Robert B. Wintermute
Complex strut works of wood, rope suspension bridges, and planked walkways festooned the tree in arcing loops. The fact that the turntimbers healed over any attempts to penetrate its bark only heightened her amazement -- the clever tribe had been able to make the marvel without even one nail.
The rope bridge joined into one of the plankways, and with creaking steps, Hiba led the way to the longhouse atop a massive branch. Other Tajuru were walking together in the same direction. Many were talking in hushed tones among themselves, and were fully outfitted in ornate harness systems and slender bladed weapons. None of the tall, fine Tajuru looked like Joraga, who, in Nissa's memory, hissed vows as they smeared the blood of fallen enemies along the scars they'd received in battles past.
The longhouse was full to capacity when they arrived. Some Tajuru were even sitting on the white jaddi wood windowsills and passing small bags of dried wolf berries back and forth. In the center of the room, standing on a slightly raised platform, Nissa saw two elves she'd never seen before. She could tell by the hushed tones in the hall that the visitors were important.
Hiba leaned close to her ear.
"Speaker Sutina," he said.
She had seen a couple of messengers and important visitors stop by the home tree in her time with the tribe. But even the tribe's large size didn't seem to constitute such visitors as the two that stood on the platform. Nissa looked carefully at the female that stood in the center of the room. Speaker Sutina was wearing a jerkin of simple green leather, and her advisor was similarly dressed: no ropes, no harnesses. Neither Sutina nor her assistant seemed to be armed in the least. Their lack of gear alone should have alerted Nissa to their stature. But the Tajuru didn't think in terms of importance and stature, and she had already started adopting their ways of seeing the world.
Nissa forgot about what Sutina was wearing when she put her arms out and started to speak.
"Friends," Speaker Sutina said. The word seemed to hang shimmering in the air above their heads. Nobody spoke. One of the Tajuru dropped his bag of wolf berries on the wood floor. With the smallest trace of a smile, the speaker's eyes cast around the room. When they met Nissa's eyes, her smile faded. "Friends," she repeated in a voice suddenly louder. "I won't mix words now that I have traveled so far to visit you. We have come to Ondu to alert others to a great rot in the roots of the forest."
Sutina's eyes fluttered for a moment. When she spoke her lips were dashed with green phosphorescence, and the words that came out of her mouth were guttural, rasping, and filled with chirps. Her eyes fluttered open, and the smile flitted across her lips again. "This is the language of the infection traveling in the forest right now. Do any of you recognize this talk?"
Nissa didn't bother to look at the faces around her. She knew the language belonged to nothing from their plane. . . . It sounded like flint chips knocking together. Even mountain trolls spoke more pleasantly.
Sutina's eyes fluttered and went to their whites again as she channeled something else. "What is that?" a concerned male Tajuru's voice said, echoing out of her throat. "What are those holes? Stina, Rawli, give that thing a volley."
"But the wind," a female voice said. "The wind."
A silence lasting nearly thirty heartbeats followed.
Nissa watched the muscles in Sutina's cheeks and around her eyes twitch and spasm. Her chin jerked side to side and up and down, and Nissa knew she was reliving the last moments of each of the scouting party's lives. Then the whites of Sutina's eyes blinked back into place, and she smiled. All around her the Tajuru had grown quiet. All the elves had bowed their heads. Their lips had all become slightly green, she noticed with a bit of unease. They did that sometimes at meetings.
A Joraga would never share consciousness with her tribesmen -- it would be a shameful action. But the Tajuru seemed to want to do it when even the smallest thing went wrong. Nissa waited. Through the windows of the longhouse she could see patches of sky through the trees.
"Stina is my sister's name," a Tajuru said from the crowd. "We haven't heard from her in a week."
Another spoke up. "That was Leaf Talker Gloui's voice."
"He patrolled the far west," someone else said, almost in a whisper.
Wind, Nissa thought. Where was there wind in a forest? Breeze yes, but never wind. She still didn't know the topography of the Tajuru's lands as well as she would like, but she did know that wind would be something of a rarity in a forest.
Hiba leaned over. His lips weren't green, Nissa noticed. "The Binding Circle," he whispered. "It's on a plateau."
Just then, in response to his thought, someone across the room said, "The Binding Circle is in the west."
"The Binding Circle," other elves repeated, almost in unison.
Nissa hated when they did that, speaking together like the undead.
Nissa, Speaker Sutina's voice said, suddenly speaking in her head. The speaker's eyes were on her, and she spoke aloud, "You will take a force of Tajuru and your own significant abilities to find and eliminate this threat."
