Jungle branches, like the talons of angry birds, lashed and clawed at her unprotected flesh, leaving trails of lancing pain and stinging burns as she crashed noisily through the undergrowth. Arms thrown up before her face, she crashed through sharp edged ferns, tripping and falling upon the soft earth several times. Her breath came in agonized, ragged gasps; filling lungs that seemed five sizes too small for the exertion she was putting her tortured body through. Soft feet, wholly inadequate for any surface, slipped from moss-covered roots, kicked stones with bright flares of agony, and bled as all manner of ground debris sliced at their soft soles.
She cursed her condition, or would have, had she the breath to do so. She could no longer hear her pursuers, the hunters of her own tribe, who sought her heart with the fierce anger she had always seen reserved only for the spotted jungle cats who intruded upon their hunting ground. With spear and poison arrow they had come for her, with at their head her own brother, his gleaming jade ceremonial axe whetted and ready to rend her skull for her travesty. He was not her betrayer, no, for it was he who had known what would come about when her blasphemy became known. He had warned her to flee, and had delayed her pursuit as long as he could, initially leading the hunters astray on false trails.
How could she have been so weak? That question haunted her like stomach worms, gnawing at her heart despite knowing why she had fallen prey to the touch of one whom her people had ever been warned never to approach, to even be seen by. They were slayers and betrayers, hunters and destroyers. They cared nothing for the jungle, she had been told, cared nothing for aught but their own power, pleasure, and comfort. Because they could not survive the harshness of the true wild they cut away at it, and left in their wake ruins of stone and shattered wood in which no true Spirit of the Wild could survive.
Yet this one, not the first she had ever seen, was so very different it left her in awe upon first glance. He was, in a word, even to her eyes, beautiful for his kind. His hair was a long, flowing mane of a mesmerizing gold, unlike the dense, dark curls of all the others she had seen. His raiment was of a different sort as well, of bright hues and strange design. He carried no weapons, despite the dangers of the jungle that surrounded him. Instead he carried a wooden instrument the like of which she had never before seen, and upon its delicate strings he could coax forth the most heart-touching sounds she had ever heard; more beauteous even than the singing birds of the lyre trees.
And he could sing.
She had heard others of his kind sing in the past, watching them from the silent, shadowed seclusion of the treetops or under rock outcrops, watching them as a hunter watches prey. But their songs had been short, harsh, clipped, and unappealing to the ear. Like jungle crabs scrambling over hollow bean husks, she had always considered their speech, and their song was little better. Their weapons, of cold steel and fire-hardened wood, also made their presence an intrusion rather than a visitation.
This one, he could truly sing. A voice smooth and rolling, gentle tones that had drawn at her heart, lending her bravery despite the teachings she had been reared upon since her earliest days. She had shown herself, stepping from the jungle shadows to hear his song better. From afar he had seen her, and fallen abruptly and most fearfully silent, but he did not rise and flee, as she would have expected of the weaponless. Instead he had watched, his song becoming voice, the words not understandable but the tone gentle. Why could her kind not sing, she wondered at that moment. Why was their voice the rough, low rumble that held little ability to find or hold the perfect tones of birds? They could roar, they could scream, and they could talk -- but they could not sing.
Such curiosity was her doom, for his song was his weapon, and she had not realized how that weapon was brought to bear. He coaxed and reassured, his voice and song weaving in and through the dulcet tones of the wood and string instrument he bore. She could not tell if his seduction was planned or happenstance, but she knew not at the time, as she drew closer and closer to hear his song, to study his strange alienness.
Her undoing would follow soon after, for she had allowed him to do the most unthinkable, blasphemous thing her kind could have imagined. She, in her brazen carelessness, had allowed him to touch her. In a moment of rebellion she had tested the curse, the warning that had been passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, for hundreds of generations. Never, no matter at what cost, never allow them to touch you, even to the result of death, never come into contact with them. Slay not with tooth and claw, only with spear and arrow and poison from as far as could possibly be done. Their touch brought with it their curse, which was to become one of them.
