Thornwatch Interlude: The Dark
Night in the Eyrewood is a time of both serenity and danger. Children of the village are warned of it, the Lookouts are trained in their survival during it, and the Daughters of the Eyrewood wrap its permeating solitude around the Forest like a blanket. But through all the fabric of human consciousness, there exists a lingering fear of the uncertain, and no man or woman who lives within the Eyrewood is without a lingering trace of trepidation in the dark.
On this night, four of the Thornwatch, the Eyrewood’s nomadic sentinels, are called to the four corners of a shadowed glade. a deep place in the wood, surrounded by thick pines and shrouded in the in the cool hanging breath of the gliding night.
Each person brings a different perspective to all situations. Four men, four Thornwatch, four corners of the glade. But in the darkness within, as the Eyrewood curls in around them, they may find that not even the Thornwatch can truly escape the fear of The Dark.
KALE, THE GREENHEART
I felt the familiar tug like always, the call of the Wood. The call means something different to each of us, you see; to me, it means another chance to make the Wood better, to make it grow. With the call came excitement, because every call was an opportunity to learn something and see something I’ve never seen before. Even the most horrible parts of the Eyrewood were beautiful from the right perspective.
Except this one.
My sudden appearance outside the dense pocket of trees was unceremonious and more unusually, unlooked for and welcomed by no one. My only greeters as I swirled into existence in the dark of the Eyrewood were the trees, dense pines that seemed to cluster together tighter into an entryway into a blackened wood, beckoning me inward as they swayed. There were no Lookouts, no Daughters, no people or beasts of any kind present. Most importantly, there was no Crow’s Loop.
The Loop calls us, and I heard the call, so you can imagine my apprehension at answering it only to find that the Loop had made off somewhere during my transit! I searched the area for a time, perhaps out of a procrastinating need to avoid the inevitable conclusion of the Glade that beckoned, the dark hole in the trees that called out to me. Eventually, I could ignore it no longer, and with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation I made me way into its murky threshold.
Oddly enough, I soon found myself entering into a large, open clearing, with a cool breeze sweeping through my hair. A bright full moonlight clearly lit the area, and what I witnessed in the open field nearly floored me on the spot.
It was infinite. A gigantic stretch of…nothing. A flat, enormous, endless expanse the likes of which I had never seen in the wood, or in my life at all. An emptiness so dizzying that in spite of myself, I turned and attempted to retreat back into the comforting embrace of the Eyrewood. The embrace, however, was truncated; as I made my way back into the trees I found that they too ended abruptly, seemingly having been reduced to only a thin line of wood at the edge of yet another endless expanse.
It was too much for me to handle. I thought of the Eyrewood and its dense mystery, something new around every bend, an ever-growing menagerie of unbelievable creatures, sounds, and sights. A work of natural art. My home. Perfect.
Not like this. The more I looked, the less I saw. Soon, even the line of trees that led me here disappeared into the horizon and I was left only to the expanse and myself. No monsters to fight. No corruption to purge. No weeping Lookout, or questioning Daughter. Only the field.
I fell to my hands and knees and began to search the grass for something, anything to be my anchor in the expanse. I found nothing but dirt and grass, not even insects scuttling through the reeds or a worm squeezing through the cold earth. I scoured my pockets for seeds, clawing away at the raw earth in order to plant them, to create something besides the blank eternity. But as I planted them, they too became lost in the dirt. Even the stars above me blinked of existence one by one, until they had all been extinguished and the light of the moon had dwindled to nothingness, leaving only myself and the ever-growing darkness.
I crawled ever-forward, refusing to give up on the idea that I could find something within this unnatural infinity upon which to rest my consciousness. Something to learn. Something new. I clawed my way through the dirt an inch at a time for what seemed like an eternity, until the darkness finally overtook me, and I spiraled into my own mind, where I could still find something new, even at the cost of my own sanity. Eventually my mind settled on the sound of a crying child, and it echoed into the abyss with me as I fell into madness.