Nissa nodded. She'd been a Leaf Talker for the Tajuru ever since her arrival in the turntimber. The Tajuru always gave her the most difficult assignments. Many at the home tree were impressed with her abilities, she could tell; and many thought she was a threat -- the first step to a Joraga invasion. But for whatever reason, Nissa liked taking the dangerous assignments. What was she leaving anyway? A cold room in the home tree with a slug oil lantern and the distrustful stares of the Tajuru.
Nissa looked around the longhouse. Most of the Tajuru were filing out of the hall. She walked toward the door with Hiba following close behind.
The other Tajuru edged away from her as she passed. That was as it should be, she figured. It wouldn't do for them to get too friendly with a Joraga. Hiba was different. He appreciated her Joraga ways of disciplined magic and combat. When she'd first come to the home tree, some Tajuru had refused to sit at the same dinner table with her. She couldn't blame them. The experiences they'd had with the Joraga had not been pleasant. Nothing about the Joraga was particularly pleasant, unless your idea of pleasant involved meditating all day, leading raiding parties all night, and sleeping on the hard ground in between. Except for their distrust of reading and music, Nissa liked the Joraga's lifestyle. She had the fetid jungles of Bala Ged in her blood, but she couldn't go back yet. And so she was leading a scouting party to defend the lands of elves who distrusted her.
As Nissa walked out of the hall, she recounted what she'd heard about Speaker Sutina. The leader lived far away on the cliffs of Sunder Bay in the Tumbled Palace: an ancient structure crumbling to pieces. It sat clutched in the boughs of an ancient jurworrel tree that was slowly walking it to the edge of the cliff. Rumor had it that the speaker partnered with the Moon Kraken once a month when that creature made its disastrous rise from the depths of Sunder Bay. .
Hiba's hand closed around Nissa's shoulder, stopping her mid-step. She turned. Tajuru in rustling silks and dyed leathers walked quietly around them. Her lieutenant's long ear was cocked to the sky, and his large jaw was slack, listening. That ear was his best asset in many ways, and it alone made him useful to have around. He could hear an owl preening from three tall timbers away, and that was impressive even for an elf. And from their scouting expeditions together she'd come to know his facial expressions very well. She could tell what creature lurked by how his lip curled and where his eyelids sat on his eyes. But the expression he showed just then, standing on the boardwalk outside the longhouse, was new to her.
A moment later the warning horns began to moan through the undergrowth. The Tajuru on the boardwalk stopped walking and stared down at the forest floor. Nissa fell to a crouch, and her hand went to grasp the staff strapped to her back. Before she could get to it, however, Hiba grabbed her wrist and pulled her off the edge of the branch. The ground rushed up as Hiba snatched a hook off his belt and threw it, catching a crevice in an old tree. The rope jerked hard when it caught, and Nissa felt her teeth snap shut, but then they swung in a long arc away from the tree.
As Hiba let go of the rope, Nissa caught a spinning, blurred look at the branch they were hurling toward, gauged the distance, and executed a tight flip that plunked her feet squarely into the branch's mossy duff. She grabbed Hiba's arm and pulled him in as the larger Tajuru teetered on the narrow branch. Somewhere far off an eeka bird cried. A brace of giant hedron stones floated in the tree canopy above their heads, knocking unceremoniously together. It was a sight so common she barely took notice. They listened for the sounds of battle but heard nothing; neither horn, nor the sizzle of magic coursing through the air; not even the clash of steel. For a moment Nissa thought she heard a far-off scream, but when she asked Hiba, who was listening hard, he shook his head.
A moment passed, and then another, until suddenly Hiba jerked his head. "They are coming," he said. He seized the short sword clipped onto his belt, and Nissa held her staff firmly in both hands. She heard a low whistle and moved her staff at the last moment to deflect the dart, or whatever it was, away into the greenery. And then whatever was in the trees was jetting toward them, chirping as it flew.
She got almost no look at it -- gray with many arms -- before she and Hiba were knocked off the branch and falling through the air. Nissa heard Hiba slice at the air with his sword, and then they hit the forest floor and rolled off in opposite directions.
Nissa hopped to her feet and held her staff in both hands while she whispered the incantations she knew so well. As always, her staff felt burning hot as the lines of energy rippled up through her veins to spin around her head and away. She felt the mana line she had to the jungles of Bala Ged stiffen and intensify until it was a glowing artery. And in a moment, four Joraga warriors were standing in loose formation around her, blinking in the dim light of the forest floor, and smelling like spicy jungle orchids. Their eyes were sharp; they snatched small bows from their backs, nocked arrows, and drew back in one fluid motion. The arrows flew to the two beings squatting in the trees looking down at them. They were black and gray in color, and covered with geometric plates of chitinous material. Each of the creatures' arms was split into two; their legs were shiny tentacles. They had no heads -- only bumps on their shoulders. And their bodies were covered with lidless blue eyes that stared down without expression as their thin arms knocked the arrows away. From behind, Nissa heard a titter and chirp, and she turned to see four more creatures swinging silently on branches. The Joraga released more arrows, but most were knocked away by the creatures. One arrow did find its target, catching the thing in the upper torso, and the creature gave a strange moan, pitched foreword, and fell spinning to the ground. The remaining creatures jumped with surprising fluidity and found their way to the forest floor to surround the one that had fallen, touching it all over with their tentacles.