Their touch banished the Wild as surely as their axe felled the trees that held up the sky. In a brazen moment of rebellion she had suffered his touch, merely to hear more of that eerie, heart-filling music. Withdrawing, she had awaited the curse, her heart hammering and breath quick in her lungs, but nothing had happened. Not then, not at that moment. The curse was undone; its touch was false, she had believed. In a moment of triumph the hunter stole upon her and lent fire to her blood, and she had gone forward once more at the allure of his song, and she had allowed his touch once more.
His touch and more.
They had parted still not knowing each other beyond song and flesh, and she had returned to the jungle feeling the fire of a great hunt burning within her breast even as other fires slowly waned.
It would be but another fortnight before the curse came upon her, and she wailed and screamed in the jungle darkness, far from her tribe, shattered to the core as she felt the Wild melting away, abandoning her. Her body withered and changed, tooth and claw melting away with the Wild that made her as she had been born, and left her as something -- else. Fearing for her safety, unknowing of her encounter with the golden-haired other whose song had quelled her Wild long enough to be touched and taken, her brother had sought her out. Despite how the curse had twisted and reshaped her, he knew his own blood, and did not slay her upon first sight. But neither would he suffer her touch, spewing degradations upon her for her wanton blasphemy and naive gullibility to fall for the seduction of beauty of body and voice.
Go from them, he had demanded, warning that the tribe would learn, whether by his voice or other means, of her transgressions against their most basic of laws. They would learn, and they would come for her. He promised, only upon the love of a brother to his sister, that he would delay them as he could, but when next they would see one another he would not be her brother. He would be her executioner.
Lost in soul, shattered in heart, and broken of body, she had watched her brother's back until the jungle shadows drank him in, her last view of her kin. When next she laid eyes upon her kind, if ever she did, it would be down the length of a spear or with their arrows festooning her naked flesh. Weeping for her loss and cursing herself for a hundred times the fool, she could think of only one possible solution for her existence.
Him upon the Mountain, the great beast of the sky, whose great wisdom and power could possibly remove from her the taint of the accursed touch and restore the Wild to her. That, or end her existence swiftly and with mercy.
With hunters not far behind, unheard for the rushing roar of her own heartbeat in her ears, she ascended the mountain, passing from jungle to forest to scrub, until finally reaching the line where trees ceased to grow. The air was terribly dry, cold, and thin. She found breathing difficult, and her flesh shivered with its frigid bite. She had never worn more than enough to preserve what little modesty her kind adhered to, and with her flesh now changed it was scarcely enough to keep her warm in the depths of the jungle shadows, much less upon the mountain heights. Clutching her arms about herself, she gazed into the gaping maw of the mountain, where He was said to reside, the beast that carried the sky.
She cast a quick glance back over her shoulder, but she could see nothing of her pursuit, for the trees were dense and green, and hid all things from her changed eyes. Without the Wild to let her see, it was merely a mass of green, featureless and empty. With a last, quavering cry of sorrow she turned and staggered into the stone maw.
The gullet of the mountain narrowed as she passed beyond the cavernous maw, the stone throat leading a winding path away from the blessed light of the outer world, and guiding her into depthless darkness. Her fragile, clawless hands scrabbled at the stone wall, whispering sibilant sighs in the empty darkness as she regained some of her breath, eyes wide and unseeing as she was willfully swallowed by the earth. In time, how long she could not tell, all faded from her perceptions save for the heavy rush and throb of her heart within her breast, her fearful breaths, and the sibilant whispering of her hands and aching feet across stone. The darkness was complete, boundless and deep yet without depth, achingly cold and emotionlessly heavy. What beasts, she wondered, could live in such an inhospitable, empty, dark place such as this? Not even the nightfliers delved into the heart of the mountain so deep, for she could hear no chirps or clicks or even the scuttling of light-fearing insects.
