Chasing Lirrah, Part 3

(continued from Part 2)

Part 3

Night under the jungle canopy was a different kind of dark. A starless, moonless dark lit only by luminescent insects, the occasional clutch of glowing mushrooms. Sparse torches lit a path between reed huts set into lofty, sheer cliffs.

Vast flows of water plummeted into a clear bottomless lake, and here among water and stone the Fahautl Itzel made their home. The Falls echoed a continuous roar. Sunslayn’s head reverberated with the noise. He hadn’t been inundated with such sound since his days under the Big Top.

He watched the water strike the surface of the lake, a storm of froth and spray, and felt the last of his hope vanish. The Itzel hadn’t seen Lirrah either.

The elders were kind, feeding their guests choice morsels of baked sparkfly, and listening astutely while Sunslayn and Arexa described their friend. They had consulted one another briefly, then sorrowfully delivered the news.

“She’s already turned, I know it,” Sunslayn said. The shouting of the waters failed to disguise his despair.

Arexa heaved a sigh. “You know nothing of the kind. We will keep looking.”

On their way back to the hut that the elders had given their guests for the night, they heard faint notes of music struggling to be heard over the roaring water. The hylek of eastern Tyria were not known for their musical talent, so it was odd seeing this Itzel’s long padded fingers softly plucking the strings of an oversized lute. The frog’s broad mouth gaped wide and the pale throat vibrated with the trilled syllables of a song.

Sunslayn paid the words little mind as he passed.

“…on the run, on the run

From the dragon’s deep call

The moon-blue sylvari

And her sugar-white owl…”

Sunslayn stopped cold; Arexa gasped and turned to face the hylek.

Sugar was the name of Lirrah’s snowy owl. She named all her pets after the cuisine she loved best. It was too great a coincidence.

singing-itzel-crop“This owl,” Sunslayn said, startling the troubadour into silence, “this sylvari, have you seen them?”

The taut flesh encasing the large bulbous eyes constricted as the hylek frowned. “The song is just a song, the words just words.”

“It’s not just a song!” Sunslayn insisted.

Arexa laid a restraining paw to his shoulder.

“If the human must know,” the hylek said, “I learned this song from a trader passing through.”

“A trader from where?”

“Jaka Itzel. Now, if you will leave me in peace…”

* * * * *

They traveled north for several days along jungle paths that swept them through battlezones and the crash site of the Pact fleet. Sunslayn decided he’d take snow any day over the mud and thorns and insects of the jungle. He’d never complain about the cold or the dredge again.

At last, Arexa pointed a claw. Wicker houses, wicker bridges, wicker platforms clustered high in the branches of vast trees.

The climb was winding and steep. Tufts of blue flax grew beside the path. They reminded Sunslayn of the flowers he had found in his quarters back in the guild hall. By the time he found them on his bedside table, they were dried and withered. He thought Ravenyth was just beautifying the place, but he’d seen similar decorations nowhere else in the hall.

A hylek strode out on long amphibian legs to greet them. Over large round eyes she wore an elaborate feathered headdress.  “Ameyalli bless you. I am Kaana Miatli, leader of the Jaka. We wondered when the searchers would arrive.”

“You were expecting us?” Arexa asked.

Sunslayn was too exhausted, his hope run too ragged, to feel anything but mild surprise.

“Word has way of traveling in the jungle,” the hylek said. “Ameyalli is not silent. You seek your friend.”

Sunslayn gave the same spiel he’d given two dozen times.

Miatli waved a large pad-fingered hand. “No need. She is here.”

After so long and difficult a search, the simplicity of the pronouncement took a moment to register.

“She paid us well to keep her under guard,” Miatli added. “To … finish it, if Mordremoth wins her. Do not begrudge us this generosity.”

“She is not given in yet?” Sunslayn asked. “May we see her?” Part of him expected to find a sylvari he didn’t know. Worse, a Lirrah that he didn’t recognize.

Miatli led them up a winding wicker bridge to a hut set slightly apart from the others. Two hylek armed with spears stood staunchly outside. Inside, cloistered among deep shadow, skinny branches shaped a barricade, like a jailhouse. White feathers rustled, and the large yellow eyes of an owl turned down from a lofty perch and pinned the visitors.

“Sugar?” Sunslayn asked.

Arexa tugged his sleeve and pointed at the opposite corner. Dusky blue skin melded with the shadows inside the hut, but pale eyes like twin moons blinked rapidly, then stared, then closed. Turquoise iridescence upon cheek and brow flared softly in the dark. She sat with her knees to her chest, hands gripping the sides of her head.