The Joraga nocked their arrows and shot another creature as it stood over its fallen comrade. The remaining four turned slowly. It was their eyes that caused Nissa to pause -- those blue, expressionless eyes that covered their bodies. There was no anger or sadness in those eyes, no evil or good. She had the unsettling feeling that they saw her the way she might see a zeem beast. As prey.
The Joraga shot a third creature and the three remaining beasts broke into a smooth charge on their arm-thick tentacles. One seized the Joraga next to Nissa and pulled him to meat. With a muttered incantation, Nissa took up her staff and thrust a blow into the body of the nearest creature. The thing stepped back, and its blue eyes looked at the green glowing dent in its hard flesh. Suddenly a stalk and a leaf popped out of the impression.
Nissa had seeded adversaries in the past, of course, but never had one reacted so. She had once seen a petra giant yank the plant out. When he had taken hold and pulled, the root had popped out of his chest clutching his pumping gray heart. But the tentacled creature watched as the plant grew, shimmering and stretching, until it was taller than the creature itself, at which point a bud appeared and opened to reveal a mouth that snapped shut around the creature's head.
Something whizzed by Nissa, and the creature that had been poised behind her fell with Hiba's short sword sticking out of its chest. Its tentacles kneaded the handle of the sword as it lay in the rotting leaves on the forest floor.
The last creature knocked away the arrows the remaining Joraga fired. Nissa struck her staff into the earth and took a deep breath, feeling the energy pulse up through the soles of her feet and along her spine, and shimmer all around. She ran and jumped into the air, swinging her staff so the tip landed with a dull thump on the top of the creature's head. It stood still for a moment in the dappled light coming through the trees, and then crumpled to the ground.
Nissa landed, turned, and walked back to the creature. She bent down for a closer look at its body. To her surprise, the plants trapped under its body had turned brown and died. She would have liked to investigate further, but Hiba was already running back to the home tree. Nissa took one last look at the creature on the ground before following him with the two remaining Joraga keeping in step.
Hiba stopped at the base of the gigantic home tree -- so thick it would have taken one hundred elves holding wrists to encircle it. But instead of elves, twenty of the tentacled creatures lay still around it. Some were festooned with arrows, and one was strangled with vines. All had fallen from above. Hiba wasted no time in hopping onto the tree and climbing. Nissa and the Joraga followed.
There were at least twenty dead creatures scattered on the platforms of the settlement. Some of the creatures were still writhing. Small groups of Tajuru were walking from creature to creature with long knives clutched in their pale hands. Nissa watched as an elf shoved the blade of his knife deep into one of the creatures, stilling it forever. "Here," Hiba said. He was running to the longhouse. He stopped outside the door of the house, near a small crowd. The elves in the crowd were bending down and lifting something.
It isn't her, Nissa said to herself as she ran. But it was. By the time she arrived, they had lifted the body of Speaker Sutina. She was still wearing the same smile on her lips, but the elf leader's leather jerkin was torn and bloody. A small group of Tajuru around the door of the longhouse watched the procession leave. When it was gone they turned and looked at her, each with a less-than-friendly expression. Nissa glanced at the two remaining Joraga leaning against the side of the longhouse. What must they, her tribesmen, be thinking of her?
It didn't bear thinking about. She looked back at where the speaker had fallen. Two creatures lay crumpled on the stairs nearby. She bent over one.
"What are you doing?" Hiba said.
Nissa ignored him. She knelt. The creature's tentacles were not moving. She carefully looked the thing over from tentacle to finger tip, moving its appendages. She found one curious thing. Under the creature's right arm, a proboscis-like tube extended four feet. The tube was fleshy and very thin, and looped so it did not dangle down.
"They have no mouths," she said, glancing up. The small group of Tajuru watched her silently from the door of the longhouse.
"So they have no mouths?" Hiba said. He glanced at the group.
"How do they eat?" she said, poking at the spongy tentacles. She could almost hear Hiba's shrug, but she didn't look up. "Why were they here if not to eat?"
"Maybe they don't like Tajuru?" Hiba said. The comment was meant for her, but she ignored it.
Hiba walked over to the group standing around the door. Nissa could hear them muttering, but couldn't make out any words. Instead she looked more closely at the creature.