Then there was light, a spark of green in the distance, dancing and wavering like an elusive beacon in the night dark of swamps. At first she reached out, thinking it was a glow mite on the wall in front of her face, but grasped only empty air. For a long while she stood there, one hand upon reassuring stone, the other questing to capture the unmoving glimmer, but it was beyond her reach. Quelling the fears that clutched about her heart like an angry fist, she released the wall and took a tentative step toward the light, one arm outstretched, the other questing to find another purchase. One step, then two, and another two she moved forward, slowly, tentatively.
For a hundred terrified paces she walked, yet the green illumination did not seem any closer. Just when the grasp of fear seemed so great that it would crush her to the floor, her eye detected the flicker and gleam of a flame; the spark seemed just a tiny iota closer. There were no echoes in the vast darkness; her eyes could see no reflection of light from stone. Only as she drew near could she see the wan illumination upon the stone floor nearest the strange green fire. After two hundred paces she could see that it was indeed a flame, burning within a strange brazier that stood upon a stone plinth in the center of a dark chamber so vast it seemed to be a world unto its own.
Vast, and empty; as empty as her heart. What great sky-beast lived here, she wondered fearfully, that it would have no treasure nor the cast-aside, shattered remains of past prey? Did the beast who carried the sky indeed live in this vast, forgotten emptiness, or had He long ago abandoned it in search of better lands in which to dwell? Three hundred strides, from the far wall lost in the directionless darkness, brought her to the flame, which burned steadily within its stone brazier, unwavered by any breeze. As she drew closer she could see that the brazier contained only a strange, dark fluid to fuel the pale green flame.
She realized immediately that it was blood. The blood of the sky beast, for their kind were masters of the great flame. They brought forth purifying fire from their mouths, raining it down upon those who stood against them. It was said that those who drank the blood of the great beast of the sky would become great shamans and wizards. Would drinking the viscid, burning draught return the Wild to her?
Biting her lip, she gazed into the flickering green light, her hands opening and fisting at her sides as she cast her gaze outward around the great chamber; but she could see nothing, not even the walls which she knew must surround her and the weight of the great mountain stealing the stars from the sky above. Swallowing hard, she raised a hand and, closing her eyes, thrust it into the flame. By the gods of the Wild, if she could not bring the beast to slay her, she would let the fire of its blood consume her.
Holding her hand in the flame, she waited for the agony of fire to claim her flesh, but there was nothing. Blinking, she opened her eyes and gazed at her hand in the flames, almost snatching it back by sheer reflex as she watched her flesh sear and boil, flames licking from the edges of cracked and burning flesh, but she felt no pain, no heat, nor could she smell the stomach-roiling stench of burning flesh. The flames never seemed to bring out the bones of her hands, however, the flesh seeming to move and shift, like leaves on a forest floor, without ever revealing the roots beneath. Morbidly entranced by the macabre display, she never sensed that she was no longer alone.
A great, looming form melted from the shadows, as if formed by them, the great head of a stone beast resolving in the wan light of the flame behind her, its planes etched by the flickering light. She opened her palm, turning her hand about in the flame, and was about to remove her hand, when a voice filled the empty darkness behind her.
"Those who drink the blood of dragons die, child," the voice said simply, its vastness filling the chamber with the presence of thunder, freezing her in place so abruptly she could neither turn in horror nor faint from sheer terror. The presence was so overwhelming it simply stopped her very mind in its tracks. "No great shamans nor wizards they, but corpses burned from within to without for their foolishness." In the darkness a great form bestirred itself, unseen but heard with a grinding roar of stone upon stone, felt through the soles of her wounded feet.
"Child, why do you come to me?"
That spurred her brain once more into motion, one synapse firing to the next, propagating outward in a rush of utter, soul-rending horror that nearly overwhelmed her in a fatal swoon. Yet enough of the Wild remained to quell the stilling of her heart and cause her to turn slowly, cradling her seared hand to her naked breast. She gazed up at the light-etched stone visage with her own visage writ large with mindless terror. One eye alone was the size of her entire torso, the stone maw vast enough to swallow her whole by mere accidental happenstance.
