Ch- stayed behind, chattering with the others. “Wasn’t that easy?”
“Only for you,” H- grumbled.
“She can talk now! Now all we have to do is understand what she says-”
“It’s about the same as before, it’s just that now you are listening,” D- said sweetly, like a knife no one saw. Ch- silenced suddenly. The plodding sound of their feet caught up with me. H- and D- came to stride at my sides as if protecting me while Ch- sulked beside H-, then lagged behind. She no longer seemed bursting full of ability.
When we reached the forest’s edge she turned her back to me and began looking away in her own directions. This track of the cloud was large, a wide chasm of nothing that had been torn up from the earth. Bedrock had been bared, and torn apart sections of roots jutted up from its crevices like arms searching for their loved ones.
The damage we stood in was thirty feet wide, the edges cut and jagged like they’d been sawed with a dull knife. There, sometimes several feet deep, the topsoil could be seen from the side. Roots had been shorn clean. Stones had been cut in half. Up above, the canopy had similarly been sliced away. Not even a twig extended beyond the edge of the carnage. Not one splinter littered the ground we now stood in.
It was an aching emptiness. A void unlike any of us had ever seen.
“What can we hope to find here?” H- murmured. “There is nothing.”
Exactly, I thought to myself, crouching to scour the earth. These cuttings, this sharpness- it was the work of those sharp sand-like particles that had blasted us when we braved its attack. And yet- hadn’t it been pushing, not drawing up?
I straightened, the question suddenly strange. If it had blown its attack, where did everything go to? As I looked around, it seemed strange. All this work- it was the work of cutting, of a vicious blade plunging forth- then how had it drank everything up? How had it taken away even the dust of the earth, even the last splintered twig and torn leaf?
Worse, how could i ask this question to my friends? Hesitantly I turned to Ch-. She was busily ignoring me, her back showing her picking at the cut edge of the earth. Her fingers caressed a stone sheared in half. Gripping my trident and wringing my nervousness into it, I called to her. The guttural sound of her name was difficult but short, so it was manageable.
“Ch-!” and it was out. She turned, eyebrows mocking me in their disinterest. I bit my lip, then waved her over. She came, painfully slow and uncaring. Half-way she made a show of looking at the earth and scuffing her foot as if she’d found something. Then she stepped to me with a nod acknowledging me. “What is it?” she asked bitterly.
I began swiftly gesturing. We, earth, white cloud, it all came in a flurried burst that, by the look on her face, wasn’t making much sense.
“Wait, wait,” and she gestured gently. Slower, she signed, slower.
I bit my lip, jittering. They had to know this! I tried again. Ch- watched my every move fixedly, a gaze she certainly watched her prey with. Still, at the end she was not certain. “Try again,” she murmured. “Your hands are all over. Present? Or past?”
I did not know! Biting my lip I tried again. This time Ch- mouthed my words silently, assuring me that she had understood. “White cloud, attacks, earth, takes…. all this,”
I nodded, then took a deep breath. Calmed myself. Then, I set my hands before myself.
But the words evaded me. How could I explain all this? This overwhelming question that seemed so strange and confused- but I tried.
Ch- worded, but already it was not right. “Cloud, attack, takes all?”
I shook my head. No, it took! Took! Again, I tried.
“Everything, to the sky?”
Alright, that was a good start. I nodded, and signed to her that-
No, where! Where! Biting my lip, I stamped a foot. The crawling irritation I’d so long ago chased from myself was returning. I wanted so bad to have them understand- I needed their help- and yet they could not understand! Everything was a simmering mess, locked into my own body.
To avoid screaming in sudden frustration and giving in to the roiling mess, I flopped myself to the earth. Crossing my legs beneath me, I cradled my head in my hands and pressed my eyes shut.
When I opened them, Ch- was crouching before me. Watching me with frowning concern.
“Do you want to try again?” she asked softly. I shook my head. Then nodded. what else was there to do but try?
“Okay, so,” she held up a hand. “Why don’t I try?” and she repeated my gestures, guessing at the meaning. “The clouds come and take all. All, to the sky.”