It was like nothing she had ever seen on Zendikar. It had tentacles, yet no webbing between its digits, and no gills. Its lidless eyes and ridged skin spoke of a subterranean life, but how could something without a mouth live underground? There were no weapons and no clothing. And the creature smelled somehow clean and tangy, like she imagined a snake would. She curled her lip in disgust.
Yet something about the creatures was familiar. She had felt it the second she had seen them squatting on the branch. While she considered that, Hiba came down the stairs and stood.
"Do they look familiar?" she said, standing.
"Like something from a children's story," he said.
That was it! They looked like the monsters in the old stories she'd been told as a child. Those that lurk.
"Do 'those that lurked' have tentacles?" she asked.
"We did not call them that," Hiba said. "And I do not think ours have tentacles. Ours have horns."
She nodded. Still, there was something about them.
Hiba jerked his chin at the Tajuru at the door of the long¬house. "One of them just stumbled in from MossCrack. These creatures attacked there before us."
MossCrack was the next settlement, just down the forested gully through which the WhiteShag coursed.
"What else did he say?" Nissa asked.
"That he does not care for Joraga," Hiba said. He gave her a grim little smile.
"That he does not care for Joraga," Nissa repeated. "That is comical." She thought for a couple of seconds before decid¬ing. "Alright," she said. "We'll take the zip. Grab those in the doorway and any others Tajuru who care to make a trip to MossCrack." She started walking down the boardwalk, then stopped. "Or they can cower here and let the Joraga deal with this menace."
"The zip, Leaf Talker?" Hiba yelled after her.
"The zip," she confirmed.
By the time Hiba arrived at the zip-line platform he had twenty elves, grimly outfitted and smeared with their combat colors. Some wore red circles around their eyes; others had blue lips. Each configuration represented the elf's personal totem. "Very pretty," she muttered to herself. "But can they fight?" She was painted in the fashion of a Joraga: black bars that came in from all sides of the face and pointed at the eyes. It meant they were Joraga. It meant they trusted only their own. The heart of another is a dark forest, the Joraga saying went.
They all squeezed into the topless gondola made of woven vines. It was attached to the zip-line by a curved vine and two jaddi-wood pulleys housed in a turntimber-bark sleeve. The bark-twilled zip led away into the greenery.
The compartment bobbed and swayed as Nissa stepped on. She'd ridden it once before, and despite its appearance she knew it worked well enough. Those were the contraptions that the Tajuru excelled at.
Nissa could not totally blot out the realization that working well or not, the gondola made good targets.
Hiba was at the front. With a foot pedal he could slow their speed, but he didn't seem to know that, Nissa thought, as they hurled at greater and greater speed through the forest. Branches slapped at the sides of the car, and the wind sang through the gaps between its vines. Soon she could see the WhiteShag far below, smashing down through the rocks. Her breath caught in her throat for a moment when a lean Onduan baloth stood on its hind legs next to the river and watched them intently. Even a baloth couldn't catch them in the zip.
She knew they were near MossCrack when the Tajuru began unhitching bows from their back and fixing arrows. Nissa closed her eyes and felt the wind whistling over the tips of her ears. She breathed in the forest, and felt the sap in the trees rising in her blood, and she felt the great raw lump of the ground far below pulse as though it was rising to meet her.
Soon MossCrack's home tree rose before them above even the tallest turntimber. Hiba had not slowed their speed, so Nissa reached out and allowed her hand to pass through the energy lines that writhed up and around every tree in the Turntimber. She allowed a moment to bond with the invisible mana that permeated the entire forest. The trees all grew around these spikes of mana in their characteristic twisted way. By bonding to the mana, Nissa was able to slow the car's progress, and she eventually pulled it to an easy stop. When she opened her eyes the elves were all looking at her.
"Did you think we would march right into the midst of them?" she said. "I know you're not the best warriors in the forest, but try to keep up." She could feel them bristle at that, but instead of looking back she peered over the edge. The forest floor was far below, mostly obscured by undergrowth and tree branches. "Ready," she said. Without waiting for a response -- it wasn't a tribal council meeting; there would be no handholding -- she hopped out of the gondola and landed softly on the nearest branch. After a moment, they grudgingly followed. When they were all on the branch, she turned to them. In the dappled light, her black and white camouflage blended perfectly. "Now," she whispered. "You are all honorary Joraga. As Joraga, we are going to fall upon our enemies unawares and destroy them, whatever they are."
She turned back and led them down the branch and to the next, and over many more until they neared the home tree. Nissa stopped frequently. But, strangely, she heard nothing. Then Hiba stopped and flicked the tip of his long ear and pointed off to the left. Soon she heard it too: a particular crack¬ing sound and the swish of branches. They crept closer, and the sounds grew louder until they saw movement through the trees.
