They are watching us. From the moment we crossed over into this fecund place in search of it, I knew eyes on me, felt its attention shift, infinitesimal speck by speck, a vast consciousness like the hive mind of a colony of wardroth grubs turning its antlered head our way. Even now, it tracks us through the tumbling vales, and what it sees, it wishes to destroy. It dreams of ending us, of trampling us, of impaling us on those magnificent horns, of returning us to the soil and the wind. The mortal coil!
Is this what it feels like, to be studied, to be read? Is this what my subjects experience, when I look for the secrets in their skin? We came for a book, but already I have gained something far greater: wisdom with which to fill a tome of my own! Of course, such a text will warrant the finest materials. A bolt of buckskin shall do nicely. Or, failing that, a ream of aelfhide. I shall weave a placeholder from their hair!
Her song holds no sway in these old trees. They stir with a different sound. Stop running, child, and you may just hear it: the wind in the boughs, like the billowing of vast wings; its keening shriek, like that of a beast in pain. You may yet hear it, if you just stop running. You may yet sing with them. Yes, little princeling. Catch your breath and raise your voice and sing with the children of the night, even as they catch you. A choir of screams, in harmony!
"Awake, O dead! Crawl from your mountain tombs. Once more, the dispossessed have cause to march upon the forests of the aelves: my cause! No root nor branch nor witch-forged blade will spill your blood this time..."
I hear it then: a tapping, the patter of fleshless fingertips between the stalactites. Overhead, blackness, impenetrable except for that sound and something else, almost inaudible, a keening pitch. Scree scatters before my boots, the darkness a precipice over which I dangle, every step my last. One more.
Up ahead, a glimmer of light. One more.
The entrance is in sight. One more.
They are waiting for me, outside, unpacking the camp by torchlight and the glare of the zephyr spites. One more —
Silence has descended over me like a fresh darkness. What of the tapping? Nothing, just that whine, needling into my ears, growing higher, cutting sharper. The dead wolf’s bite didn’t wound so deep. My groan echoes around me. The blackness swallows it utterly, then spits it back in a scrabble of scratches and the flutter of wing beats. I imagine a mainsail filling over and over with competing winds, impossibly vast in the shadows. Run run run —
My every footfall kicks pebbles and stones, glottal pops marking my flight. One more step.
A smell washes over me, a rotting tide. One more step.
The entrance looms before me, my exit now, and I make out the silhouettes of my comrades, moving about camp. Is that their laughter I hear, or have I gone mad? One more step —
See how quickly they die, how easily they rise again? Necromancy, a written art, its secrets consecrated in blood, His Word made flesh. For the longest time, that was all I saw; runes and languages that sought to confound me even as I learned them. Never did I stop to study that on which they were written.
Their medium: human skin, gut for binding, and flesh of a different kind, sprouted from the sodden earth, grown into great forests before being hewn and pulped. That flesh is silent now, but in fair Ghyran, it still sings, the very wind whispering with untold secrets, a shiver down my spine. So I walk that land, and beneath those trees I read again, my fingers teasing stories from the throats of sylphs and the aelves that dance with them, my tongue the sorrow that defines their tales.
What more could the undying ask for than that: Nature, a book that never ends! Such a shame that they won’t stop screaming. How is one supposed to read, surrounded by such a racket?