Fantasy Fiction posted April 4, 2021 Chapters:  ...6 7 -8- 

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A bad omen in a place of tangled magic.

A chapter in the book She Walks in Beauty


by K. Olsen

Traveling ever southward and now fleeing an orcish war-band, Runa and her companions venture into a khiirdu: a place of strange magic and twisted space.

The woods were dark and deep, the branches of the solemn pines creaking under the weight of the snow above. Ahead, a stream flowed like silver mercury, the currents curling back on themselves and flowing in strange, fractal patterns. Above, barely visible through the roof of pine needles, the full moon fractured like a reflection cast onto broken glass. Twisted boughs grew at odd angles, the bark somehow rough and smooth at the same time. Everything about the valley they entered distorted the senses. Even the call of owls lost above them seemed to fluctuate in pitch and echo strangely off the standing stones instead of being absorbed by the thick moss and lichen everywhere.

Rúna knew without a shadow of a doubt that they had entered a khiirdu, a tangle of space and time in Creation's flow where neither force behaved as they should. Places like this were incredibly dangerous, as crossing a small valley could take a few minutes or several years, maybe even longer. The fact that there was no clear path did nothing to ease the worries of her human traveling companions.

"This place has a dark magic to it," Chi whispered, gripping the torch they had made more tightly. The fire flickered and snapped as pitch from the branch caught. Already even it was affected, casting unnatural shadows that seemed to flicker and crawl around them like living beings.

"It is just magic," Rúna said. "The only evil in a khiirdu is what you bring with you."

"Lovely," Thema muttered darkly as she looked around.

Then again, Rúna supposed that they brought ample darkness with them, given everything the orc had said about the evil their soldiers had worked. Their walk would be far more dangerous than that of those who followed them. "We should be careful," she cautioned. "The magic here...sometimes khiirdu respond to the thoughts and hearts of those who enter."

Thema made that irritated 'tch' sound in her throat again. "This is a foolish path you have chosen," she said, glaring at Rúna.

"Would you prefer to be gutted by orcs?" Terese asked mildly.

Rúna set her ward down, but Terese made no move to open distance between them. Instead, she clung to Runa's arm, taking any solace she could find in the face of the yawning fear of the unknown.

Thema huffed at that. "At least orcs can be struck down."

"Not easily," Chi pointed out reluctantly. "Not without some or all of us dying." He turned his gaze on Rúna. " can navigate through this space, wildling?"

Rúna was not about to admit that she had only been in such a place once before, far to the north of where they now stood, and only at her mother's side. The strange formations of ice had concealed many paths that wove a labyrinth of mirror images in the smooth surfaces of the wind-polished ice. It had taken them two weeks to travel a mile, but they had escaped no worse for wear despite some weariness. "I can," she said, trusting in the lessons that tangle had taught her.

"How?" Chi said, waving a hand at the warped trees.

"Creation flows here in strong currents and eddies," the disguised giant explained. "One need only follow its course as it seeks to return to the rest of the world."

"Let's get moving," Thema said sharply. "There may be any number of wild beasts in this area."

Rúna nodded, though she was swiftly distracted by the presence of faintly luminescent moths approaching the torch's flame. They danced around it on delicate wings. She reached out without really thinking of what she was doing, catching one in her hand just before it could fly directly into the fire. Another perished to it, falling to the ground as an ember. "That is a bad omen," she whispered before looking down at the moth captured in a cage of her fingers.

"I have no time for talk of omens," Thema said fiercely. "Lead us out of this place, wildling."

Terese clutched Rúna's hand tighter as they moved forward. "Do you often see omens?" she whispered to the young shapeshifter.

"The gods surround us on every side, bound to us by the web of Fate," Rúna explained quietly as she led the way through the snow, breaking trail for her companions by trudging between banks, where the frozen whiteness only came up to her knees. "All you need do is listen, and much can be revealed."

Thema scoffed at that. "The gods are dead."

"Are you certain of that?" Rúna asked, glancing back over her shoulder at the dark-skinned woman. "Do you truly think all of Paradise to be empty?"

"I'm not debating theology with you, wildling," Thema said shortly. "You're worse than Chi. At least he doesn't believe this northern nonsense."

"I prefer not to put stock in what cannot be observed," Chi said with a wry smile. "If they live, they have not shown themselves."

"Not even with the rise of the Fire Queen?" Terese asked more softly as they moved.

"Magic is more than enough to explain that," Chi said with a wave of one hand. "The stories of her bond with the Eternal Watcher are exaggerated, as all legends."

Rúna stopped in her tracks and turned. She knew the woman they spoke of from the hundreds of stories her parents had told her: Sorne Fire-Heart, Champion of the Goddess of Death, warrior without equal, leader of the giants in the Great War. Her parents had survived a suicide mission at the side of that woman. "You speak of Fire-Heart." Awe colored her voice, but with a twinge of sorrow. She had always hoped desperately to meet her people's hero, but from what Terese said, the mythic figure was gone without a trace.

"Is the name of a dead woman so significant?" Thema asked shortly.

Rúna pressed her lips together into a thin line as she studied the warrior. There was anger in the human woman's heart. "How did she wrong you?" the young giant asked after a moment.

"I do not wish to speak of this," the southern warrior woman said forcefully. "Either lead us or step aside and we will find our own way."

