Phantasmagoria - Chapter 9
By midday they were still working their way across the great fields below FallenStar. They had only covered about a quarter of the distance they would have in the summer. Winter was truly upon the ShadowLands and the deep snow made travel slow to a crawl. Even taking turns breaking the trail Stone and Kelloran were tiring.
“Maybe the field route wasn’t the best idea I ever had.” the Restorer wheezed in the cold air.
“I was thinking much the same but still at this point we are closer to the Jack O’Lantern’s Wood than town. I say we press on. Besides downhill beats trying to climb back to town in my mind.”
“You’re the druid. As long as you say we’re not going to freeze to death before we get there, I’ll follow you.”
“We’re not going to freeze to death but you are not going to be following for a bit either. It’s your turn to take point. My legs are getting sore again.”
The next few hours were a grueling battle. Each turn up front became shorter and shorter. Heads down, the pair trudged onward methodically. Finally Stone looked up over Kelloran’s shoulder and spotted the break in the trees where the road broke into the Forest of the Condemned. “Not much further Kelloran there is the entrance just ahead.”
“Great! I was just about to ask to switch places again but with a destination in sight I can keep… Wait a sec. There is someone down there.”
Stone followed where the Restorer was pointing. Standing just at the edge of the forest stood a figure. The two watched but whomever or whatever was there in front of them moved not at all. “Think he’s frozen?”
“Not unless the weather down here is way different than we’ve had in FallenStar,” Kelloran replied. “People who die of the cold don’t do it standing up very often. It’s cold out here but not enough to flash freeze someone upright.”
“Usually I would advise a cautious approach but neither you or I have the strength to loop far enough around him and against the snow we are going to stand out like banners. Might as well head straight in. That way if things go badly we won’t have exhausted what energy we have left. Let me take point.”
“Sounds smart. You’ve got a much better weapon that I do.”
“Actually I was thinking I want your healing abilities unengaged. If this guy has bad news magic I could get pretty roasted by the time I can close with him trying to run in snow.”
“Got it. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Never doubted it. Let’s go.”
The closer the two came to the figure the odder its pose seemed to them. Besides Kelloran’s claim that being frozen was unlikely, that is exactly what the figure seemed to be. It appeared to have stopped mid-stride walking same path they were for the Forest of the Condemned. It took the pair almost ten minutes to reach the dark form and in that whole time it had not moved. Kelloran pointed out the fact that there was no trail leading back from the man. As they got closer, Stone noticed another odd fact. He and the templar we’re buried to their knees in snow yet he could see the man’s feet standing atop of the loose drifts.
Finally pair reached the figure. Even before they could see his face Stone had a dreadfully feeling he knew who it was. Kelloran’s exclamation was no surprise. “Oh Gods Stone. It’s Chells.” Their friend was truly locked in winter’s embrace. He had no blood to turn to ice but his form was as still as a frozen lake. The misty edges that wreathed his body stood it rigid tendrils. Kelloran tried to take hold of his friends arm. Instead of passing right through him as he would a spirit or meeting a solid form as he now appeared to be, the Restorer’s hand met a sluggish resistance. His fingers sank slowly into the wraith-like arm. “It’s like trying to grab molasses. How are we going to move him?”
“Of course! In the dark months spirits slow down even more than normal. Chells, regardless of the fact he dwells on the Physical Plane, must be just as susceptible to winter as they are. When was the last time you said you saw him?”
“Two days ago. How long did he say he could remain in spirit form?”
“I’m not sure. We’ve got to get him back to his body. There is no way we could make it back to FallenStar today. Damn!! I had a Thought Transfer scroll in my hand this morning but I never got around to putting it in my pouch. We could have had Thomas use a spirit caller to summon him back to FallenStar.”
“Would that even work? I thought spirits chose to respond to the spirit callers. If he cannot move he can’t very well respond to it.”
“You’re probably right. We’ve got to get his body here then. If we shelter in the wood tonight we could make it back to FallenStar this time tomorrow… Then it would be another day back here.”
“That is if we are in any shape to make the journey again. We’ll be exhausted. That’s dangerous in this cold. Sending Thomas by himself is no option either. Sending a lone person out is asking for worse than we’ve already got.”
“Then we have only one choice. We need to get into the Jack O’Lantern’s wood and summon the body here.”
“You think we can do it?”
“We’ll be in his holy ground so that will count for quite a bit. We will also need to beseech Melcynda to release whatever hold she has on Chells’ body.”
“I’m not sure if we have enough prayers between us.”
“If we pour all the prayer we have into it and hold nothing back the sacrifice should carry out words to Melcynda. I’ll add Ranu and Crodez in as well. Compassion and loyalty definitely fit this circumstance. We’ve got to try. No matter how good he has gotten at this spirit thing, I doubt he can recover from a of minimum four days away from his flesh. He might have been in spirit form for a while already two days ago.”
