more to herself. “I expect they will be quite cross.”

Something in the Woods fell and crashed, a fallen giant taken down lesser men in its throes. A flare of sparks rose up. The noise of it hit her in the solar plexus but she was fixed, focused, with the odd and infuriating stone-face of the Tuatha.

A new kind of smoke infiltrated the air, sweet and soothing. It made one want to breathe it more deeply, to contemplate the subtle amber of its aroma; it filled in the hot and jagged gaps in the brain and even took some of the sting out of burns, caressing his poor arm as if it pitied it—feather-brushes, or the gentlest of woman’s fingertips. The shallow mud at his feet turned gluey and sucking as tar.

Still she stood patiently, head a-cant, expression interested and thoughtful. “What will you tell them?”
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Re: Two Little Stones

Postby Rance » Mon Jul 06, 2020 9:08 am

"Cross, some of them may be. Others will welcome the destruction of these dark trees that have protected so many cruel creatures over the years, where they all seemed to hide and skulk. I've read the reports, Fionn; I know the history Myrken Wood harbors." Corm's shoulders, burnt pink by the sunlight, lifted up and then drooped in resignation. "Those that did not manage to make it out," he said, running his tongue across the front of silvered eyeteeth, "I wish nothing but peace in the next world. I can be held only so accountable for the recklessness of volunteers and prideful citizens.

"But really, lady fae — how much do you honestly care?"

He tightened his fist so that he could examine the scorched flesh of his forearm and hand, watching as the wet muscles and dermis spasmed and quivered under the strain of motion. A divot in his aged chin darkened with the same scholarly consideration one provided an old book. As a great femur of the woods crashed down to the floor and blew up a grand exclamation of fire and sparks, he flinched, but raised his white brows in the direction of the disturbance. For every untouched branch, a draft carried a tongue of flame to another, and another still. Given time, such a fire could rage for a week's time, or a fortnight. It could hunger for a month, or two, even three...

Driven by the compelling smoke, Corm McKinnon's chest expanded, and he breathed deeply. He filled himself with it. So much that the sting of the flesh, the pain of the skin, it bled away, faded away. Then he looked down to the mud, the lapping water, the foamy recesses of stagnant lake, with its browned scum and flotillas of insect life and darting minnows.

Shirtless and very tired, having nowhere else to go, he crouched. An old man's crouch. He groaned as he squatted. His knees squelched into the mud. He looked to his left, to his right, as if for a dropped pin or a discarded needle.

"I doubt I will have much to say. I've already screamed. You didn't hear. Nobody did. That's just the way it goes. Old soldiers live such wild lives, no one bothers to hear them when they fade out."

From his trousers-pocket, he procured a small, brass bottle and its rubber bladder: a woman's implement, that, or a highborn fellow's, meant for the spraying of scented water, the covering of cruel scents...

He tossed it to her.

"There might be a few still alive. Your Woods, your smoke, your fire. Would you let them burn?"
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