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(The following is a modified excerpt from my novel A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology).

As Algonion descended into Lokewood from the foothills of the Thresian Mountains, he could feel the nature of the forest begin to change. He was leaving the height of autumn behind, and entering a realm shrouded in a season of its own, unlike any that ever visited the lands of men. The trees became squat, stark, and twisted; the ground an uneven bed of bulging and pitted stone, acrid fumes seeping from frequent fissures. Electricity crackled in the air and, as he pushed on, small bolts of lightening sparked and stabbed arbitrarily. An eerie mist wafted among the trunks and charred stumps, and only a diffuse gray light filtered through the haze. Unseen wooden chimes rattled frantically wherever he approached, though the air was perfectly still.

All around him, as the lightening grew larger and brighter, tortured limbs flashed in silhouette, reaching for him like a thousand desperate arms frozen in a thousand separate poses, threatening, terrifying, beseeching. The path dwindled and disappeared. The branches closed in on him, grabbing at him, buffeting him, clutching him, obstructing his forward progress. Wherever he turned, many-fingered boughs assaulted him, as though intentionally slung. Jagged bolts struck ever nearer, forcing him to dodge their deadly thrusts. His body began to move as it had in the ice sphere in Vaznalla (see The Wizards’ Eye), dancing among these hazards with liquid grace, anticipating them, flowing between them. But here, the first mistake could be a fatal one.

Avoiding the bright javelins of fire, leaping and tumbling over and under the encroaching limbs, he gave himself over to the movements, freed from all other thoughts, a wild thing at home in the woods. Vaznalla, though an incubator of perfection, was an incubator none the less. Here, he moved as if born anew, challenged by the random rather than contrived. It was as if he were Evenstar’s crystal statue unfrozen into vivid life.

The trees gradually became taller, though no less twisted, rising in a tangle of bare branches. Small fires burned and smoldered wherever lightening had struck dead wood. Lokewood was a simmering maelstrom of sizzling air and boiling earth, pools of mud and lava bubbling all about. Rancid steam rose from cracks in the earth like the flatulence of an ailing giant. Sinkholes sucked at Algono’s feet. Though there wasn’t the slightest breeze, the sound of howling wind was everywhere, of mocking laughter, of ominous hoots and caws. Eyes peered out from every shadow. Wafting tendrils of smoke closed around Algonion like a spectral hand. At last, he discerned Loci faces peering out from among the trees.

(The Loci imps, capable of setting off cascades of chaos by making tiny manipulations both in Nature and in people’s minds and bodies, stood a couple of feet tall, with twisted, gibbous bodies, lopsided faces and crag-toothed grins, protruding eyes glaring with hideous intensity….)

Soon he came upon a group of the imps gathered around a pet of some kind, tormenting it with their blowdarts. Through the throng, he saw what kind of animal it was: A young man, naked and wild-eyed, cringing and curling into a fetal ball, shrieking and crying, robbed of any last vestige of dignity. Algonion recognized him. It was one of the Champions he had seen on the road from Boalus to Ogaropol, years ago. Apparently, the Contest had not gone well for him.

The forest grew thicker around Algonion, complicating his advance, though he never faltered nor slowed. The openings left few choices, channeling him where they would. Sometimes he had to dive up and over branches, sometimes to climb higher still in search of a gap. Eventually he found himself steadily ascending, swinging around one branch, hands and feet coming together to lithely catapult off another. Unfurling like a sail, arms and legs flung wide, he would glide down and grab a limb around which to pivot, using the moment of his fall to launch himself upward again. He could almost feel his body stretching, arms elongating as he swung, spreading out as he soared, wearing the world like a glove.

At last he saw below him, in the depths and in the heights, a thousand flickering lights. As he descended toward them, he reached the threshold of a Locu city of sorts, a city that could only be called “Pandemonium.” Devoid of straight lines and parallel planes, it was made rather of sinuous surfaces coaxed from the fabric of nature, woven-vine sacks and meshed-branch enclosures, large holes pocking hollow trees, portals to havens of Loca life. Everywhere, bursts of lightening ignited charred stumps, as old flames sputtered and died.