Her Joraga stopped and took out small, dried scute-bug shells. As the Tajuru watched, her Joraga carefully dipped the points of their arrows in the shells before quivering them again. Then they held the bug shells out for the Tajuru to clumsily dip their arrow heads in.
"Distillate of bloodbrier," Nissa hissed. "Shoot for the neck . . if they have one." She motioned to Hiba, and they got down on their hands and knees, crept to the edge of the branch, carefully parted the leaves.
Hiba was the first to get a good look. Nissa heard his sharp intake of breath. And in a moment, she understood why. The creatures were there, at least one hundred of them. But it wasn't their numbers that shocked her. It was the sun. There was sun on the forest floor. With turntimber trees around there was never any sun on the forest floor. But the creatures had man¬aged to do what Nissa had not thought could be done. They'd felled a small turntimber. They'd dug large holes and were in the process of stripping the leaves off the fallen tree, hauling them to the holes, and stuffing them in. And the creatures were not all the kind they'd fought earlier. Some flew and were only masses of floating tentacles with thin and vile arms extending out. Some were tentacled and crawled on the ground with round, white heads that appeared to be made of solid bone and lacked even the slightest face. Some were huge . . the size of a stomper and just as thick. Others were the height of three elves, and as she watched one grunted and stood, towering over all the rest. "That one must have killed the tree by pushing it over," Nissa muttered. "It goes first."
Some of the creatures had no tentacles. They were as white-skinned as a corpse might be, and bound at the shoulders and elbows with what looked like leather straps. Some of those pale beings were stripping the leaves off the trees. Others were bent over the dead Tajuru strewn over the ground, sucking their blood from neck cuts.
"Vampire slaves," Hiba hissed.
As Nissa watched, one of the tentacled creatures casually seized a vampire by the neck. It wasn't done cruelly, exactly. More like an elf might seize a wild fig off the branch. The tentacled creature searched until it found the tube under its right armpit; it jabbed it into a hole in the vampire's chest. Then the creature squatted and stared down at the ground, while the vampire stood stock still, growing whiter and whiter.
"What is it doing?" Hiba whispered.
"Prepare the attack," Nissa said. She pulled her eyes away from the grisly scene. "Right now."
The words were not fully out of her mouth when a branch snapped in the forest behind them, and the tentacled ones were upon them. The climbing kind they'd met at the home tree, perhaps thirty of them. They charged from branch to branch.
Nissa brought her staff sweeping from the right, pulling energy from the branch she was standing on and directing it in a wide swath out the tip of the staff. The mana touched the trees, and they animated and pulled in together, forming a wall of branches and vines that reached out for the beasts. The elves began shooting between the branches at the creatures, two of which fell as Nissa watched. The other creatures threw themselves at the wall, thrashing against it as the elves shot them dead.
Nissa heard a swish behind her and turned to see a squad of twenty flying creatures rushing at them. On the ground, more creatures were running to the tree they were in. The giant one lumbered on tentacles twice as wide as her waist. This could be the end, Nissa thought.
She screamed a warning, and some of the elves turned, but not before the flying creatures crashed through the foliage. One of the creatures bashed into the Tajuru standing next to Nissa, and she knew by the impact that the elf was lost. Another came at her, but she whispered the secret name of her favorite flower, the dendrite, and with that spell delivered a blow with her staff that sent the creature shooting backward off the branch. Other elves had turned and shot many of the flying creatures before they reached their ranks. And the climbing creatures on the other side of the grasping wall of branches and vines, Nissa noticed with a quick glance, were much diminished.
Then she felt the turntimber under their feet jerk hard to the right. She regained her footing, but the tree shifted again. She looked down and saw the huge creature through a gap in the leaves, pushing against the trunk of the turntimber.
One of the flying creatures slammed against her, and they fell crashing through the leaves. She silently mouthed words that pushed mana ahead of her like a pillow, and in a moment she was falling slowly, eventually landing next to the creature that had fallen with her, its body still.
And then they were on her again: two of the creatures with blue eyes, and the giant one the size of two forest trolls. The giant had lowered its shoulder against the tree and was pushing, its tentacles churning up the soft earth as it struggled for pur¬chase. She focused her mind and felt the mana boiling, making her hands glow green. She twisted her staff and pulled out her stem sword -- a long, thin green stem hidden inside its wooden shaft -- just as the first creature lowered its head and charged. She stepped to the side and pivoted hard to her right leg. As the beast barreled past she inserted the rigid stem neatly into its side, just where its heart ought to be if it had one. She pushed the sword all the way to its wooden handle before yanking it out. With a whispered word, the bloody stem became flexible. She jerked her arm out, and the stem snapped out and took off the arm of the behemoth pushing on the tree. It turned its body and regarded her calmly, as pale blood bubbled out of its arm stump. No scream, no anger, she thought. Not even a sneer. The creature simply planted its other shoulder against the trunk and kept pushing.
