“Let us through!” Serayla yelled. The crowd was too stunned to refute her command. They parted cautiously, eyes wide. Tasuneke and his mother walked through, and nobody made any move or sound to stop them. His mother still had her sword out, and none dared oppose a Tender under high alert.
A figure was running down the dirt path at full speed from the village gates. As the torches illuminated her form, Tasuneke recognized Winona, the girl that was serving guard duty today with her brother. Even with the red tinge of the fire, her face was pale.
“It’s Kuruk!” she panted, talking to Serayla. “I don’t know what happened. It’s the vines! They started moving after the ground shook! Kuruk all of a sudden just screamed and turned blue and… and…” she slumped to the ground, tears now unrestrained as she conveyed her message to the senior Tender.
“The vines? I need more than that! Winona you…” But just then, she noticed the shadows of the vines scattered across the path were moving, twisting and contorting. They looked up to see the dome of vines writhing and, somehow, growing larger. As they stood there, the filtered moonlight was dimming. All of a sudden, Serayla bolted towards the gates, where Winona had come from. She said nothing to her son, leaving him without any purpose or direction. The light of the outside world faded further, and the moonlight soon disappeared entirely, leaving the sole illumination to the torchlight.
“Cedria scorns your kind!” somebody in the mob yelled. They seemed to be coming back to their senses. Now they were targeting himself and the girl on the ground. She was older than him, and yet in that moment Tasuneke felt a responsibility to protect her. He didn’t know what those people would do, but he had to defend them.
“Winona,” he said, crouching near her. “It’s not safe. We need to get out of here.”
She didn’t seem to hear him. Her eyes were locked on the dirt she sat on, mumbling something about the end of the world. She probably wasn’t even aware of the mob.
“Winona,” he repeated. “I need your trim-blade.”
At that, she turned her head, seeing him for the first time. “My… what?”
“I’ll return it, don’t worry.” He held a hand up to gesture for her sword, and she made no move to unsheathe it. He moved his hand closer, and interpreted her inaction to be assent. So he grabbed the blade and pulled it out. Since the sword wasn’t his, he wouldn’t be able to use magic with it, even if he had been trained in its use. Still, a normal sword was better than nothing at all.
By now, the crowd was shouting at them, with cries of “Tenders not welcome anymore!” and “Cedrine wants you gone!” They probably planned on forcing every Tender out of their village right now, but at least for now they weren’t violent. Soon some started approaching him, and Tasuneke stood slowly, raising the sword. They were still some distance away from the crowd when he was grabbed by the shoulder from behind.
Swinging the blade up and spinning around in surprise, the sword came within an inch of Malayah’s neck. The kind, middle-aged woman he often spoke to on breezy mornings. And he almost killed her without even recognizing her.
“Cedrine’s guidance, Malayah,” he cursed, lowering the blade. “You scared me.”
“We’ll call it even, then,” she exhaled a slow breath. “Where’s your mother?”
“Went off to go the village gates. I think we’re going to have to leave. Your people don’t accept mine anymore.”
“I’m sorry, Tasune,” she replied. “Oh! It’s Tasuneke now! At least I got to watch you grow up and become a man. Look at you with your trim-blade and… wait, how do you…?”
“It’s Winona’s,” he said. “She’s in shock. Look I’m sorry, but this is urgent. Can you get her to safety? Take her to her hut and warn the other Tenders?”
“I’m afraid her hut probably doesn’t qualify as safety from the look of things,” she said, expression grim. “I’ll take her to mine.”
“Thank you, Malayah.” He gave her a hug. “Some holiday this turned out to be, huh?”
She smiled. “Be careful, Tasuneke. And whatever happens, don’t forget that you are Cedrian. Never mind what anyone else says. You may have Aluvair’s blood in you, but you have Cedrine’s courage. Your brow is proof of that. Now go find your mother. I will help as many of your people as I can.” She helped Winona, still sobbing, to her feet, and gave him one last nod of encouragement.
“Cedrine protect her,” he said under his breath, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“Tasuneke!” he heard somebody call. His mother. Looking back to the gates, he saw her trotting back. “We have a problem.”