Around these many fires, the ongoing orgy of Loca life was in full bloom. Brawls and assaults erupted as readily as the smoldering woods and belching ground. A Loca who was being dragged by her ear grabbed hold of her assailant’s leg and sunk her jagged teeth into his calf. He released her to attend to the wound, and in that moment she raised him up on her shoulders and tossed him into the nearest blaze, which flared to consume his resinous body. The piercing scream was quickly drowned by the cheers and laughter of the crowd, some of whom gathered to savor the smell of burning flesh, inhaling it as though it were an aphrodisiac.

Then some of the imps noticed Algonion swinging down into their realm. They began jumping about, shrieking and howling. That cacophony, Algonion realized at once, was their language, the language of the forest itself. And though it lacked any recognizable grammar, or for that very reason, it was the subtlest language Algonion had ever heard, subtler even than the mathematical abstractions of the Vaznallam wizards. For, to his amazement, he understood it as though it were his own native tongue, his mind dancing among the woven sounds much as his body had danced among the forest’s interlaced branches moments before. He felt it rather than merely heard it, felt the primal passions of their voice, the captivity of their mother (see The Hollow Mountain), the defilement of their world, the rage that had been festering ever since, that had twisted them over the ages into what they had now become. They clamored around him, ever closer, demanding to be heard, demanding that he deliver them from the frustration and anger of having been pushed aside.

But Algonion could not give them what they wanted. He chirped and growled like one of them, jumped up and down and pounded this and that, trying to explain things that had no place in that idiom. He cooed that he had not the power to command history, no more than they. He screeched that his people would not, could not, leave, that they had nowhere to go. He squawked that the river of time and events could not flow backwards, that the sea could not be sucked into the high mountain springs. He tried to tell them, as a prelude to discussing what could be done, but their tolerance was short, and they would brook no contention from such as he. He felt them turning hostile, spitting and clawing at him with the fury of slighted beasts, feral shrieks now calling the hordes down upon him.

Loci swarmed, popping out of shadows, swinging toward him on vines and boughs, blowing their darts at the despised intruder. Algonion couldn’t dodge them all. He felt stings, and then emotions flying out of control. Sorrow, remorse, hatred, fear, all welling up at once, vying with one another for dominance. Disoriented though he was, he retained enough presence of mind to flee. He dove and tumbled and rolled back through the forest, with no sense of direction, with only the desire to get away. He was no longer focused enough to avoid the hazards, the grasping branches and stabbing bolts. He was scratched and bruised and burned and shocked a thousand times before he escaped those bewitched woods, finally emerging onto an unfamiliar coast, where shallow tiers of stone descended into the sea.

Cast up on the lowest tiers were all kinds of debris: driftwood and shells and pieces of wreckage. The sky was overcast, and a strong, wet wind blew. The sea churned as though tossed by a storm, thrashing about like a beast with struggling prey clamped in its jaws. Algonion heard a noise rising in the forest behind him: The Loci were still in pursuit! As he saw them emerging from the woodline, he turned and ran in bounding leaps down the broad stone tiers to the water’s edge, loping like a large, gangling bird trying to get itself aloft. There were no branches to grasp, but still his body reached, reached out to the air, trying to swing himself to freedom upon its interlaced limbs. If only I could fold myself into the wind, he thought, desperately, wrap myself around it like flesh around a whim….

And, indeed, as he reached the last tier and landed amid the refuse vomited up by the wrenching sea, his body began stretching and folding, collapsing into a new form, like that of a loon. But it was as much Algonion as it was beast, retaining his shape even while assuming another. His perceptions transformed as well, akin to passing through the threshold between lucidity and dreams. He saw the world as a bird would see it, felt the loss in some parts of his mind and the gain in others. Yet it was still Algonion, taking on some aspect of what he was not, but never quite becoming it.

So he shimmered and transformed in his last strides toward the sea, skimming the surface with his dangling feet, his fallen clothes snatched away by the snapping whitecaps. His large wings flapped, and he slowly rose up into the air and sailed out above the frantic waves, quickly shrinking to a more conventional size for a bird of his kind.

(See also The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, The Cloud Gardener, Prelude to “A Conspiracy of Wizards”, The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”.)

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