She was about to take the behemoth's other arm off when the second creature charged hard into her side. But as she fell, she kicked away and turned, whipping half its tentacles off with a puff of emerald-colored mana.
She landed just as the tree shifted to the right. Its flat root ball heaved up and out of the ground, slapping Nissa violently against the giant creature. She clambered up its back and onto its shoulders, and wrapped her stem sword around what should have been its neck. As she pulled and twisted, the creature's hundreds of blue eyes blinked and turned to look at her, but still the creature did not stop pushing. She'd seen single-minded animals in her life, but never anything like this. She pulled hard for some minutes. She pulled for so long that she feared the creature had some enchantment about it, or neck muscles wrought of metal, that kept her stem from cutting. But eventually the creature weakened and fell forward into the trunk and died.
They must have a spine, Nissa thought. She looked around as she sheathed the stem sword in her staff once again.
The tree had settled into its new position, pitched off to the north. She followed its trunk with her eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of her squad through the branches. But she heard nei¬ther the twangs of their bows nor their battle cries. She walked away from the trunk. A loud grinding sound echoed somewhere through the canopy. A common sound of two floating hedrons rubbing against each other in the sky above the trees came to her.
She walked to the clearing, ducking under the white-barked boughs of a young jaddi tree.
A narrow draw extended to her right, and farther down it, the pound of the WhiteShag thundering through its deep ravine echoed off the still trunks. The sunlight shone through the trees ahead and, as if in a dream, she walked toward it.
Nissa stopped at the edge of the forest. Once her eyes had become accustomed to the sunshine, she saw the swath of land dotted with what forest plants the creatures had not stripped and stuffed in their holes, which were dug in irregular intervals throughout the cleared land. The bodies of MossCrack's Tajuru were strewn about between the holes. The nearest was only thirty paces away, lying on its side with a crushed skull. A handful of vampires on hands and knees were bent over the corpses almost tenderly. They were wearing rags, and their matted hair was dull in the bright sun. She wasn't sure if the rank smell was the dead Tajuru or the vampires. Or was it the tentacled creatures standing behind each vampire, sucking the ichor through their proboscises. Nissa swallowed the lump rising in her throat.
Suddenly there was a chirping sound behind her, and Nissa turned with her staff at the ready. She expected to see the Tajuru and Hiba running toward her with a handful of creatures following. She closed her eyes and felt the nearly inexhaustible power of the forests of Zendikar rise in her blood and pull in from the vines around and the soil under her feet. She would show the beasts, those killers of trees, how the Joraga of Bala Ged dealt with interlopers, with barong outsiders. And it would not be pampering, Tajuru justice -- but the savagery of the jungle meted out with plenty of hate.
She opened her eyes and nearly dropped her staff in shock. Where were her rangers? Where was Hiba? Instead, at least two hundred creatures of different sizes and shapes stood at the tree line they had created, staring at her. They were alike in only one way: they all had tentacles. One had a harnessed, growling vampire on a long lead.
But none, not even the four or five specimens larger than the one she'd killed in the forest, seemed angry with her. They simply stared at her. One cocked its head as it studied her. Some were spattered with blood, she noticed with a pang of regret, and many were festooned with short Tajuru arrows. She knew her squad and Hiba were dead. She looked down to see her scarred hands, white and shaking, as they squeezed her staff.
The creatures ambled forward, their tentacles writhing and touching one another as they moved. When they were about forty feet away one stopped, and they all stopped. There was no speaking; there were no hand signs -- only squirming tentacles. Where had she seen that behavior? It was like some insect. Like . . . ants!
There were close to two hundred creatures grimly arrayed before her. The odds were not good. Her eyes wandered to the blue sky above the approaching host. A gentle breeze stirred her hair. Far away a lone stele floated over a high mesa. Beyond that, dark storm clouds promised a good rain by nightfall. It was a beautiful day.
Nissa twisted her staff. The stem sword she had gained the day of her coming-of-age-reckoning back home in Bala Ged slid easily out of its scabbard. She held the rigid green shaft before her eyes.
Where had her life left her? She was standing in a clearing in the Turntimber Forest, outnumbered and about to perish. Yes, she had traveled to some filthy planes that had neither the beauty nor the power of Zendikar, and were full of nasty beings and big-nosed humans. She glanced at the creatures ambling forward. "Beings like those outlanders," she said to herself.
She could planeswalk away, at that moment, and nobody would be the wiser for it. Her squad was dead -- Hiba included. If she ran, she would be running for the rest of her life, alone and wandering -- a shadow out of the jungles of Bala Ged. Nissa drew a deep breath and released it slowly. She was a Joraga, and she would die as such. She scanned the ranks of the creatures, close enough for her to smell their mushroomy skin. She could take perhaps forty of them with her. She raised her sword and prepared to charge.