I nodded. So far, so good. A glow of eagerness came over CH-. “Okay,” she breathed, then held up her hands in the gesture of non-knowing. “So… why?”
I shook my head.
Oh, nearly! The first half! I nodded, then shook my head. Ch- tried. “No? Yes? How-” I stopped her with a hand, nodding furiously.
“How? How.” Ch- nodded proudly. “How.” As if it was a great accomplishment.
Bravely, I continued. Speech felt closer now and I ventured a word forth. Then another, with more gestures. Finally, a sort of conversation was flowing. It was spattered with my occasional words and filled with wild gestures that made Ch- smile and even laugh. What felt like hours later (though it really must have been a short time) Ch – slapped her thigh and stood. “I’ve got it!”
D- and H- were far away, picking at the roots jutting from the wall. They did not turn until Ch- called again. “She has spoken!” then she left me to run towards them, chattering about my question.
All that for one question. Exhausted and tired in some bone-aching way, I rose to my feet. It had taken so long, It made me envy them as they chattered away so swiftly. As they gestured, not to make themselves understood but merely to emphasize. How they could communicate so easily. Their thoughts were hardly trapped within them.
Ch- was still explaining. “The cloud attacks, sending out what seems to be white sand, correct? Yet where is that sand? Not a trace? And look- it has taken away everything. But how? How does it blow out, and that is all we’ve felt when we were attacked by it- and then everything is gone? Where do these things go to?”
D- and H- were interested, throwing approving glances my way as I approached. Gliding into their tiny knot of presence I stood by Ch- and D-‘s side. Hastily, I gestured for us to search. Gloating like a hen displaying her chicks, Ch- translated my words.
“She says we must search. She believes that if we can learn where it takes these things, we may learn the crux of its power.”
“It’s stronghold,” D- said in surprise.
“But it,” H- hesitated, shaking his head. “It has magic and powers beyond our comprehension. We have been searching and it has left no tracks. What can we possibly find? We need to learn how to defeat them.”
“We will find out how,” Ch- said firmly before turning to me. “If your plan does not work, we shall try mine.” Though her words may have been meant to comfort, they did not. Rather, they seemed to be saying that once my leadership failed, she would gladly take over again. I shrugged. The jug came to me. I was certain that whatever I was meant to do, I would succeed.
And so we walked on, I leading the way and choosing whenever we would pause to search for the minutest detail that may hold the key. In this way we stopped often, as I wanted us to investigate the slightest difference in the cuttings. Anything may hold the key- and yet one came running straight at us. Hardly a subtle sign.
It began at first as a cawing of birds, strange and hoarse. D- rose from a pattern she’d been investigating upon the rock. We’d been finding signs of these all over, in broken ways. It was as if a seal was stamped, but only parts of it remained. And now this strange bird-
“That is no bird!” H- said as it grew louder. Instantly we lifted out weapons, stepping together for safety. The sound rose, hoarse and shrill. Warbling, even. It came from the south, and a staggering sound akin to the loping of a wounded animal came with it.
A black figure appeared, stumbling through the woods- and it fell into the carnage. Straight upon its face. The wailing, now discernible as that, continued. We struck our fighting poses- only to see the figure of a seer rise before us. It was one from the drier planes, clothed entirely in black with metal bracelets- and it wailed as it ran.
“A vision! A vision!” she screamed, plunging towards us. “I see them!” Half-way towards us the poor fool tripped and fell on her face. Sobbing, she cradled her head and did not move. I lowered my trident and stepped towards her carefully. As I reached her side I cleared my throat.
“Hello,” I managed with surprising ease.
The figure scrambled up. Her face was delicate and pointed, blue scales shimmering over her hued with red- a half breed. I recoiled in shock. Where were her wings then? Any born of the red hue had wings, yet hers were gone.
Her slate blue eyes were huge, the pupils tiny and slitted as she shrieked at me. “A vision! A vision!” and in a flash she drew a blade and plunged towards me. Easily I deflected her and tossed her aside, flinching as she collapsed again.
“A seer?” Ch- said as she stepped on the poor woman’s hand to stop her slicing anyone. “Left behind?”
I shook my head. “Survivor,” I whispered.