Chapter III - The Underground Terror
The crickets were out in force, filling the night air with their rhythmic chords and pausing only briefly when Jarlen sped by, high in the trees. He’d passed several farms that would have offered food and lodging, but he preferred to complete the journey to Krofhaven in one day. That way there’d be a smaller chance of crossing paths with Tyraz, who might have left for the northern fortress already.
Jarlen had put the mountains behind him early that morning and hadn’t yet fallen out of the trees. His body was comfortable, easily finding branches to support his weight. Perhaps he was finally becoming a better climber, or maybe his mind was no longer preoccupied with thoughts of finding another human. Either way, he smiled as he flew from one limb to another, his feet never touching the ground.
A single clink of metal from up ahead caused his concentration to fail. His shirt snagged against a rough piece of bark, a branch snapped, and an instant later he was lying facedown on the trail, his hands and legs stinging where they smacked into the earth. The loud thump must have scared a small animal from the nearby bushes. It sounded similar to a faint chuckle as it scurried away.
“Jarlen, is that you?” a familiar voice called out from the darkness.
Tyraz rushed forward, the hilt of his sword bobbing up and down in its sheath, silencing the crickets with its ringing. Jarlen sat back and rubbed his wrists.
“That sword doesn’t fit right,” he said. “If you’re not careful, it might pop right out of there. You wouldn’t want to lose it. It’s irreplaceable.”
“I know how valuable it is,” said Tyraz, helping him up. “This blade is unique, made entirely of vistrium instead of steel. It’s slightly thinner than my last one, but I haven’t had a chance to replace the sheath yet. What are you doing down here? I thought you were waiting for me with the wizard.”
“He’s dead. I was on my way to tell Aiax.”
“Don’t bother. Aiax knew the old man wouldn’t be alive much longer. That’s why he let us visit him on our own. I’m sure Septu would have accompanied us had it been otherwise.”
“We still have to tell him,” said Jarlen, “so he can bury Methus according to Ferfolk ceremony.”
As soon as Jarlen was steady on his feet, Tyraz continued northward on the trail.
“The old wizard was human. I doubt Aiax cares what happens to his body. Whatever you did should be fine.”
“I left him in the stone building.”
“Then that will be his tomb. Did you feel the ground shake a few days ago?”
“Days? How can it have been days already?”
“What do you mean?”
“Part of the mountain came down onto the rest of the castle,” said Jarlen. “There’s nothing left. The second quake buried me. I was lucky to have escaped, but I thought it all happened on the same day.”
“We only felt one in Krofhaven. Maybe the old wizard caused the second one when his spirit left for the netherworld.” Tyraz yawned. “Come, we’ll rest for the night at one of the farms and decide what to do in the morning.”
Jarlen was forced to walk beside Tyraz during their hike through expansive fields, none of which allowed a single tree to grow. As they approached the outermost farmhouse, a layer of thick netting had covered several rows of low bushes.
“Won’t that block sunlight from nourishing the plants?” he asked.
“It’s better than the alternative,” said Tyraz.
Jarlen stopped beside one of the rows, barely able to push his little finger through the netting. Several larger holes had been patched with pairs of black triangular shaped material.
“Losing the crops completely.” Tyraz pulled him away from the plants. “The locusts will be here in a couple of months.”
“Large insects. Wings. Long legs.”
“I know what a locust is,” said Jarlen. “So what if some locusts eat a few berries or leaves. There’s more than enough here for everyone, including a hungry chipmunk or two.”
“Normally that’s true,” said Tyraz. “But every eight years, an enormous swarm of locusts comes from the desert. The sky turns black as night and the air screams louder than a thunderstorm. If the farmers don’t protect their crops, there’d be nothing left for the winter, inedible stems included. You’re lucky this plague leaves the Arboreals alone. Perhaps they’re afraid of your forest.”
“Perhaps—but I bet they just take the most direct path toward food, whatever that might be.”
“I’ve had enough talk of insects and plants. It’s time for sleep.”
Jarlen awoke to the sounds of muffled grumbling amid the occasional thump, as if a disgruntled beaver were taking down a poorly constructed dam. Spots of light shone through cracks in the wood walls, dotting the interior of the old barn. He sat up and brushed bits of hay off his clothing—a sturdy branch would have been more comfortable. His side ached from such an awkward sleeping position.
“Finally, you’re awake,” said Tyraz, taking a swing at a thick log resting against the wall.
