What price, passage
Three days after Pallor...
Aesil chewed on his lower lip. He pulled a piece of bark from an old tree and scrutinised it, scraping one side then the other before ripping off a small lump of moss and casting the rest aside. He rolled the moss around in his hand, peeling it apart then tutting in annoyance. Dropping it, he took a handful of fresh calaphera petals from his belt pocket, throwing them upwards and squinted in the failing light as they danced against the wind.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Tormu said, his voice tinged with a hint of stress "open it."
"Would if I could" Aesil said, wiping his hands of dirt "The trees are starting to snag, moss peels from their bark easily and the petals are moving in the wind as nature dictates. Simply put, this place is aether starved. The tides have departed here and with it the Wanderling. We missed our chance by a day, two at most."
Tormu fingered the pendant of Iasu around his neck, the silver image of his goddess tiny in the man's giant hands. He eyed his fellows, looking for some sign of assurance they would all get out of this mess hale and whole. Raphiga leaned against a willow with a worried grimace, one hand tracing the engravings on her crossbow as the other tightened a strip of cloth around a bleeding gash on her thigh. Luma idled nearby, the gaps in her stone frame pocked with shards of broken blades and arrow heads. She paid them no heed, crimson-hued eyes locked on aesil with the intense focus and eery stillness that he'd learned to associate with her race.
"Where's the closest?" Luma asked, the gruff baritone of her voice was like an old fire cracking.
Aesil grabbed nine stones from the ground and aranged them in a pattern of three triangles. He took the Amacula from his pocket and laid it down between all three. The pale, milky orb swirled then shifted in colour to shades of voilet then a splash of green in one corner. Pursing his lips, Aesil removed a deck of cards from another pocket, drawing three and laying them in each traingle in an anti-clockwise pattern from the top. As he placed the last one, the orbs colour changed to a bluish hue then sickly yellow at the point closest to him. Seeing the colour, he swore and spat.
"At least twenty leagues west" he said as he stood, pocketing the amacula and cards "But the tides are petty this late in the turning. We're lucky to have found the lip of this one"
"Could keep pushin' to the Narrows" Raphiga ventured, gulping from her waterskin, her other hand never letting go of her weapon "Might'nt be we get ta Saltmarsh 'fore the peckers"
Aesil held his tongue. It might be worth the risk, true, but there was no telling how many of the Ghedderin's men - or worse - lay waiting beyond the glade boughs. He chewed his lip as his mind raced, weighing the odds. His hand caressed the Amacula in his pocket, deep down the crawling mass beneath his skin felt his discomfort at the idea.
"No" They all looked at Luma, the okeir's stone body grating like old armour plates as she crossed her arms and stared at Aesil. "Word of Pallor needs to reach the south, My lady commands it. We have no choice, you know what has to be done."
"I... can't" Aesil couldn't stop his fingers from rubbing up and down the deep scars carved into his palms. He doubted any of them fully appreciated just how high that "cost" could be, even after being shown. A few measly scratches and scrapes were easy to accept and brush off, an abstract thing easily dismissed as just one man's worries. The true price was his alone. His burden to bear.
Luma looked to her companion's as if asking them for permission, but her expression made it clear that it had been decided without a word shared. She looked to aesil, the Wayfarer's calm exterior betrayed by the telltale sign of persperation on his forehead and the rapid blinking. "Do it," she said, stepping towards him. "Now." She muttered a few words and the brand on aesil's neck flared. His knees buckled and he gasped for breath. He clawed at his neck and ground his teeth against the sudden spike of pain as the slavemark flared and burned, but it quickly faded, replaced by a cold emptiness as Luma halted the bond-cant.
Aesil glared at his comrades as the burning of his flesh subsided, the glare full of loathing as his heart began to pound. He couldn't refuse now even if he tried.
"Fine," Aesil spat, his jaw set and fingers twisting around the amacula's silver chain "If that's what you all want to do."
"Do your part, 'farer" Raphiga nodded in affirmation, her crossbow swinging to aim at Aesil's chest. A wan smile passed across her face "I gotcha pretty. Just in case.. ya know"
"'preciate the gesture, Noonan," Aesil replied, the calm of his tone was a sharp contrast to his jangling nerves. Reaching for the bag at his waist, he pulled out an old, worn dagger, the tip serrated and its fuller engraved with black script that made him want to retch. The dried blood of untold ages shone upon its edge even in the low light of dawn, causing Tormu to utter words of prayer and avert his eyes.
Aesil stared at it for a few moment, mouldering as to what he was about to do. Then, without warning, he plunged the dagger downwards, blade sinking into his right palm with a sharp, wet crack. Gritting his teeth, he drew the knife upwards, creating a gash the length of his hand. Blood gushed forth, pulsating alongside his finger with his heartbeat; No matter how many times it was performed, his soul never adjusted.
He forced his other thumb into the wound as blood quickly dribbled down his palm, daubing his cheeks in thin lines of vitae before placing it in his mouth. The metallic taste almost made him gag but years of House conditioning kept his breathing even and calm.
"I call upon thee, dark one of the untrodden paths" his voice rasped. "Wake. Wake and answer to mine accord" Each sylabble felt like hot wax in his throat as he pushed past the pressure building in his head. He clenched his fist, driving a fresh wave of pain throughout his body. This time, Aesil couldn't help the hiss that escaped his lips. The agony was blinding as the words echoed through his skull and down into the pit of what remained of his soul.
