And so the adventures of Willow Rollins roll on. I’ve managed another doodle of a member of the cast and included it below, which you’ll find above the prose, which goes on toward the bottom. Be sure to bring yourself up to speed with Chapter One and Chapter Two if you haven’t yet, and then, by all means, please enjoy the next installment of this very rough draft of a story that takes place in the world of Aeldun. For more of Aeldun’s creatures and peoples, you might check out my first novel, Glimpses of Heather. Be well and travel far!
The Lechari lived in darkness, deep beneath the forest from which they took their name, among stone and root, spinning webs and mixing potions, and rarely dealing with the other peoples of Aeldun. Their secrecy was originally borne of habit more than necessity, but as time marched on those groups unscathed by the dawn of the second age became targets for the power hungry and corrupt, who longed for the return of those potent magics so freely wielded by the Archmagi Ilphaeri. The Sable Sundering had changed Aeldun from a land immersed in a sea of the arcane to one of shallow wells and vernal springs, tide pools severed from the ocean. The Lechari were compelled by their goddess, Eropethi, to remain out of sight for their own safety and to keep the new leaders of the human tribes as distant from true magics as possible.
Now and then a member of the coven would venture into the towns or cities of her own accord, seeking contact with the outside world under the guise of collecting specimens and knowledge. They knew enough to keep their secrets, but just the same they longed to share themselves and be welcomed, so they donned disguises and altered their forms to appear as bipedal as possible, and slipped into crowds to be one with Ael’s other children. These Lechari were called Nisabi by their kin, which meant not self in their whispering tongue. Of those who longed to be Nisabi but lacked the clout or spell forms there were few, and they were often ridiculed for their cowardice or arcane ineptitude, and in turn they eschewed most group rituals and customs and built their own private dens far removed from the scathing remarks of their sisters. It was a lonely way to be and made the want of company – especially of those who had yet to scorn them – all the more tragic and consuming.
Frei Gespinst was just such a woman.
Her home was built into a passage parallel to the corpse sluice, which she had joined through careful digging and reinforcements. The haunts kept their distance thanks to what talent Frei possessed, but she still disliked their moaning groans and rattling bones, which her barriers could not mute no matter how she tinkered with their glyphs. It made her cross at times, but few things that made Lechari cross made them cross for long. Frei was fond of finding distractions no matter the circumstances and at this she truly excelled. In fact, when she was inducted into the coven she barely managed a wincing twitch as her humanity was twisted into Eropethi’s likeness. She was much too busy recognizing her sisters in spite of their heavy white veils, and picking out their notes from among the cacophony of chanting. Frei had taken a moment before she began her recitation when the first changing had completed, and not because it left the body so racked and tortured that breath could not be squandered upon words and the tongue so dry knew nothing of a syllable, but rather due to her interest in the intricate glass mosaics of her God Queen Eropethi, which filled all but the floor of the great nest at the heart of the Lechari web-works. Afterward, as she rose on her six newly formed spider legs with nary a misstep or weak jointed stumble as her sisters each had, the assembly’s awe was palpable. They asked how she was so nimble so soon and she merely smiled, not quite sure why they asked why, and deeply consumed by her own vanity. The vanity would not last, nor would the celebrity of the sure-footed daughter of Eropethi. No one present for her initiation could likely have predicted where she wound up or with whom she took her tea.
Edart Salbeque squinted in the low light, head still aching from where he was struck into dream, and pondered the surreal table setting at which he sat. It was beautifully scaped, complete with Lechari Silk runner embellished with moonstones, a great gold cistern brimming with a hot herbal drink Edart could not identify, and stacked with sweet berry scones Edart recognized immediately as the signature dish of Heplim’s Tea Cozy Inn. He licked his lips and began to reach for the clotted cream, but found his elbow bound to the cherrywood throne. He realized where he was again and the concussion’s fog lifted long enough for him to focus on his table mate, who was busy threading strands of silk into her guest’s cloak. The tear was long and straight and Frei’s stitching fine as any tailor’s could hope to be.
“Not long now, friend,” she cooed. “Drink your tea, it will clear your head.”
“Not long till what?” he slurred. “Until I’m eaten?”
“We have scones to eat,” she said.