A spray of wood chips flew into the air as his blade sliced through the log. Several bits of kindling lay scattered about the floor.
“I can’t believe I was so tired.” Jarlen stretched and yawned, coughing when the strong scent of damp fur filled his lungs. “What have you been mumbling about?”
Tyraz wiped his blade on his shirt and brought it closer. A beam of sunlight reflected off the metal, illuminating the corner of the barn.
“Septu,” he said.
When he sheathed the sword, he could have been putting out a campfire.
“He wouldn’t let me be while I was in Krofhaven.”
“Is he still upset you received that sword?”
“Upset is an understatement,” said Tyraz. “There’s nothing I could say or do to make him believe I was worthy of such a special blade.”
The door to the barn swung open, temporarily blinding Jarlen. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw an old farmer approaching. A wooden carving, similar in shape and color to the patches on the netting, had been nailed above the door.
“Are you sure about that?” asked the newcomer, tapping the black symbol above his head as he stepped through. “I’m sorry if I overheard your conversation, but I might have a solution that would help me as well.”
He stopped two paces away with a glare at Jarlen. “Oh, an Arboreal.”
“How could you help me,” said Tyraz, “other than offering a place to stay for the night? You’re nothing but a farmer.”
“Keep that attitude and you’ll be as bad as Septu, that arrogant fool. His unit came this way several years ago and he refused to speak with me directly, even after I expressed a desire to thank him for protecting my family from the Arboreals.”
Tyraz didn’t appear to be listening. There’d always been a clear separation between the warriors and all other Ferfolk. The Arboreals were different, treating one another as equals, although they did look down upon the other races. Jarlen rubbed his eyes as he inched between them.
Rough skin covered the farmer’s hands and his face had more wrinkles than Methus’s whole body. There was no reason farmers should be held in less esteem than warriors. They provided food to the many thousands who depended on them.
“Can’t you just hear him out? He might—”
“Stay out of this, Arboreal,” said the farmer, shoving him aside.
“If you want my help,” said Tyraz, “you’ll start by apologizing to my friend.”
“Fine,” said the farmer with a forced nod at Jarlen.
“What’s your solution?” asked Tyraz.
The farmer led him into the fields, where several workers were laying out more mesh.
“Something’s been feeding on my livestock ever since the earth shook a few days ago,” he said.
“I’m not interested in hunting a pack of wolves. We have better things to do with our time. Besides, nobody would be impressed if I scared away an oversized dog, least of all Septu.”
“This was no wolf.”
As they approached a mound the size of a small hill, the stench of rotting meat overwhelmed Jarlen. He stopped a few paces away while the farmer grabbed a shovel that had been sticking out of the ground and dug into the earth. After tossing a few scoops of dirt aside, the old man reached down and yanked out a piece of a horse’s leg, already beginning to rot. The bone had been bitten in half.
“What did this?” asked Tyraz. “A dragon?”
“Nobody has seen the creature,” said the farmer, “but I have one more thing to show you. Come this way.”
Jarlen paused by the mound. A few white bones poked out of the earth, waiting to be used in an appropriate incantation. He kicked some dirt over them and chased after the others. Arboreals shouldn’t be interested in human magic, especially necromancy.
“I found one of these wherever an animal went missing,” said the farmer, leaning over a gaping hole in the ground.
Tyraz knelt beside the hole and ran his hand along the side. The loosely packed dirt crumbled at the slightest touch.
“Remember the wyrm that chased us?” he asked. “This could be its brother.”
Before battling the evil spirit, they’d been trapped in a wyrm’s underground lair for several hours. The enormous creature had almost swallowed them whole, but they escaped when a pair of Arboreals sealed the exit with a mass of roots.
“Why couldn’t it be the same one?” asked Jarlen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it survived the fight against the earth spirit.”
“That one was much larger,” said Tyraz. “See how narrow this tunnel is? But don’t think this creature will be easy to kill. Even a baby dragon is far more dangerous than a pack of blaeculfs. I’ll show Septu that I’m worthy.”
“It might be better to let the army handle this,” said Jarlen. “You’ve already proven yourself against the evil spirit and his minions. You braved the Arboreal Forest on your own and stood between two armies set to destroy each other. Septu has to accept the truth.”
“I’m going after the beast with or without you.” Tyraz crawled into the hole on his hands and knees. “But I’d rather have a friend to talk to. It might be a long trek through the mud.”
“I’ll come with you after we’ve had something to eat.” Jarlen pulled him out of the dark tunnel. “Who knows how long we’ll be down there.”