Suddenly, something caught the creatures' attention, and they all turned to the right to look. Nissa turned, as well.
A lone figure stepped out of the forest: a human, by his height, dressed in black leathers, with shiny silver plates on his shoulder and a small silver breast plate. His hair was white and brushed back long off his forehead. A great sword on his belt clattered as he walked forward and clapped his hands together.
"What have we here," the stranger said in an accent that she'd never heard before. Yet another barong, Nissa thought.
"Have you all slipped your chains already?" the strange man asked as he walked. "I am lost and looking for The Eye of Ugin."
The creatures stood stock still; only their tentacles writhed back and forth between Nissa and the strange new addition. The man walked toward their side and flank. She could sense the creatures' dilemma. What they didn't want was to be flanked by the strange man, whoever he was. I'd attack if I were them, Nissa thought. Attack.
And they did. With no obvious signal, the creatures began to charge. Nissa looked at the strange man. He raised his arms, and in a moment she could feel the air rushing past her ears, drawn toward him. Rivulets of dim energy condensed on the orbs suddenly blooming around each of his hands. And then he began to speak in the most booming, deep voice she had ever heard, and in a language she had never heard. The air between the stranger and the charging horde refracted and bent, and then each of the creatures fell to the ground in a lump, simply falling into a rotted mass.
As amazing as that spell was -- and it was one of the most amazing and disturbing things Nissa had ever seen -- still more startling was the reaction by the remaining creatures. Perhaps six of them were, apparently, out of the range of the man's spell. And they did not stop charging. With their compatriots lying at their feet, the creatures continued charging at the dark-clad man. He said a few more grim words, and the remaining creatures fell.
Nissa wasted no time. She turned and started running back into the forest . . . to the tree. Once there, she glanced up and confirmed her worst fear. She climbed the tree in seconds.
Her wall of vines was still in one piece, and it was with no small amount of pride that she counted nineteen dead creatures hanging from it, with arrows bristling out of them. But when she looked behind the wall, her heart caught in her throat. Some of the bodies of her raiding party were still there, torn into parts in the dappled light. Naarl flies the size of Nissa's fingers buzzed over the bright red meat. More parts were thrown into the branches around her. The buzz of the flies was suddenly too loud in her ears. When she turned to leave, the face of a decapitated elf skull lodged in the crotch of a branch looked out at her with fixed eyes.
She found him on the forest floor. His right arm was crushed flat, and both his legs too, but he was breathing. His left hand still held the grip of his bow, and she could not pry it free from his fingers, no matter what she did.
"Hiba," she whispered in his ear. "Hiba, I thought you were dead. Take a deep breath." She put her arms under his neck and under his buttocks and brought him, screaming, into the clearing.
The stranger was walking among the dead creatures shaking his head. He turned when Nissa brought Hiba into the clearing and watched her put him down. The way he stared made her uneasy, but she busied herself by making Hiba as comfortable as she could. She tried to forget the spell she'd just seen the stranger cast as she cupped her hands around her mouth and turned to him.
"Do you have water?" she yelled. She made the drinking gesture. "Water?"
He walked over to where she sat next to the wounded elf. Up close he was taller than she'd thought. His gold-flecked eyes gave his pale face a curious intensity. He took only a casual glance at Hiba. His eyes sat on her.
"This one will die shortly," he said without looking down at Hiba, in a voice that echoed from deep in his throat. "This one is already dead."
She couldn't be absolutely sure if the stranger was talking about Hiba, or himself.
"Who are you?" she asked.
He looked out over the clearing. "I am called Sorin."
Sorin turned back and settled his golden eyes on Nissa again. Hiba moaned.
"And you are a Joraga elf, I should think," he said. "Nissa," she said, placing her right hand on her heart and bowing slightly, as was the elf custom.
Something moved in the middle of the clearing. An arm flopped. Sorin followed her eyes. "A vampire slave apparently lives," He said.
"Vampires," Nissa said. She had not meant to, but her lip curled.
The strangers watched her for an extra second before a slow smile stretched his pale lips. "Yes," he said. "Quite."
Sorin turned and walked to the middle of the clearing. He bent down and seized the vampire and lifted him by the wrist as easily as he might lift a water skin. He dragged the creature back to where Nissa was standing and dumped him unceremo¬niously next to Hiba. Nissa inadvertently took a step back.
Sorin chuckled. "Your home of Bala Ged is near Guul Draz. Is it not?"
"It is," she said. "And we fight to keep these from our borders."