“They’re from Heplim. I’d recognize them anywhere. You stole them along with old Mrs. Dabney?”
“Uh, no, I made them. The lady of Heplim gave me the recipe after we took tea. There we are!” Frei held the cloak up and gave it a generous swish. The repair work was almost invisible to her, thoroughly invisible to the average person in the dim light of her den, and completely invisible to Edart who was still very blurry eyed and confused.
“Where is she now?” Edart glanced about, searching for a bundle of webbing in the shape of the elderly baker or a pile of bones wearing an apron.
“I don’t know.”
“You monster! What did you do to that poor woman?!” He tried to stand but fell short as his head spun and his elbow caught again on the chair.
“I made scones with her.”
“By Ael, you terror!” Edart glared at the pile of pastries with fresh revulsion. “Those aren’t berries, are they?”
“They are.” Frei looked at him, quite puzzled.
“You, you said you made Mrs. Dabney into scones!”
“No, I didn’t. I made them with her. She and I baked.”
“Baked. Baking. The process of cooking breads and cakes and such. You really should take some tea, friend. I am very sorry you hit your head. It can be hard to navigate the tunnels with a heavy fellow in your arms.”
“Heavy?” the stout man looked down at himself with fleeting offense and then returned to his previous concerns. “You didn’t eat Mrs. Dabney?”
“Eat. Eating. The process of mastication and ingestion.”
Frei blinked at him. Edart reconsidered his snarkiness and hoped he hadn’t confirmed his place on the menu, then Frei erupted in laughter, merry and light like bird calls in spring, and was again a mesmerizing beauty to him. He laughed as well. They went on laughing for quite a while and began to eat and drink. Their mirth echoed through Frei’s chamber and out into the sluice where it bounced about briefly before becoming lost to the ancient stones.
After a fourth scone and third cuppa, Edart was feeling much better. His spirits had been lifted by good company, quality medicine, and the realization that his arm wasn’t bound to the chair by anything more sinister than his sleeve. All told he felt a bit silly for how terrifically terrified he had been at first. Frei was polite and generous and quite interested in Edart’s life and business, a pleasure Edart had not enjoyed from anyone but those who desired to undermine his reputation or undercut his prices. If one could find themselves smitten with a half woman half spider who lived deep beneath a very haunted forest and practiced arts no top-side arcanist could properly describe, then smitten Edart was.
“Why,” he ventured delicately, “do you and yours live so far out of sight?”
“We’re not welcome up above. Monsters we are,” she stated with no hint of embarrassment.
“Many of Aeldun’s creatures are uniquely configured. The Darundi tower above us Lostmen and are heavily scaled and fiercely taloned. The Rethazi swim beneath the water and feature myriad colors, some akin to those venomous reptiles they keep as pets. And the Wildkin, well any number of them are so variable in size and adornments one might think them demons at a glance.”
“True,” Frei said thoughtfully. “Though we do not fear them nor they us.”
“No, sir. It’s your kind from which we hide and who shudder with revulsion if we share their roads.”
“Tragic, that is,” Edart tried to flirt.
“I suppose, but we have ways of returning for a time,” she replied, aloof but still courteous, and Edart was reminded of one Willow Rollins with whom he had only tales of failure in the romantic sense. He further wondered where the bespectacled lass had gone and his face told Frei he was deeply deep in thought.
“Where did you go, friend?” Frei asked.
“No place,” he said with a smile.
“You worry for someone. Tell me?”
“Oh, it’s not worry for her well-being. She can more than take care of herself, you see. Sometimes she gets a bit distracted but she never forgets what it was she planned to do.”
“You’re fond of this woman?”
“Not like that.”
“Not like what?”
“Not intimately fond.”
“There is fondness that forgoes intimacy?”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “With this one especially.”
“Go on?” Her curiosity was piqued and she leaned toward Edart, almost looming, her tendrils of white hair threatened by crumb and teacup.
“The Evening Swan is beloved by many people in Chaldoryn and Aeldoryn and in scattered towns throughout the land. Her good deeds are great and many, and the lives she’s touched innumerable given the scope of her heroics. However, few know anything about her person, and ergo many are fond but none – so far as I can tell – have enough personal connection to claim the fondness is intimate. Another intriguing matter is how fond the Swan is of those she saves.”