VECEN, THE BLADE
It always comes when I’m in the middle of something, like a reminder of what I should be doing with my time instead. A nagging mother, pulling me into the wood to attend to my chores. This time, I didn’t even get the pleasure of meeting the person who tied the Loop – even the Loop itself was gone, for moss’s sake! As irritating as it may be to be pulled out of an activity, it is infinitely magnified by having my time wasted when it occurs. Seeing neither the Loop nor the one who tied it, I made my way down a path into a dark, gnarled passage of trees, hoping to find either a fool to chastise or a body to throw on a pyre so I could return to my business.
What I found instead was a somewhat disappointingly mundane site; a makeshift graveyard, seemingly ancient. Mossy, small headstones poked out of the ground, piercing through the hanging mist in orderly rows. The text on the graves was too worn to read; undoubtedly, these stones had been here for centuries. The long lost and forgotten dead of times past. I shuddered.
I searched each of the headstones, hoping to find someone hiding behind one to drag out of the eerie silence of the mourning night. Instead, I found nothing but more graves. With a sigh and a shrug, I turned back to the entrance; whatever fool who made their way here had likely been slain by whatever had scared them so, and they now joined the legions who had been buried beneath, food for the swift spinning worms that pierced the cold floor of the Eyrewood in droves.
I tripped suddenly on the way out, nearly falling onto a headstone, when I noticed that the ground underneath the headstone had given way, revealing bones piercing a shallow grave into which I had nearly fallen. With a jerking kick I knocked away the hideous gnarled bones, amazed that even this relic of the dead man buried here had managed to survive decomposition this long; the worms weren’t particularly known to discriminate between flesh and bone. As I kicked, I tore my right legging on the harsh corner of the headstone, and saw with a lurch of the stomach what had become of my flesh underneath.
My own bones lay exposed beneath the fabric, with no meat or blood left on them to speak of. With a broken scream I scurried backward on my hands, unable to lift my leg any longer, hurriedly pulling back the remainer of the pantleg and tearing off my right boot to reveal only a skeletal leg and foot beneath, gleaming in the pale moonlight.
Panting, I tore off the rest of the leggings to find that both legs had become nothing but pristine bone. Paralysis crept up my body, slowly robbing me of the use of each of my muscles. Before I lost the use of my arms, I crawled to a pool of water near one of the graves in time to see the process reach its grim conclusion; my face began to degrade into a skull before me, and as my eyes decomposed into nothingness, the darkness of the Eyre overtook me and I heard only the crying of a child in the distance before I felt myself being swept into the blanket of the earth beneath, a gravestone sprouting above my frozen terror in the blackness.
MARL, THE GUARD
I am not given to wasting time when summoned by the Crow’s Loop. As I arrived at the caller’s location this time, I was perplexed to discover that the Loop was nowhere to be found, nor its creator. My only greeter was a strage path through the wood, leading into a maw of darkness. The Loop may have been disturbed by something that escaped down this passage, and so I moved within so that I might find the caller, or whatever remains of his corpse.
What lay at the end of the passage was wrong. The warmth of the village and the sound of its inhabitants carried through the night, and I arrived at the gate of my own history. Lookouts paraded through the torch-lit streets with tiny swords, slaying invisible monsters. My own clothing had changed before my eyes, into a uniform I had discarded long ago. The children looked at me with admiration.
I looked back with horror. I had abandoned this. I let it go for a reason. The village is blind to the song of the Eyre. The Lookouts and their shortsightedness are something I fled from, and my mind scrambled to understand what had dragged me back into the memory of the only oath I had ever broken. I will not be ignorant of the Eyre again. I will never go back.
The other Lookouts surrounded me and ushered me into a warm inn, sitting me at a table and asking me to tell them a story of my exploits in their order. I ignored them and searched frantically for the Loop. For the prickle of the thorns. I can never go home again.
Eventually, the twistedly familiar scene was too much. I stood from the table and ran from the inn, knocking patron and Lookout alike out of my way in my search for the town’s exit. I tried to removed the uniform that had appeared on me, hoping to somehow tear it away and reveal my own tattered trappings beneath. It refused to be moved, and with each tug at the cloth it only grew tighter, until I felt suffocated by the wool of the cloak and the warmth of its embrace. I fell to the ground in the trees, screaming, pounding away at my head to drown out the echoing mantra that pierced thought and flesh, interrupted only by the sounds of the crying child within. The mantra refused to be silenced. It burned in my brain, and hung on the air and my breath. It filled my throat, even as the cloak clasped it shut:
May we die in the forest.