“Lirrah,” Sunslayn breathed, sinking down to crouch outside the bars.

lirrah-itzelhouse2-cropHer luminous eyes opened, as if his whisper had startled her.

“Arexa and I … we’ve been searching for you. Did Miatli tell you we were coming to find you?”

The sinuous glowing lines on her forehead pinched with a frown. “Did I dream you? You molded fire into the shape of birds. You made them sing for me.”

“No dream. That really happened. A long time ago. When we first met. You know me.”

She uncoiled and slowly approached the bars.  With doubt etched on her face, she looked over her visitors. At last memory seemed to sink in like balm on burned skin. “Sunslayn. Rex.” Her hands squeezed the wooden bars. “You shouldn’t have come. I might hurt you. The Call is deafening. It’s crowding out everything else. It makes me dream terrible dreams. I dreamed a new name. I am Briar. Briarmoon.”

Strange. The name fit, even if it was Mordremoth who had given it to her. “Come home with us,” Sunslayn said. “We will look after you.”

“I have been home. I left things for you.”

Sunslayn pondered her meaning, shook his head, then realized. “The blue flowers. That was you?” He smirked. “And all this time I thought Wanda fancied me.”

That won him a smile. “Of course it was me, silly.” One moment of happiness, that’s all the dragon was prepared to grant her. She ducked suddenly, hands crushing her ears as she tried to still the roar in her head.

Sugar chittered on her perch as if she felt Lirrah’s pain.

Sunslayn reached through the bars to place a hand her arm, but Arexa’s great paw stopped him. The charr was right. Even now Lirrah might give in and delight in tearing his arm off.

Lirrah straightened and exhaled slowly. “I can’t come home, not yet. Maybe … maybe never. I’m afraid…”

“We’re all afraid,” Arexa said softly. An admission of fear was rare from the charr, but she meant it.

“If … if I turn … will you…?”

“You won’t,” Sunslayn insisted. “We’re going to kill that dragon first. We’re going to make it roar in agony, Lirrah … Briar. Then you won’t hear his voice anymore.”

“What will be left when his voice is silent?”

Your voice. My voice. Don’t give up hope.”

“How long?”

“The guild is amassing in the next few days,” Arexa said. “Sapph is already scouting ahead with Dragon’s Watch.”

“With who?”

“Jory and Kaz and the others,” said Sunslayn, exchanging a nervous glance with Rex. “Remember?”

“Ah, yes. Mordremoth hates them. It hates you too. It wants me to hate you. But … but you’re my friend.” That she had to remind herself of that fact enraged Sunslayn. How could Mordremoth cause the sylvari to forget their loved ones?

“I’ll wait,” Briar said. “I’ll fight. A little longer. But I’m so tired. Hurry.”

Sunslayn heard her word as an order. He backed from the bars and with a leap, bailed off the bridge. Fiery wings opened behind him, whisking him aloft. He cleaved no longer to hope. To Lirrah, to Briar, he was hope. Her friends were hope. They couldn’t fail her now.

Arexa caught up, diving down beside him. “Where are we going?”

“To find Sapph,” he called over the wind. “Then we’re going to slay a dragon.”

END

Chasing Lirrah, Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Part 2

“Have I said how much I hate this place?” Arexa Night Render snarled ferociously, baring fangs the length of a human finger. The jungle reared overhead, sweltering, bug-infested, and reeking of rotting foliage. The largest trees in Tyria fought each other for patches of sunlight (there was little discernable harmony, even among them). Roots and branches latticed out all but the smallest glimpse of sky. Arexa’s snout flared as she sniffed the air. Her great orange paw clenched the haft of a longbow that was easily as tall as Sunslayn himself. “Everything in this jungle wants to eat me, even the plants,” she grumbled.

“Not used to being on the bottom of the food chain, Rex?” Sunslayn had to maintain a quick pace to keep up with the charr’s long, sloping stride.

Arexa chuckled. “Now I can imagine how asura in the Black Citadel feel.”

Cliffs hemmed in the travelers, dictating a disorienting, winding path. They had been trying to head east for two days, but the cliffs and great tree roots kept channeling them south. Twice since making their way into Auric Basin, they had been forced to flee the wildlife. Once from a herd of belligerent half-sentient mushrooms, then from a scaly beast that appeared to be made of purple pinecones and flung its own scales like rockets.

