The Enclave – an excerpt from LinkTales, Volume Two

Forests all have names. Not the names men give them. If you listen, you can hear the forest speak its name to you. You might not understand it, but you only have to remember that no other conglomeration of flora and fauna is exactly like it, and no breeze that travels through it remains unchanged, thus making even the air you breathe unique. So it stands to reason that the sound of a specific forest is unlike any other, and in that sound you will hear its name spoken with authority and patience. That and a bit of exasperation at the awareness that humans, who use forests in ways no other creature would dare, will never get their name right, even if they can hear with the ears of the forest.

Comes to that, trees have names, too. The problem with tree names is, it’s easier to understand the ridiculous names man gives to various trees than to understand the names trees give each other, because they’re a series of breezy sighs and creaks.

Brother Simon fancied he could hear the names of the forest and the trees, particularly since he was brought to the enclave to be saved from the Darkness. He didn’t remember too much about how he came to be Darkened to begin with, but the Brethren had purified him, a process that left him with heightened senses for detecting Darklings and finding his way around in relative darkness.

However, he didn’t fancy that the others in the enclave would want to know a lot of names that make you sound like you’re having breathing problems when you speak them. So instead, he called out to the trees when he hunted for food and fire wood. The rest of the enclave were faster at gathering wood because they weren’t so fussy about how they came by it. But Simon know the names of the trees. They were his friends. They gave him what he needed, and he never took what they couldn’t easily supply from fallen trees.

They also whispered things to him from time to time. He tried not to let the brothers know of these things, for fear they would think him tainted once more. But the trees knew he could hear them, and tended to get very chatty with him when he was alone amongst them.

Today, they were a jumble of messages, most of which were hard to discern. The only thing he could sift from the cacophony was ‘Strangers’. He tried following the voices, seeing if he could identify the strangers, but the trees didn’t sound too sure of where they were situated themselves. It was like the trees were trying to describe several strangers in different places. He wondered if the loggers had returned. There was a village several miles to the south, called Lemire, where much of the forests had already been denuded, and they had on occasion slipped in during the late hours to strip back a few trees here and there with which to build farm homes for their rapidly expanding population.

Simon started thinking he should run back to the enclave and call for the Brethren. It was as he turned that he saw the first of them creeping up behind him. How it had moved so silently was beyond him. A Darkling. There were almost certainly more of them. He had to sound the alarm. But first, he had to silence this one.

Lunging forward, he grasped the creature by the mouth with one huge hand while he drew his hunting knife and slashed at its throat. It fought back like a wild thing, but Simon had almost two feet and a hundred pounds on it. He held it against a tree, waiting for it to bleed out, its blackened ichorous blood running like clotted ink down its chest. He had occasion then to notice that it had once been female, which saddened him. Perhaps if he had reached the Brethren in time, they could have saved this one. She didn’t look too far gone, though clearly she had been a bit addled to think she could overpower him.

Listening carefully now, he tried to gauge if there were others nearby. It seemed unlikely that they would have allowed a female to run too far from the pack, in case it was captured and turned. Perhaps she had ceased to be lifelike enough to be seductive to their prey, and they had decided to let her earn her keep as a hunter, knowing she might meet with such an end. Darklings were not particularly loyal to their own, but women were a special case. Too dangerous to leave unattended, but of no use to them once they had been turned too far. Many female Darklings were known to disappear quietly when they had lived passed their usefulness, to be found months later in caves filled with the bones of other such lost souls. A few were known to attack random villagers and townsfolk, but they were often captured and destroyed as witches.

The brethren knew better, but to save all but the most transformed of Darklings required a ring of thirteen men. It was said that one female Risen could convert a male Darkling on her own, and three could convert a female Darkling, but men simply weren’t as powerful. The link to the Darkness was stronger in women, perhaps because it was said that it was a woman who first formed the connection to the Darkness, centuries before.

Deciding to err on the side of caution, he quickly covered her over with leaves and bracken, and then, as swiftly and as silently as he could with his great size, ran back to the nearest outpost. At first, he thought himself successful, but it seemed that he misunderstood what the trees were trying to tell him, as he started seeing Darklings following his progress from every conceivable direction.

Finally, he came to a blockade of the creatures, short and tall, broad and lean, human and monstrous, all holding hands and daring him to pass. With barely two hundred yards to the nearest outpost, he decided to accept their challenge. Hurtling himself forward with all the power he could muster, he let out a mighty battle cry, wielding his hatchet in one hand and his knife in the other, and headed for the most human looking of them.