The shapeshifter sighed as she turned back to face the treacherous path ahead. That was an answer that only left her with more questions. She trudged forward through the snow, trying to avoid wells or deeper drifts. Low hanging branches tugged at her hair with grasping twig claws, showering them with needles every time she bumped into a branch. The only light as they moved forward was the torch, the moon vanishing behind dark clouds that flowed unnaturally through the air.

She barely caught the danger out of the corner of her eye, when her own shadow seemed to detach from her and grew larger. Without even stopping to think, she spun and lunged with her spear, but the tip passed through the shadow without any hint of resistance. "Shades!" She had only heard a few stories of them, the evil in a heart growing a shadow to life. The creatures were not alive and not dead, existing in the twilight between realms.

Thema whirled and lashed out with her own spear towards Chi's shadow, but passed through it as if she was striking at smoke. "How do we fight them?"

Chi swung his torch, disrupting the creature for a moment. Even as he did, however, Thema's twitching shadow enveloped him from behind. The sound of the fire-speaker's choking breaths as the creature tried to suffocate the life out of him vaulted Rúna's survival instincts into the forefront.

They would match her speed if she tried to flee. There was only one answer, truly. She dropped her spear and drew her sword. Storm-Caller gleamed in the firelight like a flash of lightning. Rúna drove the blade, crafted from steel imbued with the magic of Creation, straight into the heart of her shade. The blade hissed like red hot steel plunged into icy water, but the spirit evaporated. She whirled and cut Terese from her shadow with a single blow, amputating one spectral limb.

Terese fell forward gasping, clutching at her throat. Behind her, Thema struggled helplessly against another.

Chi flailed as the creature behind him extinguished the breath in his lungs, knocking the lid from the soul-jar he carried on his belt. The djinni contained within poured forth into a column of fire, shedding bright light in all directions. Hissing furiously, the shades recoiled away from Faruq. Even hovering in the air without the word of his binder telling him to defend them, the sheer presence of the djinni was enough to drive the hostile darkness back.

The fire-speaker hit the snow on his knees, struggling to regain his breath like a landed fish. Thema was no better, clutching a branch to steady herself and keep her feet.

Rúna knew that if they were not careful, this fight would be far from over. She could barely make out hints of the shades as they blended into the ocean of darkness that was Winter's night in a khiirdu. Most disturbing was the absence of her own shadow.

"I told you it was a bad omen," Rúna said quietly, releasing the moth held in her left hand, since her shield was still slung across her back. The little creature flew off, thankfully away from the flame.

"I'm glad they're gone," Chi panted with a grimace.

"They are anything but," the young giant said as she watched the shadows with a wary eye. "They lie in wait. We need to keep to Faruq's light and move quickly. Morning will drive them away far better than we can."

"Your sword's magic was quite effective." It was less of a compliment and more of an attempt by Terese to cling to any idea of safety.

Rúna sheathed her weapon. The Gatekeeper's gift had just saved her life and she would be forever grateful to Eydís for granting her such a boon. "Storm-Caller is a rare blade."

"Clearly," Thema observed. "How did you come by such a thing, wildling? I had heard nothing of orcs having steel except those weapons left over from the dwarven work in the Great War."

The young giant wasn't certain how much she could get away with saying. "It was a gift from the greatest of my people's warriors," she explained, keeping her hand on the blade in case the shades returned. "A piece of home, even far from my birthplace."

"We are grateful for its sting," Terese said, again catching hold of the strap keeping Rúna's shield on her back. "Let's hurry. There is no way of knowing when those horrible things might return."

Rúna nodded and tried to ignore the thoughts of what evils lurked in the hearts of her companions, if they could conjure shades. Did they hate or fear? Or both?

What did that mean for her, if she was to learn the world of humans through their eyes?

The shapeshifter picked up her pace, moving as rapidly as she could through the snow while still maintaining some level of care. She could feel the shades behind her, watching with hateful eyes, planning to sap the life from her limbs. Her long strides broke apart banks and rises, allowing Terese and the others to follow more easily, but she knew she would tire long before dawn.

After an hour or so, Rúna slumped down onto a fallen tree trunk. Exhaustion weighted her limbs, but she knew sleep was at best exceptionally dangerous with shades in the area. When she saw Terese shivering as the human sat down beside her, Rúna unbuckled her cuirass and set the armor aside so she could wrap her arms around Terese and offer actual warmth instead of the cold of steel.

"Are we going to die?" Terese asked. She sounded more resigned than afraid.

Rúna shook her head. "I will protect you," she promised again.

"You should be careful how close you come to the viper," Thema warned the young giant, glaring at Terese. "Those fangs will poison you as easily as they nearly killed the King."

"Your hate is what brought those things upon us," Rúna said with an edge to her tone. The shadows around her seemed to deepen, but she knew it was happening and exhaled to let her breath carry the anger away. This was not a time to let the temper she had inherited from her fiery mother take over her better nature. "We need to rest as much as we can. We have a long way to go." 

Runa Tolasdottir - a young giant adventuring for the first time.
Terese Sagarra - a fugitive noble accused of treason and Runa's ward
Thema Koroma - a human warrior in the service of the Lord Protector of Genev
Chi Koroma - a human fire-speaker in the service of the Lord Protector of Genev.
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