Chapter Thirty-Eight: More Frightening than the Dead
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
After this, Shoel knew that returning to the Ring of Fire would be like nothing. Her sense of the Dead, even muffled by the friendly whisps, had seemed to triple in the last mile to their destination. Or, more appropriately, the edge of her destination. It was a long wall, made of closely set large wooden stakes with a badly decayed head or skull hanging from each. Now they knew what had happened to the heads of the corpses in the trees. Below were shining stones, glinting in the pale light of the whisps and the torches set further up the stakes. Sinister creatures, little Dead things, stooped and rotting, ran about as though keeping guard. The temptation to sound Saraneth and banish the whole lot of them was strong.
"I don't suppose there's a gate," Shoel muttered from the edge of the trees, though walking up to a gate in this place didn't seem particularly wise, either.
"Probably is," Hemlock answered, his tone dry. "All the better to get ourselves killed, sooner. I'm not horribly fond of climbing trees, but that might be the best way over." He glared at the wooden stakes, at the pointed tops. "Providing we don't impale ourselves."
"Climbing trees in plate mail. Not something I ever thought I'd do. But sneaking would be wiser than blasting our way in, I suppose." Not something her aunt would ever have done. But then, her aunt was a stronger wielder than she was, and probably had never tackled a nest of Dead this big. Either I have nothing in the way of brains, or I'm too noble for my own good. Or both. "You go first, you're lighter."
Mumbling to himself, Hemlock began to scale the nearest tree that was close to the wall. He looked rather awkward doing it, having trouble gripping the branches while wearing gauntlets, but somehow he managed just the same. Shoel wasn't so sure she'd be able to do it; she'd never been a particularly good climber. It took him a few minutes to make it to a branch high enough to leap over the dangerous wall-- she wasn't so sure she'd be able to manage that, either. It would be so embarrassing to come all this way only to die falling on a fence.
He sat carefully straddling the branch and catching his breath, and called down softly, "Up you come." She eyed the tree again, then decided falling would be less likely without her gauntlets, so she stripped them off, tucking them in her vambraces again, and started climbing. The necromancer watched Shoel climb in silence, hardly responsive until she was within reach. Then he flattened himself out on the branch, reaching out a hand for her to hold onto while she climbed the rest of the way up. Since by then she was starting to get a bit anxious-- a different kind of anxious, at least, a less ethereal feeling than the buzzing dread of the Dead-- being so far from the safe, solid ground, she grasped it readily and took his support the last few feet.
Hemlock stood up once she was "safely" on the same branch with him, though she didn't quite dare yet, watching him precariously balancing on the branch and looking into the dark beyond the fence. That's all there was: darkness. Shoel wasn't sure whether it was better to know or not know how far away the ground was. He took a deep breath, leaning a little out over the pit of blackness. "Well, I just hope we don't land on anything," he said, sounding unnerved.
Shoel gulped a little and suggested, "Maybe one of the whisps will go down there and light the ground for us."
"They don't seem too keen on it," he replied, rolling his eyes; she couldn't really blame them. "Guess I'll go first, that way if you hear a cry of death you can climb back down and go home." He smirked at this, orienting his balance a little better.
"Don't even think like that," she told him, a little sharply from nerves.
"Well, here goes nothing," the necromancer sighed, moving out further on the branch in a catlike manner. She couldn't watch. "Anything you want to tell me before I jump?"
"Don't land on a stake," she said, shutting her eyes against the fall that looked endless but was really only a dozen or so feet. " ... and thank you for doing this."
She didn't see him nod, nor did she see him steel himself and jump, but she felt the branch quiver strongly with the force of it and held on a little tighter. Thankfully, she didn't hear a scream, or a crash, or even a clank of metal hitting something hard. Instead, there was a squelching, splashing sort of sound, and when she opened one eye, both Hemlock and his small nebulous of Willowwhisps were gone. However, they weren't on the ground, either-- not that she could see. The darkness was as deep as ever, so it had to be too magical for the faint glow to penetrate. That didn't make it any easier to edge out along the branch to where Hemlock had leapt from and peer down, hoping he was all right.
From below there was the sound of more sloshing, then a few faint coughs, and finally the necromancer's voice calling out from the blackness. "Coming or not?" Apparently he was fine.
"Coming," she answered, trying not to think about what she was about to do. It took most of her courage to gather her feet under her on the branch, and even then all she did was crouch, feeling heavy and unbalanced in all her armor. From there she looked down only long enough to gauge where the fence was, then shut her eyes and swallowed heavily. Just do it. You can't banish a dragon-king from a tree. Just do it. Stop being such a coward. Capsen would do this in a heartbeat. So would Chlorr. Are you of the Great Charter line or aren't you? Just do it. Just do it. Just--
It seemed almost like an eternity in several seconds that Shoel fell. It was far-- much farther than the fall to the ground from the tree branch should have been, perhaps as much as five times as far. Slimy rock, barely visible by the light of the few clinging whisps, flew past her until she plunged back-first-- she'd somehow gotten turned around mid-flight-- into the mire below. The force of her fall sent her sinking straight in, and the swampy mud swallowed her whole. She struggled weakly against the weight of it, feeling the muck everywhere, getting into hair, nose, every little crack and crevice of her armor, and, worst of all, in her mouth, which had come up in a thankfully silent scream during the torture of the fall.
Then Hemlock had a hold of her, pulling her out and free, supporting her until she found her feet to stand in the rib-deep mud. As soon as she did, though, wiping her face with muddy fingers, the smell and taste of the filth hit her. That, combined with the terror of the fall, forced her to turn away to cough and retch out everything that had forced its way in and then some. Hemlock just held her shoulders wordlessly until she was finished and shakily wiping her mouth with the cleanest couple of fingers she could find.
"Are you alright?" she heard.
"I think so... swallowed a big mouthful of that muck... ugh...."
Hemlock grimaced, and through the plates of metal between them, she could just barely feel him giving her a light hug. "If you're done, we have to continue on."
"I know," she said, tucking her canteen from where it hung at her belt, taking a quick swig or water to clean her mouth out and a short splash to wash off her fingers-- Charter, my poor bells, they're probably disgusting. They'll need a thorough cleaning the minute this all is over with, or they'll probably never forgive me,-- before offering it to Hemlock to do the same. "I'm ready." With obvious reluctance and a sigh, he finally accepted it and took a brief drink while she gingerly freed Belgaer and gave its handle the best, most careful cleaning she could manage. She hooked it back where it belonged one-handed when he handed it back, switching to Kibeth to clean it off, as well. As he started off, wading through the muck into the darkness, she followed, both bells in hand and willowwhisps floating around them, lighting their way.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.