“You can’t combine Gods like that, Stone. It just doesn’t work that way.”
“Kelloran we are not asking all the Gods for one thing. We use our prayers to give the Jack O’Lantern the strength to summon the body. Ranu I ask to carry our plea to Melcynda to release her hold. Crodez to help them rejoin.”
“Got it. Put like that I think you’re right. It could work. Ok I’ll lead. You just went first.”
Renewed with purpose the adventurers made it to the woods in record time. The way became more treacherous at first with branches lying beneath the snow. Luckily it was not quite as deep. Kelloran immediately sensed the presence of the God of Justice. His strange aura overlaid everything here. The trees and earth. The dark headstones peeking out of the white blanket of snow. Even the skulls crafted by mortal hands to ward this holy ground were infused with the spectral strength of the ancient being who was now one of the Spirit Gods.
Stone and Kelloran quickly set to working clearing off the huge stone which often held the Jack O’Lantern’s rune. Stone dug a candle out of his pack and Kelloran lit incense to honor the deity, actually deities, of who’s aid they were about to seek. They drew forth the energy their Gods had touched them with and crafted it into a many layered call for help. Kelloran watched in the eternal awe he held for the divine powers as one by one they came.
Ranu was first. His appearance startled the Restorer at first. Used seeing the great sleek hound, the shaggy almost lupine looking God was not at all what he was expecting. His heavy coat was rimmed with frost and His eyes were the palest blue instead of their usual deep brown. The God’s breath plumed into the air filling Kelloran’s divine sight with fog. The great beast picked up Stone’s plea to carry his request to Melcynda. It turned Its gaze on Chells and saw the deep bonds between the two brothers. Even without Stone’s prayer this was a task the God of Loyalty embraced. He bounded away carrying with Him His fierce and unswerving presence.
Kelloran joined his companion in their next call. Grey vines twined up from the earth, though they did not move even a flake of snow. Superimposed on the real world, the twisting cables formed themselves into legs, torso, arms and hands. At It’s apex, they coiled and churned until they flowed downward to fashion a cloak about the towering figure. What they revealed in their fall was a white pumpkin colored with pale orange only where the skin was holed to shape features. Flame burned within the head lighting eyes and mouth but instead of the warm glow much like candlelight, this fire burned blue, bathing the humans in a stark and cold radiance. The deity listened to the request made by Stone and supported by Kelloran. It nodded and turned to face FallenStar. Stretching out Its arms, ethereal vines launched from Its fingers. The coils streaked through the trees, crossing the distance it had taken the men a day to travel in a mere second. They returned bearing the limp form of Chells and lowered the body gently at the feet of two worshipers. In a flash the great being unraveled and was gone.
The last God appeared with a whisper instead of a leap or eruption. Though the day was waning there was still daylight when Stone began his last prayer. It was answered first by the dimming of the wood. Sunset became dusk and dusk became night in a matter of seconds. Then the darkness reversed as a pearly illumination filtered through the bare limbs from above. The silver robed deity seemed unchanged compared to the two before. Kelloran thought quickly but could not imagine how Crodez could look any more wintry than He always did. His musing did not last long because with Him the God bore the frozen form of Chells. Scooping up the apparent lifeless body, He gently brought both to His chest as if He were a father hugging a pair of children. In His embrace the two became one. He too lowered Chells to the waiting men but instead of laying him on the ground, the Moon God rested him in Stone’s lap. Daylight returned to the forest revealing the shivering form of their friend. Alive.
“We’ve got to make a fire quickly,” Stone exclaimed. “I forgot he would not be dressed for the weather out here. I don’t think I had anything left in me to remedy the situation even if I had.” The druid looked around and spotted a large pine tree. Its lower boughs lay embedded in the snow drifts. “There! Forget the fire. If we tunnel into the hollow under the lowest branches our bodies and my lantern will create more than enough warmth to keep him alive.”
“Ok I’ll carry him. You figure out where we need to climb in. If I tried it I’m sure I’d knock all the snow down and ruin it.”
In a matter of minutes Stone pushed and packed the branches and snow to create an opening. He sent Kelloran in first, passing in Chells next and then the packs. While he sealed the tunnel Kelloran checked Chells’ condition. He was cold but not dangerously so. His trembling was just the body trying to keep warm. The fact he was unconscious worried the Restorer more. Physical ailments he could handle. If Chells’ spirit was somehow damaged, the person he would have gone to to ask for advice was the patient himself.
“How is he?”
“He’s alive and breathing fine. Out cold though if you’ll pardon the pun. I think that is due more to his spirit than his body. Physically he’s a mess. He seriously malnourished and probably dehydrated too. No hypothermia or frostbite, so that’s good. I know he damaged himself last year in some battle on planes of the dead but he’s way worse now.”