"Curse," she quavered, at length, as her heart shrank enough to once again fill her breast and not her throat. "The curse, the Wild has been stolen from me," she managed, her voice a rodent's squeak in the darkness.
"It has not." The great stone beast replied laconically, two vast eyes, like molten gold, regarding the pitiful creature before it. "The truth has been returned to the empty vessel."
She stepped back, by reaction rather than at the force of the great words, for the vastness of the sky beast's voice filled the entire chamber yet did not hammer upon her breast or ears as it issued from the depths of that fanged maw. "Great Sire of the Sky, see me now. I am not what I was, the Curse has been brought to me, and I must surely die if it cannot be turned," she cried, her back fetching against the edge of the stone brazier, flames racing up her back and haloing through her hair, filling the chamber with a brief flash of green as it found fresh fuel.
She lost no hair, however, nor felt any pain as the flesh of her spine singed and cracked, melting across her bones without falling away. Her hand, when she raised it up to show him what the curse had done to her, was unmarred and unmarked, not even a scratch remaining from her headlong flight up the mountain.
With a vast and rumbling growl, the beast shook its ponderous stone head. "The Curse," he sighed, the flame wavering as her hair streaked out behind her, the tangles and soil gone, flowing a luxurious, cleansed black as the flames licked through it. "Let me tell you a tale, child, of the truth and the curse, but first let me offer you a parable."
Fearing to counter the word of such a magnificent and fearful beast, she could only nod her head dumbly, not realizing at all that her head was wreathed in green flame, nor that her naked back crawled with it.
"Five monkeys, you see," the beast began, shifting once more in the great darkness. "Five monkeys in a chamber with a single banana suspended in the center from a length of vine. Beneath that banana is a stair, which would raise a monkey up high enough to reach the banana if it tried. And, of course, one does try. But as soon as it does, the other four are doused with frigidly cold water, which scares the first off from the stair." Dumbly and not understanding, she could only nod her head, leaning against the edge of the brazier and gazing up, trying to see all of the great beast at once, but quite incapable of such a monumental feat.
"Now, eventually another will try the stair, and once again the remaining four are doused with frigid water. And this continues until, eventually, none dare attempt the stair. Now, at this point, one of the first five is removed, and a new monkey, a stranger, is brought in to replace it.
"Obviously, this stranger eventually tries the stairs, and is immediately attacked by the other four, who fear being doused by the cold water. The stranger has not a clue why he was attacked, and after a few more such events, it, too, stops trying to mount the stair.
"Then a second monkey is removed, and a second stranger introduced. As before, the new monkey tries the stair, and is attacked by the other four. The first newcomer has no idea why it is participating in the attack, but goes along anyway." The great stone beast paused for a moment, watching his visitor with one huge golden eye for a few moments to see if she understood where his story was leading, but her blank, fearful expression told him that she could barely think, much less reason out his story, so he continued.
"Then a third of the original monkeys is removed, and a third newcomer introduced. Once again the newcomer tries the stair, and once again the remaining four attack it. And a fourth of the original monkeys is removed and replaced, and finally a fifth. Now, you see, by the time the fifth monkey is introduced, none of them know why they are behaving as they do, attacking one another for trying to mount the stairs, but they continue as they had always done before, because they know no better." A wash of hot air ends his little story, the woman nodding dumbly as her hands reached back to clutch the edge of the brazier, sending green fire racing up her forearms.
"Your kind are monkeys, my child," the beast said at length, his vast eyes narrowing as the eyes of a mother might narrow when regarding a misbehaving child. "You have done as you have done simply because that was always what was done, without ever questioning why."
"Why, Great Sire?" she asked quickly, throwing up her hands. "Why would we act like those monkeys? Those that have gone before have told us all that was known before, those that remain have told those that come what mounting the stairs would cause to happen."
