Eye of the Storm
Frostmarch, 1992 A.S. (After the Shattering)
THE SOLDIER ADJUSTED his fur mantel, tugging loose the top most lace to let the air find his skin. Virgin powder sparkled beneath the noon sun. The sky was clear and pine filled his senses, sharp with cold and fresh with life. For now.
Farin Thatcher eyed the circling scavengers in the sky, like a whirlwind of black marking death. He nudged his mount in the vultures’ direction and his men followed in his mare’s path, moving steadily towards the gorge.
It went without saying that whatever was rotting wouldn’t be inside the gods’ forsaken Scar. But Farin hoped it wasn’t on the edge. He didn’t like the endless tear in the earth, or for that matter heights, especially with the recent wave of earthquakes. Unfortunately, there were too many birds for a deer corpse, and he couldn’t call himself a scout of the Empire if he didn’t investigate.
He signaled his scouting party to dismount, ordered one man to guard the horses, and strapped the wide snow nets on his boots. The soldiers fanned out, approaching the area like a net of their own—alert for bandits. Travelers were common enough in Northolt—even this time of year—and supply caravans had been constant for the past twelve years. With the Fell invasion at an end, it’d be a shame for a wayward caravan to fall into the hands of bandits. Supplies were scarce, and so were people.
The soldiers closed in on the area below the circling birds, moving swiftly over the snow, crunching with every step in the muffled quiet. Their path took them ever closer to the gorge. Much to Farin’s dismay, the eye of the storm lay at the edge. He signaled a hasty halt, and crouched behind a tree to gaze at the split in the earth. Snow and ice and trees flowed right up to the sudden drop, as if the earth simply gave up, and collapsed.
The vultures were screeching above, circling, but not landing. How odd. Farin signaled for his men to wait, and crept forward in the snow, from trunk to trunk, towards the queasy edge and a great tree that had clung there for millennium.
Farin Thatcher froze. The ancient tree was half dead. White patches mottled its wide trunk, spiraling upwards, as if it was fighting its demise. Some branches were bare, while others were full and thriving. Farin recognized the tree. A week ago, the magnificent pine had been as healthy as ever, standing the test of many harsh winters.
Farin had never seen such a thing. His gaze travelled to its base, where the roots wrapped around the edge of the gorge. The tangle of thriving bark and dying white battled here, too. His heart skipped, and he tensed. A woman stood in the tangle of roots and snow—she was naked.
The scout narrowed his eyes. The woman’s hair was the flare of autumn leaves, and her skin was touched by the sun. She faced the tree, nearly hugging it, exposing a spine that flowed into a delicious backside. He thought of a summer peach, and his mouth began to water. Farin’s body was confused: all at once, heat rushed to his loins, and a shiver ran up his spine. He edged closer, cautious but eager, unable to take his eyes off the woman as he rounded the next tree trunk. His new spot afforded a better view. There was a mark on her back, a tattoo of a sprawling oak.
The soldier followed the woman’s curves to her ankles, and his eyes widened with fear. Her feet were roots and her arms were inside the trunk.
The startled soldier nearly pissed his pants. A witch—on his watch. Farin cursed his luck. As the witch stood facing the tree, a blackness crept over the earth between roots that were slowly turning white. She had put some kind of curse on the tree. And he did not know what to do.
He signaled sharply at his men to ready themselves. They rushed forward, not silently, but not loudly either. Still, the witch did not turn. He had never seen a Blight hag before, but he had heard plenty, and he feared to find what the beautiful witch’s face would look like—probably warty, or worse, a man’s face. But with that backside—Farin shook the thought from his mind and focused on his task, or tried to at any rate.
When his men were in position, each as wide-eyed as he, Farin burst from behind his cover, arrow notched, prepared to draw his bow. “In the name of Emperor Soataen Jaal, stand back from the tree, Witch.”
The witch did not move, did not acknowledge his presence. Farin shifted on his feet in the snow, and cleared his throat, trying again. “Stand back and surrender!”
Still, no movement, not even a tilt of her head. The soldiers looked to their sergeant. Taking a deep breath, Farin edged forward, poised to draw and fire. With every footstep, he saw the blackness spread over the ground like ink, surrounding the tree and seeping from the earth. The vultures were directly over the gorge, circling, but not diving towards its darkness. Rot assailed his nostrils and he nearly gagged.
The stench was unbearable. He dared not take a step closer. Farin raised his bow, drew back the string, and let loose his arrow. It hit the target, a knot in the trunk, directly in front of the witch. The twang snapped her from the ritual. She jerked in surprise and took a step back, hands returning to that of a normal woman. The roots released her legs. She staggered back on bare feet, dazed and shivering in the snow.
From there, everything went horribly wrong.
The ancient pine quivered, its bark bulged, as if something living sought exit from its innards. The pine turned white and began to bleed. Inky backness seeped from its lifeless bark, running rivulets down its length. Its needles fell like ash, and where they touched, the ground turned black.
The witch scrambled back as the snow melted. Something writhed beneath the soil, wiggling, moving, the ground was no longer solid. A soldier screamed. Farin glanced towards the sound. One of his men was caught in the earth, blackness crawling up his flesh, swarming over him and dragging him down.
“Run!” Farin yelled. He staggered back from an inky patch as the witch climbed to her own feet. He found himself running with her, away from the pulsing tree. Her face was not warty, or that of a man’s, but as beautiful as the rest of her body. Her eyes were like leaves, and they held the essence of spring, and fury.
She quickened her pace, running for the forest.
The witch did not stop. Farin lunged, reaching with his bow, catching her ankle between string and wood. She tripped, slamming hard onto the earth. She twisted, opening her mouth, but before she could speak, Farin clubbed her over the head, silencing whatever ritual she was about to unleash. The witch went still. However, the earth did not.
Desperate, Farin hoisted the witch over a shoulder, and bolted after his men as the earth heaved, rising like a wave.
Farin Thatcher ran, and he did not look back.