“How long do you think he was out of his body.”
“This is uncharted territory for me. Could be just the two days. Could be longer. His condition goes beyond this last spirit trip. I’ve been meaning to talk to him about all this time he’s been away from his body. I had noticed the few times I had seen him in the flesh he’s looked worse and worse. When was the last time any of us has seen him eat something?”
“I hadn’t thought of that. I can’t recall seeing him eat or drink anything for months. I’m sure he must have. He has some food and always plenty of water in his hut. I know he does not see life and death like we do but he should have the common sense not to kill himself with his experiments. Unfortunately I would not bet a gold on it. His obsessions have overruled his sense of self-preservation before.”
“Well when we get him back to town, we’d better make sure he starts taking care of his real form or a spirit body will be all he’s got.”
By this time the hollow was quite warm. Stone stripped off his heavy outer gear, with some difficulty in the cramped space. He pushed the few piles of snow to edges leaving a floor of pine needles. They’d provide some insulation but he unrolled a pair of blankets to complete the base of their den. The coats would be used to cover themselves. Once Kelloran had Chells situated, he too took off his cloak and overcoat.
“We get some should sleep,” Stone advised. “Tomorrow is going to be worse than today was. Try and wake up now and then and relight the lantern. If you can see your breath keep it lit for a while otherwise blow it out. Our bodies should produce enough heat but let’s not take chances. I’m going to put out the light now. You all set?”
“Leave it for a bit. I’d like to keep an eye on Chells for about an hour. See if his condition changes any. I’ll wake you if any happens.”
“All right. Good night Kelloran.”
Kelloran closed the tin door of the lantern. This left just illumination to see by. He’d check on Chells ever ten minutes or so for a while. He was not sure what would happen but if anything was likely to, it was going to either happen soon or hours from now when Chells’ internal clock told him it was time to wake up. That is if his friend woke up at all.
The black mood that had been haunting him for weeks returned once more. He was doomed. Maybe it would have been better to let the cold kill him. At least that way he would have an after-life. The thought made him shiver. As much as he liked Chells he really could not understand how anyone would choose death over life. To live without touch, to be unable to feel and smell the spring winds or taste a good meal. These and millions of other such joys were what made a person a person. To exist with only memories of those things seemed tragic.
Yet soon he might be deprived even of that much. What if his impending death at the Lost Gods Altar was more than just a physical death. What if whatever was waiting for him slayed his spirit as well. He’d be stuck as a soul. A scrap of himself with no future just a single glimpse of his past. Even worse was possibility of soul death. There have been tales of death-blows so potent that the victim is wiped out entirely. Big dead. The Great Beyond. Lights out forever.
He had tried to reconcile himself to his fate but the plain a simple fact was he wanted more than almost anything to live. Heart beating. Breathing. The thought of loosing that was breaking him apart. Each of his friends had tried to tell him not to worry about it but they just didn’t get it. To them life did not have same value. Hell Chells equated death to puberty, “just another change in the path of one’s existence.” What did they know about loosing that which makes you what you are?
Kelloran winced as the candle flared, sending a spike of light through one of the holes in the tin right into his left eye. He looked to the lantern and was captured by the flame dancing within it. In that moment the metal walls around it did not exist for him. He could see the taper standing below the flicking fire and behind them a golden mask appeared. The visage of the sun stared at him and Kelloran was swept into a trio of visions.
Thomas was first. The beloved son of the Candleman. He looked younger. Proud features stood above a tall body, not of an alchemist but of a knight. Sir Thomas. The warrior stood on a path of shields for he was a defender prepared to hold safe his town, his home and his friends. His knighthood defined him. It shaped his every waking moment. Yet as Kelloran watched, the trail of shields unraveled beneath the swordsman’s feet. A black spirit stood before him and Thomas tumbled into the writhing ebon cloak. When he emerged out the other side he was changed. Gone was his shield and mail. His title lost in the passage through the dark spirit. Unsteady and without purpose Thomas stood. Yet at his side remained one last aspect of his former life. A long sword emblazoned with a golden candle hung from his belt still. He drew that blade and drew a new path in the earth before him. Formulas and reagents wreathed the figure. Still baring the sword which glowed of candlelight, Thomas stood in FallenStar once more. No longer the knight that he had been but defender still.
