2012-02-29, 03:27 AM
Halfling in the Playground
Re: Heroes of the Fall
Part 5: The Smiler's Return and A Promise Kept
The ancient town square of Hastings was abuzz as people continued to filter in. The "Dance of the Night Stalker" was retold again in song, and turns were taken introducing the accompanying steps to newcomers. For the first time in ages the ancient place was alight and full. And as the people danced and laughed they found it was a wondrous place - hardly the den of shadows and evil recounted to them through the years. No indeed! The buildings were vibrant, with colors that seemed to come alive as the night wore on. Grand murals depicted the celebrations and feasts of yore, some of the figures seeming to move with the crowd in time to the music.
In the central pavilion, Brandis and Norlean were resplendent in the very finest the city's tailors could provide. Perhaps only Brandis could make the greens, golds, and purples seem regal, but soon all in the quarter wore swaths of the very same to share in his festive nature. Norlean had barely been convinced to attend a dress fitting. Surely there were better things to do? But somehow Brandis had convinced her this was necessary. Seeing his planned attire, she thought to be rebellious by demanding nothing but black. And Gods be damned if he hadn't told her it was simply perfect for a lady to have at least one black dress. The crowd followed their steps, and then in pockets began to create new ones. New verses were added to old. Most popular seemed to be "Darkness Falls."
As the latter reached the pavilion, Brandis sang along but afterwards raised his hand. Completely in tune with him, the entire square went quiet.
"Good people of Hastings! It fills my heart with joy we are gathered together! To see the light in your hearts push back the shadows of this ancient place. Never lose that! To the good spirits of your people, and each generation to come!" He raised his glass, and an entire city returned the gesture.
His voice lowered, slightly more somber and serious even if the smile and kind eyes remained. "But the Serpent remains. Darkness has not fallen yet. It is because of this I call on you - each and every soul of this blessed city - to join me in battle against the shadow that will try to surround you. I ask to see the best amongst you. Those brave souls willing to brave the black swamp and bring this same freedom to their neighbors."
Brandis' face beamed to see the first amongst many: Thibodeaux, Russell, Aultman, and Eustace. The men whose minds had been saved from Iscaripaka after the midnight attack so many nights ago. "My dear and trusted friends. I charge you with organizing these fine volunteers. You are to spread to the farthest corners of this marshland. Your task is simple - by the new moon, every city, village, and hut is to share what you have learned tonight."
Earnest and enthusiastic they pledged their agreement. The Smiler embraced them, wishing them thanks and safe travels. Norlean waited until the pleasantries were done before sharing her observation. "Truly? You expect them to traverse the entirety of this land in less than a fortnight?"
"Why of course I do! Haven't you ever heard? Time flies when you're having fun!"
Part of her wanted to argue with his ridiculous logic - or lack thereof - but when she saw the spring in their step when they exited with a song on their lips, she decided to simply let it go.
Their finery had been left behind when Brandis and Norlean returned to Kurth. The journey back was no less harsh, but made a thousand fold easier for the sense of hope shared wordlessly between them. However the whispering breeze of the black fetid waters might warn of its anger, they knew they could face whatever came. The night stalker had not returned, and the huntress was more than capable to face simple beasts of darkness risen from the murk.
Somehow the village seemed even more lifeless, more gray than when they had left. Iscaripaka had not given false threats about the blight. Gaunt faces, and cold dead eyes were what met them. Even the tall and powerful frame of Norlean's father was diminished. Brandis closed his eyes and lowered his head when he saw the freshly dug mounds of earth.
He was still not welcome amongst their people, and he did not try to charm his way into their midst. While his companion rejoined her family, he strode to the rising of Lafayette's grave. Kneeling beside it he traced his finger around the gray slate chip that marked the resting place, around the symbol of what had once been his home.
"You will have better, sweet child."
For day and night on end he remained kneeling at the graveside in prayer to Baz'Auran. For the wisdom to understand his role, the serenity to accept it, and the courage to face it.
Dusk approached on the night of the new moon. The whispering of the swamp had grown more and more fervent and violent as the apex of shadow approached. As the last slivers of light slipped into the horizon, Brandis removed Lossethir's chip. Delicately he removed the leaf he had received from Otrygg in the strange chamber of the Stump. Carefully he planted its stem into the soft earth, then arose.
"Iscaripaka! You have remained hidden long enough! I have heard only whispers of your anger. Surely you must have more to say over the loss of your favored servant. Surely it must anger you to know your name is losing its power. Ah, but perhaps you are afraid. Afraid of the son of Baz'Auran! Afraid to have your power tested!"
In the new moon, all was black but something shimmered, quaked with anger. Brandis spread his arms wide.