The creature at her feet was different from the other vam¬pires she'd fought. His hair was not in his eyes, for one. It was pulled into a tight, long braid. His skin was just as pale and bluish, however; and he was painted: a red line extended up his bare chest to his chin, then continued from his forehead to the top of his head through a shaved channel. He had the same vestigial horns extending in black curls from his shoulders and elbows.
"Where's his bampha?" she asked.
Sorin's face remained blank. "Oh," he said. "You mean its weapon. The brood lineage took it, I suspect."
Bampha. Nissa shuddered at the thought of their long, two-handed weapons of sharpened bone. Long elegant weapons left long elegant slashes. She had the scars to prove it. Wait, she thought.
"What did you call these things?" Nissa asked, toeing a dead creature's tentacle.
"These are brood lineage."
"Brood lineage," she said, licking her lips. "Lineage of what?"
Her words hung in the air.
"They have been slumbering all these years," the slave vampire said suddenly. "Abed in the stones of Akoum."
A bellowing growl echoed across the clearing. Sorin seemed not to notice the sound. He was looking down at the vampire, who was looking up at him with wide, unblinking eyes. Those eyes, Nissa thought. Those black, iridescent eyes.
"How do you know of the lineage?" Sorin barked.
Sorin's voice had a certain sharpness to it. The slave vampire winced with each word as he struggled up and carefully stood. There were numerous metal cylinders dangling from his belt. His hair braid, as thick as a man's forearm, reached almost to the ground. He wasn't nearly as tall as Sorin, but just as slim and lithe. He felt for each of the metal cylinders before continuing.
"I was present for their release," the vampire said. "In the Teeth of Akoum."
"Is that so," Sorin said. "At the Eye of Ugin?"
Another growl, louder that time, cut through the trees. Nissa bent down and put her arms under Hiba. "We must go," she said. "If that brace of baloth should catch us in the open like this . . ."
But Sorin seemed not to hear. His eyes were on the vampire. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Anowon," he said. "Formerly of Family Ghet. I was taken prisoner at the eye."
"Well," Sorin said. "Do you know where I am now, Anowon, formerly of Family Ghet?"
The vampire's eyes fell on Nissa as she hoisted Hiba. "Somewhere in the Turntimber," he said. When Sorin said nothing, Anowon continued. "On Ondu," Anowon said. Still Sorin said nothing. "Zendikar?" Anowon ventured.
"And I don't suppose you know the way to the Eye of Ugin?" Sorin asked.
"It's on Akoum," Anowon said. "As I said."
Sorin chuckled. "That's not what I asked. And if you want to bandy cute words, I will tear your heart out of your chest and have the elf eat it."
Nissa shifted uncomfortably from one leg to the other.
"I know the way to Akoum," Nissa said, glancing casually at the dead brood laid out in the clearing. "At least I can start you on the way." Anything to get you out of my forest.
"Excellent," Sorin said. "Finally, a bit of good news. You know this land. You will be our guide, yes. You will show us the way." He turned to Nissa. "That," he pointed at Hiba, "is dead. Put it down. You are guiding us through this morass to Akoum. I knew the way once, you see. But I cast a forgetting spell on the place so it might be lost for all time. A forgotten blight."
"Why would I help you?" Nissa said. "When I could go back to into the turntimber and leave you two to be shredded by those Baloth howling in the forest."
"Because, dear savage," Sorin said, "what you saw here is just the vanguard of the true army. The rest are bearing down on this and every other location on this backwards plane even as we speak. If you want to have any hope of saving your people, you will assist me in containing this sickness, and in putting these broodlings back into their prison, which will not be easy. But it seems to fall to me to accomplish."
Nissa looked down at Hiba. Dead. She felt the lump rising in her throat. She swallowed and spoke.
But Sorin continued. "Only I can cast the Eldrazi back into the crypt from whence they came. Only I can send them back into their forever sleep."
Nissa seemed to consider his words before speaking. "These are my terms: You both will help me bury my friend in the forest," she said. "And I will not travel with an unbound vam¬pire. He must be bound and gagged, or you will have to navigate the teetering stones without me."
Anowon's mouth went to a sneer. "Joraga moon slug," he said. "I would not deign to touch lips to the likes of you. Your people taste of dirt and moss. Mushroom eaters."
Nissa smiled, despite herself. She hadn't heard that insult in quite some time. It reminded her of home. Part of the reckoning ritual involved eating cut fungus. Invariably the young warrior died from it. Most lay dead for some minutes before blinking awake and sitting up gasping. If you survived, you survived. If you died, then you weren't meant to be a Joraga warrior, and your body was tossed into the Great Hollow Tree.
"Bound," Nissa said. "Or not at all."
As if in answer, another baloth howl drifted slowly through the tree, and Nissa started to walk.
Excerpted from Zendikar by Robert B. Wintermute. Copyright (C) 2010 Wizards of the Coast, Inc.