“She sounds imperceptible and so quite, quite intriguing. I should like to meet this bird.” Frei smiled wide and menacingly but it was clearly an incidental result of her pallor, height, fine sharp features, dark backdrop, and the skittering of her multi-jointed black spider legs.
“I’m quite sure you will, friend. In fact, knowing her as well as I have managed over the years, I dare say she’ll arrive very shortly.” Edart sipped his tea and smiled, gloating over how right he thought himself, yet not truly knowing just how right he was.
Here’s a bit more of that story I’m tinkering with on my phone, plus a doodle of the titular bird (minus her goggles, oops). Check out Chapter One if you haven’t yet!
Though the Lecharn appeared to be the most ancient forest of Aeldun, it was the youngest of its acreage. The Arborists League had record of the vast woodland being seeded on behalf of the Archmagi Tolzark during the first age of man, then called the Ilphaeri. This fact had always unsettled the league and historians alike, for Tolzark was far from philanthropic and what’s more spent most of his lifetime among the dead. All the dreadful theories only served to intrigue Willow, though, and in turn she had spent a tremendous amount of energy mapping its treacherous trails and identifying its unique flora and fauna. Despite this intimately honed knowledge, she was presently as lost as anyone could conceivably manage – not that she would admit it – and faced with a creature she had never before laid eyes upon – in person, she corrected her imaginary critics.
The creature stared at Willow with a pair of grey listless eyes, hidden at the topmost edge of its blanket-sized membrane of a body, and it flexed the sinew supporting its web of teeth, each a needle so fine they looked like hairs bristling. The flesh was white and thin enough to almost vanish between the narrow tendons, and suspended there between two trees so dense with canopy and branches in a night so deathly still and dark, it would have been wholly invisible if not for Willow’s carefully crafted eyewear. She put a hand to her hip and with the other twisted the small brass knob on her goggles. All at once the creature was gone, so Willow turned further, and it appeared as dim red lines and blue-violet swathes between, and another click of the mechanism revealed a green stain in the air, denser toward the anchors and continuing into the soil.
“Death,” Willow greeted the cloud. “Meadareyth ovly sirco hol chren?” The words floated on Willow’s breath and each syllable puffed along until the haze pulled them into itself. She produced a ball of leather and unwound it to let the cold night air at the chalk white bone it contained. The end of the cord was knotted to the finger and threaded through the knuckles so the digit still bent as it had in life. The macabre keepsake dangled from her outstretched arm and she repeated her cryptic query. The finger curled.
The tinted fog swirled slowly into the center of the fanged sheet, coagulated in a triplet of oblong spheres, which folded and stretched until a man appeared amid the vapors, eyes fierce and familiar, pointed beard all the confirmation Willow needed to know she was looking at her father. He stepped toward her, hands knotted behind his back, and rolled his shoulders, reminding his daughter how he passed with his gallows collar and scarlet rimmed gaze. Willow waggled her fingers at the specter, who sighed with ethereal annoyance.
“I never should have taught you the After Tongues.”
“Don’t you miss me, Vater?”
“Ja, kleinen Schwan, but you never call for just a chat. Your friend went thus, south and east under the care of a Lechari. Surely you’re not headed into the tunnels.”
“Surely, I am if that’s where Edart has been taken.”
“It’s dangerous,” he fathered.
“I don’t mind so much,” she daughtered.
“How’s your mother, Willow?”
“As well as she can be,” she replied, unwilling to recall more detail, unsure how her long dead dad would respond. Few spirits were as prone to iterative hauntings as Ulysses Schwartz, and such visitation would surely remove what hinges remained on the old woman’s casement. “She misses you, of course, as do I, and I would love to have a chat someday, but dear Edart is in the way of harm thanks to yours truly, so I must be off.”
“Used him as bait, did you?”
“Me, sir? Bait, sir? No, sir, never, sir.” And before the haunt could take hold, Willow was off between the trees, sure to skirt the ghastly, toothed, carnivorous beast and its grasping tendrils, but mostly avoiding her father’s potent brand of baleful stares.