The two of them ran back to over, but Tasuneke wasn’t blind to the fact that the mob started to spread out. Looking for Tenders. The ones that followed them no doubt did so to ensure they abandoned the village.
The gates were no more. The vines had grown, sealing the opening that connected their village to the outside world. They were also thick and menacing, barbed thorns now protruding outwards. What had been gentle, decorative vines of green and brown were now barbed, vicious snares of black and purple.
Kuruk lay on the ground beneath the vines, body blue and contorted as if his life essence itself had been ripped from his body.
“Are we still planning to leave?” Tasuneke asked.
“Whatever we plan on doing, we must still do something about the vines. We can’t very well leave with the entrance sealed, nor can we pretend that we can sustain ourselves without the outside world. Where did you get that sword?” she asked. Tasuneke realized his mother was staring at the trim-blade he held in his hands rather than the vines.
“It’s Winona’s,” he replied. “Malayah said she would keep her safe.”
“I suppose I’ll have to forgive a lot of things tonight,” she nodded. “I was planning on scolding you for not speaking with Nashoba about our food for the week.” Even that seemed like a different time.
“Look what your kind has wrought!” somebody shouted from behind them. “Cedrine has condemned us all to death!”
“We will fix this,” Serayla said to them. Her voice was calm.
“No!” A man came out of the group that had followed them. “You have done enough damage! We don’t need your people!” He pulled out a carved scepter from his coat. Then, channeling his energy through it, he hurled a ball of fire at the vines. It exploded on impact, but the flames fizzled and died. In the dim light, it was impossible to tell whether it had any effect at all. If anything, the vines thickened.
The man let out a snarl and threw another fireball. Then another, and another. Each cast made him more and more infuriated that nothing was happening.
“Maturas, stop!” Serayla pleaded. “You are using too much magic! If you continue much longer you will–”
“ENOUGH!” he bellowed. “Once I clear away these vines I will give you exactly three seconds to leave my village, else I will destroy you so completely there won’t be enough left of you to join the stars!” Evidently he wasn’t thinking clearly, as he pushed the two Tenders out of his way as he approached the vines and inspected them more closely. With one final roar he summoned a column of flame through his scepter, channeling all he had into the spell.
As the magic connected, the vines were enveloped by the fire, but the column of flames soon grew weaker and died out as Maturas fell to his knees in exhaustion. Flames continued pouring forth, the vines siphoning away his life essence, but he could no longer pull away. He howled in pain as the spell died, and body withered and wrinkled, he sagged to the ground, lifeless.
Tasuneke had watched, frozen in fear as the vines twisted more and more at the spells being thrown at them. “It’s eating the magic,” he breathed.
His mother glanced at him, then back to the vines. Her lips were drawn tight. “You’re right. It looks like exposing the vines to any magic at all is deadly. Even a thorn prick proved fatal to Kuruk.”
“You bastards are just sitting there watching as one of your own dies?!” another person in the crowd said.
“And what exactly did you do to help him?” Tasuneke growled. “We told him to stop, but if we had intervened he would have attacked us!”
“Maybe he should have!” a woman called back. “Maybe Cedrine is keeping us here so that we can cleanse his forests of the outsiders! It’s not enough to leave the village!”
“That’s ridiculous! You can’t be feeding into this hysteria! This is the only place I’ve ever known!” he argued.
“You would slaughter your people at the dawn of a new year?” Serayla asked, putting a hand on her son’s shoulder and moving between him and the crowd.
“If that’s what it takes to regain our god’s favor,” the woman said.
“My goal is to leave. It is clear we will never be welcome hear after tonight. If, however, you wish to deny our right to live,” she paused, pulling her trim-blade apart into dual swords. Channeling her power into the metal, they started to glow with a purple tinge. “I will be happy to strip you of yours.”
She glanced back to Tasuneke, and made a minor gesture with her head towards the vines. The direction was clear. Do what you can.
He watched as a few of the members of the crowd pulled out totems, or began to channel small ones they wore around their necks and wrists, arming themselves with magic as well as some torches that had been obtained from nearby. They clashed, and Serayla swung around projectiles of fire and ice, maneuvering the fight so that Tasuneke would be at no risk from stray shots.