"Cold water, you say?" the stone beast growled, the vast chamber echoing his voice without redoubling it. "But if one should remain silent, knowing the truth but fearing or loathing to pass it on?" His words held the weight of irony, falling about her shoulders like a mantle of ancient wisdom.
"What did they not tell?" she quavered, half knowing and completely fearing the truth.
"Because they did not want the Wild to trust those that they once were," the dragon rumbled slowly, consolingly.
"We were once they?" she moaned, clutching her unmarked, unscathed arms about her bare torso tightly, tears springing fresh to her eyes once more.
"The truth returns to the empty vessel," the great stone beast murmured gently, a consoling whisper that did not fill the vast chamber, issuing only from the huge visage before her as it moved ever so slightly, nosing her with its rough, cool touch. "What you once were seeks to be once more, and only the silence of those who passed before kept at bay that truth."
"Why?" she cried out, pounding her fist against the unyielding front of the stone beast's nose. "Why!"
"To preserve the Wild. To balance against the Civilization which sought to consume all that was untamed," the great beast said at length, its head raised up and vanishing into darkness as it peered away into the empty vastness.
"And now -- me? I am tamed, lost forever to the Wild?" she wept, gazing up into the darkness.
"No." The great voice issued forth from somewhere unseen far above. "You are both, now, but the Wild is still in your heart. You can call it forth, if you have the strength and the courage. The truth is ancient and powerful, but the Wild is its own truth, and its own age. Seek it, and it will return, but not forever. The Wild will need to rest, for a time, after it is called, and the truth will return. I cannot take the truth from you, but I can take the Wild -- yet I will not."
"What becomes of me, then? I cannot return to my kind and kin, even were the curse stripped from me." She called up to the darkness, raising one hand to shield her eyes as light began to spill into the chamber, briefly blinding her. When she could see once more the great, vast size of the great stone dragon stilled her heart for a moment, giving her a feeling of true minisculity. She was but the smallest of mites to the vastness that was the dragon, for the least of his claws was thrice as long as she stood tall.
"You should thank the truthbringer," the dragon said, but gently, quietly, his huge head high above, turned toward the far end of the chamber, which she could barely see. Turning, that vast visage gazed down upon her affectionately, if such could be attributed to a gaze of stone and gold. "You should learn how to sing, my child," it said as it raised up one huge foreleg. In the distance she could hear raised voices, swiftly closing. Turning, she could see her brother, his striped pelt stark in the colorless grays of the vast cavern in which she found herself, alone, with the dragon of stone.
Moqqut of the Blood Fang circle felt cold terror icing his blood as light filled the great darkness, revealing a beast of mountainous proportions filling the far distance, turning its huge head toward them. At its feet stood the apparition that had once been his sister. Now furless and ungarbed, her naked flesh stood pale against the backdrop of the dragon rearing up to face them. Nothing remained of the tigress she once was, most beauteous of all the Shadowstripes clan. He cast his gaze away from her, toward the dragon, for he could not look upon his sister any further, lest he break down in sorrowful tears and weep at her loss, at what she had been, and at the ugliness the curse had left her with.
Raising up his spear, he felt his paws once more in motion, carrying him across the chamber in leaping strides, his fellow hunters at his back, their roars filling the chamber as wind streaked at their fur. Rearing back its vast head, the dragon raised up a huge forelimb and, without heed, brought it down upon the form standing next to a brazier of green flame. Blood and bones scattered in all directions as the human whom had once been Shinshasia of the Blood Fang was crushed beneath the weight of the dragon's talon.
"Behold!" The chamber shook, Moqqut's ears shrieked and rang as he dropped his spear and clutched his head. "Behold the fate of all who abandon the Wild!" the dragon roared, its vast head sweeping toward him. "Go forth with the swiftness of the hunting Tiger, and tell what you have seen! The Oath will not be broken, the children of the Wild must obey!"
With yowls of agony and terror, the warriors fled from the chamber, leaving spears and bows behind, their claws skirling upon the smooth stone of the dragon's lair. Raising up his huge talon, the dragon gazed down at the stone and, if as much could be said of a dragon, smiled. The illusion had been most vivid, and he was proud.