His world seemed to fragment, the edges of his vision starting to fracture, colours popping in and out of his mind. A dull, muted roar filled his ears. A wave of vertigo filled the space and his companions stepped away as he crumpled to the ground and convulsed. He cried out as a river of black, viscous tar pumped from the wound. He pressed the wounded hand over his left eye, the image swimming before him as if he was staring at the surface of a lake on a windy day. A spattering noise in front of him made him look down. His bladder had voided, piss splashing all over his legs, the liquid mixing with the black tar like substance oozing from his wounded hand and staining the ground in mocking mimicry of a madman's oil painting.
"I heed your call, brother-by-bond. I feel your pain" whispered the voice of the creature curled around his soul, layered in hungered whispers. Aesil choked out a gargling moan, feeling the parasite squirm within his chest. His hand twitched in involuntary spasm, the motion travelling up his arm and throughout the rest of his body as the sensation of maggots worming through his insides made him shudder uncontrollably. "I thought you swore never to call upon me again" the creature whispered to Aesil through his Ajkshar, its tone like oil on water, making him feel dirty and unclean.
"We.. need. To leave. Now!," Aesil managed, the words coming out in hitching bursts, blood dribbling out his nose. He couldn't stop his head from flopping and rolling with each heaving breath he took. His fingers twitched in sporadic, random intervals as if they had minds of their own.
"This...This will cost you." His 'others' voice echoed through his mind once more, a faint note of delight hidden in caring tones "And there is so little left"
Aesil spat blood onto the ground and let out a mirthless laugh, his mouth dripping with ichor "Not like..not like I got a..choice" he said between gritted teeth. The pressure in his chest increased further, as though a vice was slowly constricting around it. It felt like his bones would crack any moment, as though his skin were being ripped apart, flayed and replaced.
The parasite in his chest twitched then seemed to... sigh? The sound made Aesil shudder, feeling the thing move around his organs before settling on the edge of his ribs. A cold numbness crept over him and he gasped. "very well" the thing purred in his mind, "let it be so, as per our accord, let it be as mother agreed to".
Aesils screamed and convulsed as he felt a tearing in his soul. He clawed at his skin, trying to get at what writhed below the surface, desperate to release it as his nails dug deep grooves into his chest. "Wait..." his plea a mere whisper.
It took what was promised.
Sweat dripped from Aesil's forehead as he came to. His eyes stung in their sockets as the tinges of red mixed with the usual shades of blues and greens, even a faint amber in the twilight. His mouth was filled with the taste of his own blood and it made him cough, sending a spatter of red spit across the furrowed ground.
"welcome back to the realm of the living" a gravelly voice croaked from somewhere beyond his vision. Aesil could only groan in response, a pang of nausea welling inside. The air seemed to shimmer and shift, and colours swam together.
"Slow, 'farer, slow" Raphiga's voice echoed around the inside of his head. His heart was pounding so hard against his chest that the world around him pulsated like the waves of the ocean, in tune with the rhythmic pounding inside. She knelt over him, tending the wound. Her calloused hands held a strip of bandage, daubed in some sort of vulgur concoction only her people would think healed rather than maimed. Noticing Aesil concerned look, Raphiga gave a soft grin through yellow teeth and bloody, matted hair.
"Nuthin ta worry 'bout." she said "Pa's special mix. You'll be right as right in a few days. Promise".
Before he could protest she slapped it down upon the wound, ignoring the hiss of agony and pinned it in place, quickly wrapping the bandages and finally tying it with a quick jerk. The others stood about, ingoring the cries; Tormu wide-eyed, warily glancing about the small clearing and Luma as still as a mountain. Looking past Raphiga, the shadows cast from the sun's rays were larger than he last remembered.
"How long?" Aesil mumbled, voice scratchy.
"Less than a quarter ash" responded Luma.
"Did.. did it work?" Raphiga pulled out a waterskin and held to his lips. Aesil was reluctant, but knew better than to argue. He pulled away from the leather container once his thirst had been quenched and looked at the dried up earth underfoot, the charred patterns a mixture of chaos and artful beauty.
"It did" answered Luma, tilting her head towards the shear in the fabric of reality. The rip in the air shimmered with pale light, white smoke coming forth like the bellows from an unseen smithy's forge.
Raphiga looked through the rift and then turned to Aethil with a raised eyebrow, pointing at the hole in space "Got an idea of where ya poked, 'farer? Looks a might different than the last time you popped one"
Aesil frowned, pulling the amacula free from his breast pocket. The orb was devoid of colour, the swirling opaque matter within pulsating at a steady pace, providing no clue to the location on the other side.
"Does it matter? We can't stay here," Tormu growled, pointing a large fist toward where they had come from. In the distance, a faint braying carried across the winds mixed with the unmistakable grinding of metal on metal.
Aesil allowed himself a second of respite, questions raging through his mind. What had his "other" taken? What price for passage? He shook his head, casting the thoughts aside. There would be time enough to find out later. For the moment all that mattered is surviving.
And the rift provided that.
Taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders and with a single, short nod from Luma, entered the portal.