“Well, that was close,” she declared as she stepped over a shin-high root and glanced back toward the space her father’s ghost had stood against the eerie backdrop. Willow wished there had been time to sketch the Corpse Sail, but it wouldn’t stand as proof to any of the Eidetics of Winloryn. It would be ideal, she mused, if there was some way of capturing a sight on paper that definitively proved the sight had indeed been seen, but such a feat would require an eye and a scribe that forgot no detail, and that was just too absurd to even imagine, especially for someone falling into a steep tunnel and sliding through thick cobwebs, over sharp stones, and into a darkness no such device could ever render.
When Willow came to a halt it was thanks in small part to her steel boots and their toothy outer edges, but most credit was due to there not being any more tunnel to carry her onward. In truth the cleats had done little to slow her motion once she exited the chute and now presented cause for another fall as they slowly sliced and tore at the net of white roots and silver spider silk on which she was suspended. Below there were further layers of gossamer and grime, and beyond those woven sheets an inky vast blackness. Willow stared into the abyss gleefully, her eyes wide and black, hungry in the low light, teased by the faint shapes her spellbound goggles revealed. She held her breath for a moment and soaked in the sounds from below, clattering and skittering, some resonant and others sharp, like great spears stirring a cauldron of skulls. As the thought struck so did the desire for confirmation, and so Willow took a final slice at the webbing and swung down toward the next level. She descended thusly until another tunnel yawned into veiled view, but this smudge of darkness was different from the surroundings. In the distance a soft light bobbed and swung like a firefly across an empty field, glowing to life and nearly snuffing out, and in time with a nigh inaudible complaint from what Willow could only assume was a heavy-set merchant. Careful not to slice her way to greater depths, she crawled along the roots and webs and entered the what she would later discover was a truly beatific passageway, adorned with ornate carvings, and burdened with frighteningly realistic reliefs of the departed, all wound up in one another, some straining and fighting, others relaxed and flowing with a cloying tide. The stonework was thanks to no steady handed artisan, but rather an incidental result of the magics bound to the Lecharn above, and the images were imparted by those countless corpses strewn below the webbing Willow had descended. For now, though, it was simply a dark and irregular hall, rising gradually, too wide to touch both sides from the center, and laced with the dust of the forgotten souls, which left a faint scent of iris and a meager orange pall to those keen enough to sense them. It was enough to make Willow’s nose itch every few steps, and so she held the back of one armored finger to her septum in hopes of barring a less than stealthy sneeze.
Along she went, growing more sure footed as she carried on, but despite her brisk walk the light never grew closer nor the whimpering of Edart louder nor did the tunnel turn or branch or fall away. This puzzled the Evening Swan, who was known to be a superior judge of distances traveled, and in such light – even in such dark – was convinced she had marched a half league and should be above ground again. This bothered her slightly and so she resolved to turn about and cast a stone into the shadows and listen for any echoes what might divine the truth of her predicament. Willow snatched a stone as she spun and cocked her elbow, but decided against throwing the pebble through the opening she was previously sure she had left behind a half an hour ago.
“Bother,” Willow said, and dropped the bit of rock at her feet. “Edart, dear?” she hollered up the passage. “Edart, I’m afraid my mind is afflicted by some trick and my feet fair no better in this face of such treachery.” She waited, impatiently, but aware he would not reply as he likely was not there to hear, or here to care. To ease her conscience she addressed him further.
“Edart, dear friend, who may have doubted me and now in such a state of unknown status rightly doubts me truly, please bear with me as I unravel this mystery hopefully – quite optimistically, dear, poor Edart – and prevent a most untimely demise of your self or my self or ourselves. Best and warmest regards, Willow Rollins,” she signed off, having decided the darkness and spells were more fitting of a written letter to poor, dear Edart Salbeque, who was, surely and truly, currently incapable of doubting the crafty Evening Swan, but who had quite sincerely doubted her moments before his incapacitation.
Willow sat down upon the lip of the tunnel and contorted her face in contemplation. She couldn’t claim to have any knowledge of this tunnel historically or culturally, as nothing was known of the Lechari which their agents hadn’t stolen away. All her research uncovered at the best entries in catalogues of tomes once kept in the great libraries and now completely disappeared. She had even gone so far as to track down the descendents of what authors she could discern, but the spiders had been thorough – going so far as to end bloodlines of the experts themselves. Briefly the notion of writing a detailed account of her time so far in the Lechari tunnels occurred to Willow, but she wasn’t sure Edart had time enough for the publication process to act as bait. She kicked her heels against the stone and gazed upward, weak shadows and dim shafts of light competing for her attention, but only the tunnel’s enchantment on her mind.