"Face me Serpent! I call upon you to challenge me in the very heart of darkness. To let you take full form against me! Face me! Or begone with your cowardice!"
There was no surprise when Brandis felt his body wracked with pain. Great tendrils wrapped about him, pulling his joints in every direction. As his bones began to groan and his ribs snapped loudly from the pressure, the small children of Iscaripaka burrowed themselves deep within his flesh. Blood flowed down his face like crimson tears as his eyes were gouged from their sockets.
"Do you still mock me child? Your false bravado rings hollow! The sheer audacity! That you would think to fight me empty handed! In my domain!" Something sharp and cold gouged into Brandis' shoulder. Soon strips of flesh were flayed away in casual ease. "You will die slowly. Painfully. I will hear you despair once more. And in the end you will denounce your father, begging for mercy."
Coughing weakly, he rasped, "Challenge . . . not fight . . ." Defiantly he raised his face to the hot, rancid breath of the Serpent's maw. As his vitality dripped to the gravesight below, he smiled, and mustered what little laughter he could force out.
The first notes were faint. Distant. From the very shores of the eastern ocean. Once voice became two. Two became ten. Soon, ten became a thousand.
Brandis did not need his eyes to know Iscaripaka found herself surrounded by light. He could feel the tendrils digging into him, tensing with uncertainty.
His heart beat in time with the footsteps that danced around their fires. The voice of a nation, over a thousand souls strong surged through him. As the music coursed through his flesh it began to reknit. The Serpent's children feasting upon him dissipated, their screeching death cries drowned out by the massive ritual.
"It was never my place to fight you. I am as Baz'Auran made me. My challenge is for the hearts of these people. And you have failed."
Slowly his vision returned, but vision alone was not enough to grasp the form of Iscaripaka. She was the very essence of the black marsh, a horrid and immeasurable thing. She was ancient, and even surrounded by light she was powerful.
"An amusing trick. And what will they do when you are dead? How long before they are too afraid to utter your name?" Though diminished, the Serpent lifted Brandis and then thrust him violently to the ground. The undulating tentacles of her underbelly, bristling with her small children that shied away from the light, began once more to grasp at him and rend. "Poor, poor child. How did you think this would end?"
It was Norlean who lit the final fire. Began the final chorus. The people of Kurth found it alien to hear music from her lips. To see the huntress grab her father's hand and drag him to dance beside the fire. As is so often the case, the youngest were the first to try something new. They joined the Fosters by the fire, clumsily at first. But the song came easy, as did the steps. Despite themselves, even the sullen eyed people of Kurth joined their children in the celebration.
Straining against the superior might of his opponent, Brandis outstretched his right hand, as if awaiting something.
"Know that your doom takes root in a single act of kindness from this boy. That even before I entered your domain, hope remained within these people."
Bathed in light, the leaf of the Skrayling Tree twisted and grew at the head of Lafayette's final resting place. Slowly at first, but soon as large as a sapling - budding new leaves and stretching out into the sky. And the first leaf continued to twist and shift until it had taken a new form. A simple wooden chalice of golden bark from the world tree, filled with its nectar.
The Skrayling Chalice found itself into Brandis' hands, and he was lifted to his feet by the strength of the tree behind him.
"The Spirit of Man is a vast and endless thing. With every verse, every step, every drink these people share they are connected."
He thrust the chalice to the Serpent's maw.
"Do you wish to dine on their hope? Then know that in their celebration they replenish one another. DRINK!" The nectar poured endessly down Iscaripaka's throat with a sizzling hiss. "You are a vile and petty creature. Drown upon your own gluttonous appetite and despair!"
And it was true. She was a thing of greed and voracious appetite. Even as it dissolved the Serpent from within she yearned for more. But it was like trying to swallow the ocean whole. With each gulp Iscaripaka shrank and shrank, while the Skrayling Tree grew ever taller. Soon she fit within the palm of Brandis' hand, then was naught but a dissipating waft of smoke.
Circling high above, the sprite saw a wondrous thing. A thousand points of light swirled across the swamplands and gathered together whilst an entire people climaxed their song in perfect harmony. The Skrayling Tree rose higher and higher, and the light gathered to it. Soon its branches extended over the entire realm beneath. And when it was done, fluorescent seeds fell to the earth, making the marshland whole and verdant once more.
Brandis ached to the very fiber of his being as he sat at the base of the great trunk. Gingerly, he lifted the chalice. "To you Lafayette. For your kindness."
He was unsure how long he remained there, lost in thought. He hardly noticed when Norlean came beside him.
"Are you just going to sit here all night and make a girl dance by herself?"
Brandis couldn't have been happier as he took her hand.
"Why Norlean, I thought you'd never ask!"
Last edited by KiCowboy; 2012-02-29 at 03:40 AM.