Chells was next. His was not a vision of what had been but of horrors that seek to become reality. Since he first heard the voices of the dead, the youth felt a kinship to them that surpassed his ties to all but a handful among the living. He too had the sense of a defender about him but more faintly than that of Thomas. His calling was not to be simply the bastion behind which his charges were shielded. He was their caretaker, their connection to the physical world. He soothed their pains, answered the questioned they could not seek out themselves. He fought their battles and sacrificed himself for their needs. For him their existence was everything, over-shadowing every choice he made. Yet before the templar stood two dark mirrors. In one Chells stands beside a woman whose dark features are both compelling and terrible at once. She sings and at her side Chells carries that song to his beloved dead. The music wraps itself about their spectral bodies, invading their senses of self, stealing their will. Her magic, passed through Chells’ voice, call the spirits from the ShadowLands to her and binds them forever. All that Chells has done to nurture the dead is undone as his gift turns them into slaves. The other mirror shows the gravetender warped in body as well as mind. He rides a steed made of bone and rotting flesh. Behind him marches a horde of undead. His grey skin marks him as one of their kind, a lich. He leads his host through the graveyards of the land and spurs the shambling minions to feast on the spirits he once protected. These dooms await the believer if he fails to avoid their pursuit of him. Be it tool or abomination, all that Chells has been could be undone by the twin darknesses that seeks him.
Lastly is Stone. In him runs the same devotion but not for the dead. For him it is the world itself. The trees and beast are his charges. The earth he wards from disease and ruin. The sickness of the Blight and malicious devastation at the hands of the goblins wound him. His ties to life are as deep as Kelloran’s own and yet he would willing sacrifice himself to save even a small track of the green vibrant world he loves. He also has a doom lurking behind him. The vision shows Stone standing on a hillside, speaking a single word. Even as that utterance leaves his lips a mighty conflagration hurls from the sky. Flames rush across the land, incinerating plant and beast. It annihilates FallenStar in moments. The great green fields and deep forests are charred instantly into black devastation. Only ash and scorched rock remain of the beautiful world he had cherished. He can feel this disaster looming behind him and even more terrifying is that he knows not the word that will cause it to be. He knows too that just seeking the questions that will show him the path to safety he could very well evoke the holocaust he desperately longs to avoid. His love for the life of the world may someday force him to forswear his love for his own life to be sure that he does not bring about the cataclysm that haunts him.
Allahn has many names but Kelloran knew in that moment he stood before the God of Truth. His friends all have born the weight of doom. It was his turn to let it crush him or to conquer it and be made again into something more than he was.
Even as the visions fade exhaustion swamped the healer and bore him away into dreams of his destiny and his choices.
He awoke to a pair of blue eyes staring at him. Chells’ color was better but he still looked far from well.
“How you feeling Chells?” he asked.
“Gods I am coming to hate this thing.”
“This bag of flesh. It hurts constantly. It needs so much bloody work to keep functioning. If I could figure out how to get past green I might just scrap the damn thing. I’m getting closer but not there yet.”
“Well for now lets assume you would best off not letting the decision be taken out of your hands. If you don’t start putting some bloody work into keep yourself functioning you are not going to have a body to come back to soon.”
“Sorry Kell. Thanks for saving me. Gratitude would have been a much better first response than bitching.”
“Don’t worry about it. Where’s Stone?”
“No idea. I woke up pretty much the same moment you did.”
“I take it you two are awake.” exclaimed a voice from outside the burrow.”
“It’s the end of the world…” croaked Chells. When Kelloran looked at him quizzically the believer grinned. “Stone, the first one awake. It has got to be one of the signs of the Apocalypse.”
“Very funny. Move aside guys I’m coming back in.” The branches parted and let in both a gust of frigid air and the druid. “Well you being conscious is a good thing. The bad new is the temperature dropped heavily last night. Yesterday was a picnic compared to traveling today.”
“Where were you guys headed?”
“The Nihilist Grove. I wanted to try and track down a few hypotheses from there.”
“Good idea. It’s not like were are about to get any help from usual sources anytime soon.”
“What do you mean by that.”
“You guys found any runes in the last few weeks?”
“Well you’re not likely going to.” Chells continued. “This time of year one God has some serious mojo and he is the jealous type.”
“Yup. He is blocking the usually helpful Gods from laying runes. I stumbled across the Well of Visions and that is what it showed me. I figured I’d go to Melcynda’s Peace and try there. It being Her holy ground and all. I thought She could trump Him there. I got a little way up the hill when it dawned on me Jack’s holy ground was right here. So I turned back. I think I had been slowing down for a while by that point but I when I noticed everything kept flickering I started to realize what was happening to me. Birds, a couple foxes and such would blink in and out until it occurred to me that they were moving normally. I was the one who time was inching along for.”
“Well we’re not going anywhere just yet. Maybe in a few hours the sun will have warmed things up enough for us to get you out of here.” Stone explained. “Looks like we have two choices now. The Nihilist Grove or trying to contacting Ymir. The Grove will not take all of us but I’ve got a hunch that the more of us we have when beseeching the Winter God the better our odds are of having him capitulate. What do you guys think?”
The three turned over the two choices for a quite a while as they ate and prepared to leave their haven.