Author Topic: Part 30: Shadow of Death  (Read 6957 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 30: Shadow of Death
« on: December 22, 2022, 11:08:04 PM »
The next limb of their journey was a little shorter, but a lot more difficult. The terrain was rockier here. There were fewer trees and grass in the way, from what Moss' limited, newly-grown senses could tell him, but the air was also getting dryer. It was too early in the year for droughts, wasn't it?

They must be going south, towards the Desolation. There were only a twigful of groves that close to the desert, including Char's home. Or what he assumed was her home anyway. That could have been just another lie on her part.

Moss had been tempted to ask her to return him to the Union. He'd have a hard time explaining his absence to people, and his survival, but they were his people. If Rax had been right and Trejuna had just been toying with them this whole time, they'd need his help. They'd need all the help they could get.

As much as he wanted to go home again, now that the Arbormass was gone, he had a more important task in the immediate future. Char's friends, whoever they were, could help the Union far more than one damaged treqar going home. If he could open a line of communication, perhaps negotiate with them, maybe he could enlist their aid against Trejuna.

The cart jerked and came to a brief stop, as the rocky terrain grew even more unnavigable. Moss was dimly aware of Char actually reversing course and finding another route. How in the Void had she done that? He'd tinkered with the idea of spinning the wheels in the opposite direction like that, but no one in the Arbormass had even considered adding it to their prototypes! Char's friends were clearly advanced, and inventive.

If she was any indication, they didn't like the Union very much. Specifically the Chancellor. If he could find a way around that dislike, he stood a chance. Moss was no diplomat, even an amateur one, but he was literally the only option here. He had to try.

After nearly a full day of alternating between diplomatic strategy, frustration at his lack of knowledge, and sheer boredom, Moss was aware they were coming to a stop again. It took a few minutes for Char's qars to connect one of her roots to him, and then she was present in his mind again.

"This is your last chance, Moss. Just beyond that rise is grove Kulik. They're expecting me, alone. If I show up with you, they will react badly. They might just tear you apart and do the same to me for bringing you. I can leave you here, out of sight, and they'll never even know you're here."

Moss sent out some uncertainty. He'd never heard of a grove Kulik, and he'd memorized every grove name in the Union. Besides, risk to himself was one thing, but Char might be punished as well? She seemed fine with it, but he wasn't sure he felt the same. "I'm going with you," he repeated, releasing determination. "You're not getting rid of me that easily."

He thought he caught a slight sense of approval, but it was gone in an instant. Fortunately the ground on this hill was flat enough that they could stay connected as she pushed her way over it. Using her senses which were about a thousand times more accurate than his right now, Moss looked eagerly for the grove up ahead.

There were shapes, just at the edge of her sight. They became more clearly formed… as blackened corpses. Trees gutted by Streek Fire. By now, they both knew the signs very well. "No!"

Confusion and fear burst out from her, detectable even through this limited network. She manipulated a control, speeding them up, and towards the grove. Moss did his best to hold back his dull despair. She needed hope right now, and he shouldn't strangle it.

Grove Kulik was gone. It had happened at least a day ago, while they'd been refueling. Ash had blown away from the site, into the Desolation to the south, leaving wood scorched so badly it had burned white.

"Torlo! Renna. Sarm," she said despairingly, sweeping her oscilli from left to right over the blasted bodies. "They were my friends. My family, really. They sent me secret messages ever since I was a seedling!"

"I'm sorry, Char," Moss said tritely. She had shown some grief over the loss of the Arbormass, but those relationships had only been a season old. These had been decades!

"Not as sorry as the trejuns are going to be," she promised grimly. Rage reverberated through their link, to such a degree that Moss was having a hard time being sure some of it wasn't his. He hadn't even known these people, but still felt the hatred oozing from her like open sap.

From what he could tell, this wasn't the grove she'd grown up in, but it was close. Her secret friends must have connected to her as a seedling, raising her with their own values in addition to what she was learning from the Union. It couldn't have been easy to grow a communication line in secret, but presumably these people had qars as well. Or once had, anyway.

Her despair faded quickly. Char's righteous wrath was fierce, but impractical in their current situation. "I don't know what to do now! I was instructed to come here to get my new orders. I assume it was to take the cart somewhere it could be fitted with thunderers. Then we could go trejun-hunting."

"We could take the cart north," he suggested. "But we don't know for sure if there are any Union groves still standing nearby. If there are, we can get a message to the Chancellor, and she'll have orders. For me, anyway. She doesn't have to know you're alive."

"No. Even if she could be trusted—and she can't—we don't know if the trejuns are listening in on your interroot now. Our only advantage right now is that they think we're dead." Char paused, as if bracing herself. "We have to go south. Into the Desolation."

The dryness in the air had been uncomfortable so far, but suddenly it seemed to have desiccated Moss completely. "Are you insane? Your qars wouldn't last a day in there! And we'd probably follow them in a week or so."

"A week should be enough, I think. I hope." She reversed the cart again, and turned it around. They weren't heading south, but east again. Back towards the oil deposit. Her shock and horror were still there, but determination was now present as well. "You wanted to know who I work for? If we're going into the land that water forgot, you deserve to know the whole story. Who knows? Maybe it'll push you into growing some common sense and staying behind."

"Not much chance of that, after all we've been through," Moss said wryly, and indicated the desert. "Now tell me. What kind of strange and wonderful creature could survive in there?"