LIANDER, THE SAGE
Someone undoubtedly in need of rescuing from their own mess. Well, that’s the way of things, isn’t it? The talentless bequeath the aid of the talented. As a member of the Thornwatch, it is my duty – nay, my privilege – to assist those too incompetent to avoid being killed in the Eyre themselves.
This time, the caller seemed to be too hopelessly lost to even bother to remain where he had tied the Loop, let alone to bear witness to my arrival. It was no matter – his destination obviously lay within the glade ahead, down this admittedly unappealing path into a darker section of the Wood. Honestly, sometimes I think the untrained that find their way into these predicaments would be slain by their own shadows if given the opportunity. I set off into the darkness, awaiting the chance to once again teach someone why the arrival of the Thornwatch is to be revered , not dreaded.
Shockingly, I came into what appeared to be a crowded marketplace! Lit by elaborate candles and filled with excited people browsing the wares, the market sang the merry song of commerce into the night, utterly ignorant of my sudden arrival or the presumed trouble that brought me here.
I made repeated inquiries at the shoppers and merchants, but they seemed utterly uninterested in what I had to say. Indeed, the more I tried to get their attention, the less they seemed to acknowledge my presence at all! Growing frustrated, I began to resort to more and more outlandish means of making them notice me, creating elaborate displays of fire and prowess in the middle of the crowd to no avail.
Had they gone blind and deaf? Was I turned invisible by some sort of sorcery of the Eyre? It was infuriating to be ignored when it was undoubtedly one of these cretins who had called me here in the first place! I was the protector of these dirtfed peasants, the least they could do was LOOK AT ME!
Before long I realized I was shouting these thoughts out loud, screaming in the square of the market for someone to notice me. The crowd grew denser still, closing in around me, swelling around the booths but only ever looking through me. I began to weep and fell to my knees, yelling childishly for my parents in the evergrowing din of the human swell. Soon the crowd around me grew so dense that my cries were drowned out entirely, and I fell into the darkness of the forest of legs, a pathetic forgotten thing, committed to the ground where I belonged. I wept there, on the floor, crawling amidst the legs, and I heard someone weep with me, to whom I seemed to crawl for an eternity. The darkness overtook me.
Four men entered The Dark that night, and four men met nothing but themselves within. Still, they were drawn onward by the last vestige of their outside knowledge; the sound of a crying child hidden within their nightmares. The Greenheart Kale pushed himself through the dark infinity to it. The Blade Vecen used a blind, skeletal jaw to claw himself along the ground to it. The Guard Marl guided his fall into the darkness toward the sound of the child’s weeping. The Sage Liander, in all his supernatural prowess, crawled through the endless sea of legs in search of the young wails that matched his own.
They did what only the Thornwatch could. They found the Crow’s Loop.
Prying through their own nightmares to reach it, through hells of their own making, they found the crying child; a Daughter of the Eyrewood, held to the earth by rotten, pulsating tendrils. Finding that their strength returned as they neared the child in the ever-deepening darkness, they combined their efforts to free her, never speaking of the horrors they had traversed to reach this simple black glade. They freed the child, and spotted the Crow’s Loop on the tree next to her as she darted off into her wooded home. Summoned by a Daughter in the forest, to free her from a nightmare that latched her to the earth itself.
From then on, the Thornwatch spoke in hushed tones of The Dark, of the patch of the wood where the lost are seized by unknown forces, where the horrors of a Watcher’s heart are made manifest on the land itself. No weapon will pierce it, and no armor will stop it. Only the strength of a Watcher of Thorns’ will can protect him from himself.
For within all of us, darker fears lie than those of beasts or words. Deeper fears that cut beyond the bone: Fear of stagnation. Fear of death. Fear of the past. Fear of being ignored and forgotten. The fears that grow in the hearts of children and never fully leave.
The fears of The Dark.