So far they had managed to avoid most of Mordremoth’s minions. The possibility that Lirrah was one of them was too horrifying to imagine.

sun-glider-cropThe gliders were invaluable. Sunslayn and Arexa covered miles of jungle effortlessly, searching the ground far below for any sign of Lirrah or anyone who might have seen her. The Pact soldiers in the outposts had been little help. Too many people had gone missing in the jungle for them to offer troops, and Lirrah’s description hadn’t rung any bells. “How many blue sylvari are there in the world, eh?” asked a particularly jaded sergeant. “How many rangers wield bows and travel with dangerous animals? Here, let me loan you one.”

Sunslayn’s hope had begun to flag. The heart of Maguuma was just too vast.

“We need to start looking for a branch,” Arexa said. “It’ll be dark soon.” They refused to camp on the ground. Too many beasties had come sniffing around that first night. Afterward, they had taken a hint from the Itzel and bedded down in the trees.

The charr suddenly whipped an arrow from her quiver and aimed the great bow.

Sunslayn ducked, heart hammering, and looked for trouble.

A lizard, no taller than an asura’s pot-bellied waistline had emerged from a shrub. It cocked its head and chirruped at them.

“Raptor,” Sunslayn whispered. “Back away. Slow.”

“There’s only one.”

“The hell there is. Didn’t you read Ravenyth’s report?”

“I don’t have time to read.” Arexa let the arrow fly.

The reptile squawked as it tumbled with the arrow through its gullet.

Arexa grinned a fangy grin. “Dinner.”

Sunslayn was in the middle of a snarky refusal when the shrub rustled and two more raptors broke into the open. Another followed, then four more, then half a dozen. They chirped a chorus and charged.

“Shoulda read the report,” Arexa said. She dropped to a knee, pressed her paw to the ground, and set a circular sigil to glowing. “Run!”

Sunslayn was already backpedaling, staff clenched in his fist.

The flock of raptors charged over the sigil, triggering a circle of ethereal blades. For an instant they were trapped. Arexa and Sunslayn took advantage of the head-start and raced along the forest floor.

The chirruping grew louder as the celestial trap dissipated and the reptiles resumed the hunt.

Sunslayn looked for a low-hanging branch, a vine, something to get him off the ground. Needle-sharp teeth punctured leather and sank into the meat of his calf. Another raptor lunged and latched onto Arexa’s fluffy tail. The charr roared and batted the lizard with her bow.

With a sweep of Sunslayn’s hand, a fount of fire erupted amid the flock. The raptors leapt over the flames with single-minded hunger.

All at once, the pursuit stopped. One raptor shrieked a different note. The others took up the shrill call, and as one they raced back the direction they had come.

Arexa watched them go, an arrow poised. “I’m not that scary. Am I?”

The ground rumbled. Arexa’s ears perked as she sought the source of the growl. Sunslayn turned and watched the jungle floor heave up. A vast creature uncurled. A moment ago, it had been a tangle of dead timber; now it glared with small yellow eyes glowing like lanterns. A thorny mass of horns reared up from a narrow face. Teeth serrated a boney jaw, and a spike like a spear flicked at the end of a long sinuous tail.

Slowly Arexa backed away. “That in the report?”

vinetooth-eir-cropSunslayn started to shape the word, “Vinetooth,” when the creature roared. All he could think of was Eir Stegalkin. It had been a vinetooth that skewered the life out of the Norn hero.

The ground trembled as the creature set down its clawed feet, stalking slow. The brutal tail arched over its horned head, gaging, aiming.

An arrow as bright as lightning whistled past Sunslayn’s ear and thunked into a woody shoulder. The beast barely flinched.

The tail plummeted. The tip quivered in the earth where Sunslayn had been standing.

He rolled, leaving behind a whip-thin trail of flame, then swept the staff. Fire sprouted along the vinetooth’s arms and shoulders. With a shriek, the creature shook off the pain and charged.

A net dropped from the branches and crashed over the vinetooth’s head. Thick hempen cables tangled in horns, in knobby flesh, in claws. The creature shivered and bucked and roared, but the net didn’t come loose.

“Human!” cried a voice overhead. A large blue hand with padded amphibian fingers beckoned from the crook of a tree. “Climb! Hurry.” A column of flat mushrooms climbed the tree trunk like a ladder.

Sunslayn scrambled up the mushrooms, hoping they didn’t break under his weight. Arexa growled for him to scramble faster.

The vinetooth gnawed free of the hemp and circled below, enraged that its quarry was out of reach.

tlalli_auric_basin-cropAt the top of the mushroom stair, broad branches converged like a meeting of bridges. One of the frog-people was nodding approval at their hasty escape. A dark hood covered much of the Itzel’s blunt blue snout and bulbous eyes.

“You are with the Pact?” she asked, voice reminiscent of the notes of a water-frog’s song.