“How can one redact physical motions?” she mused aloud. “I took steps and they took their toll, light as the work was I surely felt the expense, and yet I never moved. The ground itself couldn’t move so smoothly could it? Or have I moved and am only perceiving my lack of progress? A rune of worry ensconced in a half moon of betrayal scripts would account for all but my legs dangling.” Willow reached into the opening and down along her shins. No ground was detected, but she was quite convinced her senses were not to be trusted any longer. She sighed and took a deep breath, and the ancient odors filled her nostrils with potential. Willow stood and faced the sloping tunnel and bobbing but of light fixed at so tantalizing a distance. She smirked and drew Edart’s sword.
“Death!” she called with grave consequence, and thrust the blade forward into the dark. “Meacorpu cli etrystem!” she beckoned the spirits to reveal themselves, brought the sword back and placed its hilt against her breast, point down, saluting those lost to time’s toil, and lowered her head in reverence. The silence was deafening, the darkness blinding, and the stillness enough to lay a phalanx flat. Countless spirits rushed by the Evening Swan, her very soul threatening to abandon her body in the wake, and as they charged up the tunnel their efforts kicked up history and bent time like leaves of grass in steady wind. The motion spun light no spell could spoil, each edifice and crack aglow, and in with the gust of revelation so Willow saw her way.
“Lochrem di!” she gasped, her lips blue and eyes wet with the agonies of a metaphysical tear, and all at once her influence ended and the ghosts retreated to their resting place a league away at the bottom of the mass grave, no longer rushing toward where their lives had ended. Willow whimpered, whispered a curse, and collapsed to hand and knee, the sword’s clatter a muted jangle. She strained to memorize the path around each ancient weirding stone, as her head pounded and heart ached, and her essence settled back into her bones. The passageway was wrought with cantrip, trap, and arcane pitfall, but the Evening Swan made her mental map in the trails of weeping sweeping souls.
Behind her stood the Guide in guise of feather crowned Oshusae, his sapphire eyes full of want and his empty hands a gentle call for one who so deftly steps just beyond his grasp, just a finger’s length away from due demise. Willow would not turn to greet him – for who says hello to their own shadow? – nor would she move away from the Guide’s cold clutches – after all, who could really flee from their own darkness? – but she smiled, knowing his presence well and satisfied some space between them still remained.
“I’m on my way, Edart, dear,” she rasped, and rose shaking to her feet. Oshusae leaned forward as his mark made tracks, and in her denial dissipated into the invisible, though never truly leaving one who calls so freely to his realm.
This is a rough draft from my phone (where I do all of my writing for whatever silly reason) and I hope you enjoy it! The content is copyright me, Graham Bailey, and Aeldun is the world from my first book, Glimpses of Heather.
Willow spoke softly to herself as she trod down the lane, feet scraping, eyes gaping, and all about her the look of stupor. She mumbled and muttered and hummed with no words forming from the stream of quiet sounds. Orrin was a league back and Heplim a league ahead, and if the worrying spinners at Orrin’s Belly Scratch Tavern had not woven too much imagination into their yarns, then this halfway point along the road betwixt two reasonably superstitious towns would yield some evidence of a much greater danger than an old wive’s tale. The indolent demeanor was quite an act for Willow Rollins, who had twice been called to the shadow-rich reaches of the Lecharn for her assorted skills, queens among them her wit and courage. And as the lane tinted red and purple in the evening sun, and those creeping swathes of darkness grew wickedly long, so did Willow glow quite naturally in light’s last throes, and grow burdened by the new sounds, each as insidious as shadow.
“No, no,” she hissed at her companion. “Like me, like this.”
Edart Salbeque raised his chin from his chest and put a thick thumb to the clay pipe protruding from his frown.
“I’m not doing that, Willy,” he groaned.
“We need to appear more approachable. Vulnerable. Timid and foolish. Like a tradesman stumbling down the road.”
“I am a tradesman stumbling down the road,” he growled.