He wanted to help, but even as he watched he could see how much he would be holding her back. He hadn’t been trained in swordplay. Archons above he had never even seen her fight before, and she was incredible. She used magic sparingly–short bolts of arcane to disarm and disorient. She fought defensively, and despite her own threat it was clear she was trying to avoid causing a fatal blow. There was no point worrying about her. Even as more of the crowd gained the courage to fight, she took it all in stride.
He turned his attention to the vines. Even touching them would be fatal, and magic would make the problem worse, not that that would be an issue anyway. It was fortunate he had a trim-blade, since they were designed to handle the vines.
So he set to work, chopping away at the vines with the blades attached like a large pair of shears. As he cut pieces off the vines, they shriveled and died, blue liquid oozing out from the inside. He made good progress, always taking extra care not to let the vines touch him, even if they did appear to be dead. Metal clashes and fire crackling behind him, it was hard for him to retain his focus. But as long as the fighting continued he knew his mother was okay.
The gate used to be about ten feet wide and twelve feet tall, but shearing off that much would take too long. So he cut through just enough for an adult to walk comfortably through, as comfortably as one could through a tunnel of deadly thorns.
He cut his way free, walking through the tunnel entirely to return to the forest now cloaked in shadows. He turned around to see the things from the outside.
What had once been a dome of decoration and beauty had become a fortress of sinister tendrils. Not even the Tenders would be able to restore the village to its original state. His village would be lost.
“Tasune!” Serayla was calling him. It was a cry for help.
Running back to the tunnel, he tried to see his mother without risking the thorns. “Over here, mother! I made a tunnel!”
There she was. Her back was to him. She was still fighting. The only light he had to see was the illumination of the fire conjured by totem and sword. A flash went by. Her arm was covered in blood.
She turned around, peering through the darkness, they made eye contact for a moment. Desperation. “This way!” he called.
She ran. Something struck her in the back, and her shoulder grazed a thorn.
She fell to the floor in an instant. Tasuneke turned away. At least she didn’t cry out in pain.
An eternity passed before Tasuneke found the strength to stand. He thought he had forgotten how. “Cedrine’s mercy,” he sobbed. “Why?”
“Sometimes failure is simply out of your control,” the forest whispered.
Tasuneke swiveled around. Rell was standing there, eyes downcast, staring at the vines.
“I did everything I could. I did exactly as I was instructed today! The only thing I did wrong was neglect my trivial duties. What could I have done better?!” Tasuneke’s fists were clenched. He didn’t even notice the dirt underneath his fingernails. “All she wanted to do was leave. Why didn’t they stop once she was free?”
“People fear what they do not know.”
“You told me darkness was approaching. You knew this was coming.”
“I did. And I warned you.”
“So this was my fault?!”
“That is not what I said.”
“All you do is talk! You could have done so much more! None of this would have happened if you had just helped!” He scooped up the sword and charged.
In a blind fury he swung the blade at Rell’s neck. The blade connected. And the momentum of colliding against an immovable object wrenched the sword from his hand, falling to the ground and clattering against the ground below.
Rell didn’t reply. He didn’t so much as incline his head. Tasuneke fell to the floor once again, weeping at the futility of his efforts.
“I’m sorry, Tasuneke.”
“What am I supposed to do now?” he cried, speaking into his hands. “I’ve lost everything.”
“You still have your identity. Those tattoos prove it.”
“The identity of an exiled orphan.”
“It’s more than some have. You also have this.” Tasuneke looked up. Tulu sat on Rell’s arm. He squawked expectantly at the Tender.
“Tulu!” he exclaimed, joy piercing through his grief for a moment. He held his arm out and the bird hopped onto it. It didn’t even matter how Tulu got here. A small blessing in a sea of misfortune was something to hold, not question.
“You still have a home, you know,” Rell said.
“Why not return to the land of your ancestors?”
“We’re hundreds of miles from Aluvalia. And I’ve only been outside my village twice.”
“Do you have any better options?”
Tasuneke glanced back to the blackened dome. He couldn’t see into the tunnel anymore, which was probably for the best. At least nobody had tried to come through to kill him, too. He wiped away most of the tears with his free hand.
“Will you help me?” he asked Rell.
“It’s the least I can do,” Rell nodded.