He hadn’t faced down too many Darklings on his own, but he’d seen enough in action to know that the more monstrously deformed ones were bereft of the instinct for self-preservation, and thus less fearful of being killed. The recently darkened, on the other hand, were still capable of feeling fear, and he was counting on that fear to win him precious seconds in the race to reach the guard tower he could just make out through the curtain of trees between.

He brought the hatchet, a two handed affair in any other man’s hands, down hard on the neophyte’s left arm and sent him reeling from the blow. One of the slightly more transformed creatures threw herself down to grasp at his legs while a truly monstrous thing that looked like the meat of a man’s split skull with the legs of a giant preying mantis leapt wildly at his head. He smashed his left hand soundly into the monster’s underbelly and felt his hand and knife sink into its flesh.

His legs were still pumping, so the creature that might have been a sister to the one he had slain earlier caught one of his boots hard in her chest, which caused her to yelp and relax her grip. He broke the barricade and charged forward, refusing to look over his shoulder to see what was coming next. He was closing the distance to the outpost tower, yelling at the top of his lungs for them to sound the alarm, but no bells came. He was mere yards from the tower’s entrance when he saw why.

There in the clearing before the door, were kneeling three of the brethren, writhing and weeping in agony as a Dark One walked from one to the next, passing his hands over each of their faces, a grasping their mouths open with his palm, in the center of which was a sickening maw that was ejecting a milky poison into each of their mouths in turn.

Simon raised up his axe to charge, but his followers took that moment to dive forward and rest his weapons from his grasp. He turned on them and began swinging with horrible efficiency, but he couldn’t kill them fast enough with these makeshift weapons. He remembered a time before he came to the enclave, when he had been a soldier and carried a rifle with bayonet and a sabre, and wished he had not had to give them up so many years ago. Breaking free of the pressing body of inhuman slaves, he bolted directly for the Dark One, who watched him with curiosity and, it seemed, great amusement. Simon supposed that he could wipe the smile from the revolting monster quick enough, and buried his hatchet deep into the creature’s exposed skull.

The creature never wavered, still smiling that sickening, broken smile, and reached forward with lightning speed to seize Simon by the throat with his seemingly endless fingers. He brought his knife up to cut at the creature’s hand, but the Dark One’s grasp was like being caught in the branches of a tree. Hatchet still embedded in its split face, the monster reached up to his face with its free hand and made to wrap the palm around his mouth. It actually made a hissing sound like laughter from its broken mouth, which appeared to be rearranging itself around the haft of his hatchet.

In desperation, Simon did the only thing he could think of: he wrapped his arms around the monster and hefted him into the air, spinning and charging for the door to the tower. Darklings moved to block his way, but he actually used the bulk of his assailant, still grasping for his face, to smash them aside. Taking to the stairs within, he kept wrestling with the Dark One, refusing to let it fasten its hand on his mouth.

He was nearing the top of the tower when the creature decided on an alternate course of action, and punched its hardened fingers deep into the flesh of his unprotected shoulder, straight through his leather jacket and wool tunic. It began pumping its poison directly into his open wound, and he howled in pain, but still he charged forward.

Simon reached the window and fought to dislodge the creature with the momentum of his slamming into the barrier posts, but even as the creature went over the edge of the open space, it clung to him with the strength of Gilgamesh, Hearing creatures coming up the stairs, Simon knew he was running out of time. He seized the handle of his hatchet and yanked it free of the creature’s head, leaving a huge gap. He swung right handed and caught the creature in the shoulder, severing its trunk-like arm and releasing him from its poisonous claws. He swung once more and cut himself free, the Dark One falling to the ground thirty feet below.

Simon didn’t look to see if it got back up. He could almost feel it now. The poison was in his veins, and though it wasn’t enough yet, he could feel the change coming. Turning, he seized the rope to the alarm bells and began pulling them fiercely. If he died this day, he would at least sound the alarm and warn the Brethren. He was almost afraid that the bells wouldn’t ring out, that somehow, they had succeeded in silencing the tower entirely before taking the guards, but to his great relief, the bells began peeling through the trees, and soon echoes of bells from the other towers sounded out as well. They would come in force. Perhaps there would be enough Brethren to beat back the assault. He prayed it would be enough.

Then he heard a hissing sound behind him and turned to see the Dark One, still armless, still nearly faceless, still smiling that sickening smile. It was surrounded by a gathering mass of Darklings who made no move to attack, seeming more concerned with protecting their leader. The Dark One did not look worried.

Simon raised his hatchet once more and charged.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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