After crawling through the earth for hours, Jarlen’s long-standing desire to visit the Teruns had disappeared. How could anyone enjoy being so far removed from the sun and fresh air? His lungs were probably as caked with mud as the rest of his body. He spat out another mouthful of dirt, unable to remember the taste of his distant breakfast.
“Don’t come any farther,” shouted Tyraz from up ahead.
Jarlen sat back on his knees, unable to see his hands. The wyrm could have been two paces away, ready to dine on its unsuspecting prey. He fell backward when something bumped into him.
“We have to go back,” said Tyraz.
“Why? What did you find up there?”
“The tunnel ends. All this was for nothing. Maybe going the other direction will be faster.”
“Not faster than digging out.”
Jarlen couldn’t imagine making the same trip again. He clawed at the earth above his head, bringing down a shower of dirt.
“You’ll bury us,” said Tyraz.
“I’d rather be buried than spend another minute down here. Help me dig.”
He held his breath and shoved his arms up, frantically scooping out handfuls of soil. Unlike Teruns, Arboreals were not comfortable below ground.
Jarlen’s fingers rubbed against a mass of thin roots. Either they were near some small bushes or the farmer’s crops were overhead. Freedom couldn’t be far away. A single ray of sunlight snuck through the dirt and warmed his face. He punched upward and burst from the ground just outside a field of weeds. A large root, split down the middle, came up from the soil with him. The wyrm had probably scared a forager away from its meal.
Tyraz appeared beside him.
“Now what? We can’t follow the tunnel anymore.”
“Sure we can,” said Jarlen, pointing. “The wyrm’s been traveling close enough to the surface to form a ridge. We can follow the bump in the earth through yonder forest. It seems to be heading north, toward the mountains.”
“Why did the beast come up from the depths?” asked Tyraz. “Wouldn’t the roots from big trees block it?”
Jarlen squeezed out of the hole and brushed off his clothing.
“You know more about this creature than I do. If you want to give up, I won’t argue.”
“I’ll complete this quest no matter what happens. This will prove that Septu was wrong about me.” Tyraz jogged into the forest. “Try not to get lost.”
The ridge from the wyrm’s tunnel was almost undetectable as it wove around trees on a course roughly parallel to the northern Ferfolk road. The creature was returning to its mountain home near the buried castle, no doubt disturbed by one of the tremors Jarlen had caused. This was his quest as much as Tyraz’s.
By evening, the trail had disappeared. The wyrm had gone deep underground once again and Jarlen refused to dig down after it. The tunnel might collapse without an experienced excavator to assist them. A Terun would have been ideal, but with night rapidly approaching, the chase would have to wait until morning.
As Tyraz lit a small campfire, Jarlen scouted the area for a suitable meal. It was bad enough they might be forced to kill the wyrm. He didn’t want any other animals to be harmed so Tyraz could fill his stomach. Fortunately, the late summer vegetation offered many alternatives.
Jarlen had filled a small sack with edible leaves, tubers, and berries and was on his way back to the clearing when a small vine snagged his foot and sent him to the ground. If he’d been traveling through the branches, he might have broken a limb or lost most of the meal to the dense underbrush. He unhooked the vine from his leg, took three steps, and tripped again. A tendril had wrapped around his other ankle. This was no accident.
“Who’s out there?” he shouted. “Tyraz, we’re not alone.”
More vines came at him, reminiscent of the magical barrier protecting the Forbidden Wood, although those had been studded with thorns. Jarlen closed his eyes, grabbed on to the thin shoots, and chanted, “Segnian bans, segnian beame.”
Where his fingers touched the plant, a brittle brown splotch replaced the deep green of the tendril and stretched outward. Jarlen flexed his legs, causing the vines to crumble into dry powder.
“What happened?” asked Tyraz, rushing toward him. “Did you fall out of another tree?”
“I was attacked by vines.” Jarlen stood, crushing a pair of brown leaves in his hand. “Can dragons control plants?”
“Not that I know of,” said Tyraz. “Are you sure—”
“I know what I saw.”
“Maybe your friends are expanding their forest again.”
If the Arboreals had decided to expand, they wouldn’t have told him about it. As a half-human, he’d never been part of their community. He wiped his hands on his pants as he stood. The trees around him were still, not a single leaf fluttering, as if they were clinging to a secret.
Tyraz drew his sword and disappeared into the woods for a few minutes. “There’s nobody else around.”
“That’s what worries me,” said Jarlen.