Fandeus True, Voice of the Greenwood King, sat alone in a forest clearing not far from his home in the northern lands, his fingers idly caressing the strings of his harp. The tones it produced seemed strangely empty, hollow, bereft of something he could not say what. Ever since his departure from Silaptur he had felt somehow lessened, despite the peace which he had forged between the southern kingdoms and his own Greenwood, and he suspected he knew why.
Yet at the same time, not why. He had seduced an exotic and mesmerizing creature, but not of his purposeful intention, for she had first seduced him. He had gone back each day for his remaining week there, and for a time considered remaining even after his ship had sailed for the north, to wait for her, for just one more chance to see her. He wanted to know, with terrible longing, if his touch had indeed corrupted the innocence which he was told was a part of the Jungle tribes. This thing they called the Wild, which gave them their strange, bestial appearances. King Lutom'ys had warned him against seeking her again, for he explained that she had likely already been sentenced and put to death by her tribe if indeed he had touched her. He had not told the king the extent to which they had touched, and he feared to the depths of his being that he had caused her death, and that sorrowed him beyond words.
Enwrapped in his ruminations, his mind turned once more toward the quiet, romantic ballad he had been trying to piece together in his head as his fingers played upon the strings, he did not at first notice a shimmering in the air. It took him long moments to realize that he was not alone, and that something was in the clearing with him, in the shadows not far away. Raising his head, his hands stilled upon the strings as he gazed toward the shadows curiously, knowing full well that even here there were swords who would gladly skewer him for his gold and priceless harp.
A gasp escaped him, however, as
from the shadows stepped a naked woman of unutterable beauty. She blinked as
she gazed upon him, her face writ with recent tears, scratches and streaks marring
her beautiful cheeks as she looked fearfully around. She opened her mouth to
speak, but only a strange, choked mew escaped, causing her to clutch her throat.
Her eyes gleamed as her gaze came to settle upon him, glancing at his harp.
A brief anger flared up there, causing him to shrink back in surprise, but it
was replaced a moment later by an unspeakable sorrow, then a strange triumph
as she stretched out one hand.
Flesh seemed to ripple and shimmer, fur springing across the back of her hand like magically spawned grass in the spring, racing up her arm in a series of orange and black stripes. He staggered back another step, surprised and not sure if he should be horrified or awed, as the fur progressed across her shoulders, spilling down her unclothed body, altering its shape, causing her to grow taller and more broad. In seconds the naked woman was replaced by the strange, exotic beauty he had seen standing in the jungle clearing only a fortnight past.
How she had come to find herself near his home he did not know, and was not going to ask as he smiled, and held out his arms. She was not, after all, dead.
Copyright 2003 by Ryx. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
Final Score: 47.5 out of 50
Marvelous. Simply marvelous, Ryx.
Virtually perfect spelling and grammar,
lyrical descriptions, and a great story with a great mythology behind it.
She-who-was-Shinshasia's emotions are beautifully conveyed -- we feel her
fear, her shame, her hopelessness and desperation all too well. The
culture of the Wild Ones, and their quasi-religious attitude toward their
separation from humankind, are nicely brought across, as well. He Upon
the Mountain is a very cool benefactor, too -- gentle and wise and
compassionate towards those in his care, but also awful and terrible and
powerful beyond question. And he respects the Wild Ones enough not to
force the truth upon them, knowing that it would cause their kind more
harm than good. Some truths have to be discovered on your own before you
can accept them, and the dragon realizes that.
There were a few minor flaws in word choice, primarily a result of using
the same word or expression twice too close together -- "sibilant
whispering" (as she enters the mountain), "visage" (just after the dragon
first speaks), and "the great, vast size of the great stone dragon"
(near the end, emphasis mine). These put a little bit of tarnish on what
is otherwise a shining work of art, but in the end they're only minor
quibbles. This is a lovely tale, wonderfully done, and well deserving of
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