“Yes, yes, of course, dear Edart, but you look like a badger, but bigger, like a bear -badger, or some badgered bear. And with a sword, Edart.” Willow turned on her soft soles and pushed her thick black hair behind her ears to assess the stout merchant of Orrin. She tisked and shook her head, the locks loose again, and hiding her high cheekbones and keen almond eyes. Edart growled again. “Yes, you see the semblance I see. But the sword especially. So threatened our assailants might be. Here give it here.”
Reluctant Edart obliged the lass, unfastened the belt exclusive to his blade, and handed it over quite unceremoniously. Willow watched the other belts clinging to life around the girthsome fellow, each on their last hole and worn down the line toward Edart’s history as a younger man of less wealth and appetite. She was briefly transfixed by the pouches and satchels and vials and flasks, and though graceful in most moments, fumbled the scabbard noisily against her light plate faulds before securing it around her waist and hiding it beneath her chocolate brown cloak.
“There we are, Edart, dear. Much less intimidating.”
“Harrumph,” he harrumphed, looking at Willow’s spiked gauntlets and the soulless goggles she wore across her forehead like another set of eyes. Awful, vacant, black, and, to the tradesman at least, very intimidating eyes. “This is the least planned plan you’ve ever offered us, Willy. Do you have any details to share yet besides leaving me unarmed against Ael knows what is out there snatching men and women from the road?”
“Mmm,” she put a pointed finger dangerously against her fine pale chin. “No. Now remember: just as I do.” And Willow returned to her gawk walk and lip hanging.
If she hadn’t been so reliable in the past, Edart surely would have requested his sword back and carried on to Heplim without her, but she had no fewer than twice saved his life, and the argument could be made she had at least once saved the world – contingent upon some less than public information regarding the Crown and a dash of faith. So, still reluctant but also curious and rightly trusting, he ambled down the lane not far behind this living legend (again, arguably) and manifested eccentricity (quite certifiable) called the Evening Swan.
They continued onward with little change in the knots of trees and brush, besides encroaching darkness emboldened by shadow, shadow by bough, and boughs which became vast sprawling blackness in the motionless and moon-less night. Chirping crickets and peeping frogs and low round sounds of owls flowed through the Lecharn all about the pair, and with such songs of night Willow tracked their progress from vernal pond to thicket. Well past halfway between the beleaguered towns and flanked by endless opportunity for ambush, Edart grew more and more apprehensive of the darkness despite his trust in Willow and his innumerable walks down this road. This took him deeply into the vulnerability Willow herself found so often inaccessible, and she was, in the dusk especially, quite difficult to see with the naked eye, but what she was hoping was out hunting had a half a dozen more eyes than most, and so she took three generous strides ahead of her companion and thereby vanished into the night. Edart stumbled as he lost sight of the cloak and staggered as her already gentle footfalls became totally inaudible.
“Willy?” he whispered in vain. “Willow!” he called out her name. “Come back here!” he clamored, but nobody came. Edart Salbeque sighed, recalling how difficult it could be to keep the attention of the Evening Swan at times, and thereby worried she had become distracted from their quest by a firefly or an oddly colored stone. He grumbled and gnawed on the pipe, withdrew a porcelain cylinder from a light grey pouch at his hip, withdrew a thin matchstick from the tube, and struck it alongside the grit paper wound round the case. It scratched and cried but no flame came at first, so with all due complaint he gave it another try. This time the sparks flew and the ember glowed then flickered to life, parting the darkness in rich orange light, which revealed the end of his nose, the end of his pipe, and the end of time as an un-terrified man.
Before Edart rose the narrow waist of a young woman, above which in supple curve and white skin she was all beauty and grace, and below which in stark sharp shadow and slick carapace she was all horror and legs. Six legs total – he counted them twice – each ending in razor relief. She held such intensely hypnotic beauty where her humanity remained, and even fused by such black magics, even only half as alluring as she might have been before the Lechari took her into their webs, this woman, opal eyed and silver haired, was still twice as ravishing as any Edart had seen before her.
“W-w-willow?” Edart stammered, still holding his match as the fire made tracks for his fingers, still staring with inconsistent decency at the figure of angelic horror, and the spider woman of the Lecharn leered forward, grinned a merciless grin, and with her black taloned fingers snuffed out the flame.