Winded, Sunslayn could only nod.

“Good, good. If you were not, I would feed you to the vinetooth. I am Tlalli, a hunter of Fahautl Grounds.”

“We’re seeking one of our comrades,” Arexa said.

“Hmm, yes. Outsiders are easily lost in the Basin. Follow me. Perhaps we can help.”

(concluded, Part 3)

Chasing Lirrah, Part 1

Part 1

Sunslayn trudged into the guild hall, dog-tired and footsore. The echoing song of hyenas welcomed him home. Wind whipping through the canyon blew sand into his eyes. Better than snow. He was sick of snow. Three weeks in the Shiverpeaks hunting ectoplasm and not a damn thing to show for it but blisters on his toes, a chill in his bones, and a rekindled dislike for dredge.

He ducked under a striped awning and slumped down at the bar.

tavern-gh-cropWithout a word, the Norn behind the counter turned on the tap and filled a mug. Nathan liked his ale, and he knew what everybody else liked too.  The scent of citrus rose from the mug. Sunslayn smiled. Bloodstone Orange Summer Ale tasted of fire-roasted fruit with a hint of sunlight.

“Rough time?” The question came from his right. A woman slid onto the stool beside him. “Same for me, Nathan.”

“You have no idea,” Sunslayn said.

A second mug slid into a pale, slender hand. Ravenyth sipped. Her lavender eyes peered over the rim, worried.  She dabbed a hint of foam from her upper lip. “Don’t tell me you were captured too.”

Sunslayn sat up straighter. “Captured? Who was captured?”

She grinned, suppressing laughter. “Tryn and Soffi. Inquest. They made it back all right. Mad as dragons and avoiding each other. But they made one hell of a haul.” The guild hall needed ectoplasm, and LegendFire had deployed teams of members all over Tyria to rustle up the magical substance. Sunslayn had insisted he go alone. He liked to work alone these days.

He lowered his nose over his mug. “I got nothing. Sorry, Commander. Who else is still out?”

“Aiven and Alesha, Jib and Saptah, Annilya and Sorel.”

Maybe they would have better luck.

Ravenyth tried to lift his spirits by recapping him on all the improvements they had made to the hall in his absence. He only half-listened.

“Incidentally,” he interrupted, “how long since you’ve heard from Lirrah?”

Ravenyth glanced down at the bar, absently dusted sand from under her mug. “About three months.”

Sunslayn slammed his mug down. “Three months?”

“Where have you been?”

He glared. “Besides rooting around for ectoplasm in gods-forsaken mining tunnels? Besides fighting evil minions of one dragon or another?”

Ravenyth winced. “Sorry. We’ve all been stretched thin lately. I know you were sweet on Lirrah once.”

“It’s not that,” he insisted. “When you recruited me, she was the first person you assigned me to work with.” The sylvari ranger and her fern hound, Thorn, had been gleeful to take the new recruit into the wilderness. The Bloodtide Coast had been full of pirates, undead, and massive bloodsucking insects, but Lirrah had shown admirable courage and contagious curiosity. Sunslayn had merely been horrified. Which had amused Lirrah to no end.

“Where was she last, do you know?” he asked.

“Somewhere in Auric Basin, I think. Her report was … almost incoherent.”

“I want to see it.”

Ravenyth eased off the barstool and led him to a room mostly free of sand. Ancient mosaics patterned the wall like glimpses of memory. She rustled around in a trunk and fished out a folded piece of paper. It was curled from having been rolled around a bird’s skinny leg. She handed it to him.

 Can’t silence it. The voice. Fighting. So many lost. Stay away. Jungle will lose me. Or I will lose it. Stay away. Goodbye.

~L

Sunslayn cast the commander a pleading look. “I didn’t think it was this bad. You told me the sylvari were changing, but…” He dropped the letter and leaned heavily on a windowsill. Far below, water rippled between red sandstone walls. “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, the most miraculous. It’s a nightmare to think of her being transformed into something … something I’ll have to kill. I don’t think I could do it.”

Ravenyth’s hand settled on his shoulder. “Of course you could. She would want you to. We told you what happened with Aiven?”

He nodded. A near thing. Only being knocked unconscious had brought Aiven back from the brink. Mordremoth was calling to his own.

Had Lirrah given in to the Elder Dragon? Was she already lost to her friends? Sunslayn turned from the window. “I have to know. We have to find her.”

The commander frowned, calculating options. “Then you’re headed into the heart of the jungle. Don’t go alone this time. Take Arexa with you. You may need a healer.”

(continued, Part 2)