971 DE

Web of Thorns

by Ryan Schapals

Scribe’s note: There is no formal address, nor any name attached to the document that indicates whom the message was intended to reach before it was intercepted, but the validity of this letter has been verified by the court’s best scholars. Only the Zikia carve runes in the same fashion as those inscribed upon the First Tree. Devising such a forgery would require knowledge available only to privileged members of the Zikia ecclesiarchy. For this reason, we advise that this note be taken as truth, though we do not accept responsibility for any misfortune that may result. Be advised, brevity and objectivity are not this author’s strength. Not a word has been omitted or changed, except for those for which no equivalent exists. For further study, submit all requests for source material to Tomacholus, Head Scribe of the 9th Tower.

Report: 34. Date: Dvi Kubja of The Warrior’s Moon, 971 DE

In the heart of the Wildwood, not far from the Mahatavi, where the trees cluster so thickly that only a child can fit between them, there is a door that is not a door. The limbs of two towering ironoaks clasp one another, and from their boughs hangs a tapestry of glittering leaves more beautiful than any Durani emeralds.

Ziksana says no axe can pierce this foliage, for it is blessed by the Ancient Ones. Only an offering of one’s true intentions will gain a visitor entry. All I know is none have entered without Ziksana, and believe me, I have tried.

Two nights ago, which beneath this dense canopy are hardly discernible from day, the leaves rebuked me. I returned with Karu and Lohai, who once ripped a tree from the earth with their bare hands, roots and all. They wielded their axes until they could no longer lift them, but they could not pierce the door. I hope to uncover the secret to the door as I observe Ziksana, but I suspect she may be using subtle magic to manipulate it—and maybe us too.

I realized while composing this letter that my involving Karu and Lohai may be a point of concern, but the brothers’ silence is assured. Yet, to be sure, I’ve sent them to them to the south as couriers. They’re passing through the Glades of Kaccha, and as you know the glades are a popular spot for brigands and unsavory types hoping to ambush unsuspecting travelers or those lost in the treacherous marshes—but I digress. The event I wish to report occurred earlier this day, and I wish to commit it to parchment while it is still fresh in my memory.

Though the canopy overhead blocked most of the light, the leaves before us somehow offered illumination. Wordlessly, Ziksana, First of the Circle, stood before the entrance at the head of a long procession of Zikia elders. Have they considered that if she is First, then we are all last? I doubt it. The elders traveled across all Eretsu to seek her counsel and join the Circle. I suspected many came simply to visit this holy site, for it is a marvel eclipsed only by the Mahatavi.

The crowd of elders hushed as the leaves rustled. Ziksana turned to address the crowd, as always before she enters. Ziksana said, “This door does not open, it cannot close. It is we who must open to its mysteries.”

The elders replied in a chorus of affirmation.

“Raise your hands to the sky, root your toes in the dirt, so that we may become worthy to enter the Preveza. According to the will of the Ancient Ones, guide us in these uncertain times. Hear us, know us as we wish to know you, Eretsu, our mother, our shelter. You give much and ask so little, please allow us once more to rest within your bosom.”

Here, you see, wisdom collects like dew in the morning upon every leaf. This is a sacred place, though lately my thoughts have verged on the profane. The language of leaves carries the voices of our ancestors who have come to rest. I prayed for Ziksana in that moment, that she would hear their call; for she is full of instruction, but she rarely pauses long enough to listen. It was not so much visiting a place, but like visiting your wisest uncle.

I lifted my head as the elders finished their prayers, and all eyes were drawn to the entrance. It remained unchanged to our mortal eyes, but Ziksana glided through the foliage as if there was nothing in her path, and disappeared. The elders followed, disappearing one by one.

Every time I approach the Preveza, my stomach turns, and this time was no different. I closed my eyes and pursed my lips as if lost in prayer as I stepped forward, throwing on the disguise of my cloak. What if the door denied my entry? The mission would be compromised. I might even fall under scrutiny.You must understand, this doubt, this danger is part of why I have not lead you here yet.

First the leaves resisted as one would expect, but I pushed forward. The leaves pressed against me, kissing my hands, feet, and cheeks, their edges stinging as they threatened to slice deep. Another step, and it was as if a hundred hands were ushering me along. It’s hard to turn this sensation into words, for even our ancient language lacks the proper tools to harvest this experience in full. I fear I have left a field of riches behind as I attempt to explain, but I promise I will bring you here soon. I just need more time.

If Ziksana was to be believed, I had passed once again into this sanctum with the blessings of the Ancient Ones, and so my purpose grows more resolute. I shall uncover the secrets of this place and share them. The Wildwood cannot be owned. It belongs to all who make the pilgrimage, all who have honored their vows.

When I opened my eyes, the blinding light in the Preveza struck me. I held up a hand to shield my eyes, but too late—my sight was stained by the sun. Through the violet in my vision, I made out the now familiar sight of the clearing. At the edge of the clearing, the trees fused together at their trunks forming a palisade. Undoubtedly, this place must guard the mystery in the center of the Preveza.

An ancient, massive hand jutted from the earth, bent at the wrist with the palm facing up. The tips of the fingers had worn down to smooth ends, and the stony flesh was speckled by wind and weather. Vines sprouted from cracks in the hand, climbing up the wrist and crossing in a thorny lattice across the palm. Were they prisoner’s bonds or fresh sinew for a decrepit limb?

The hand looked as if it once had held something even greater than itself. This hand must be what Ziksana hopes to keep secret, but it is more than stone. It must be, or else why would it be hidden in this clearing? I wonder if this artifact is what gives this place its power, or if it is the magic of the ancestors who sealed it off. Whatever it is, it is our responsibility to use it, not to hide it away.

“Do not fight it, Hatti,” Ziksana said. She rested on the padding of the thumb, her legs crossed beneath her robes. Every time she shifted I wished her skin would catch on the thorny outgrowth or be stung, but by magic or fortune she managed to rest easily among the foliage.  “The eyes are portals to our hearts and the light cleanses the evil from our spirits.”

“As you say.” I lowered my hand, letting the light flow in, but this time prepared to face it.

“There can be no redemption without pain.”

Her gaze gave me pause. Was it a knowing look? No, just arrogance. She would never consent to unearthing the hand. She would never suspect that any would turn to outside aid in order to uncover it. But this place held too much power to simply be another stump for her to sit on.

I took a deep breath and smoothed my features, taking my place on the edge of the clearing. The Preveza buzzed with conversation as the elders made their rounds. Nava, Warden of the Dhatu, one of the last elders to enter, knelt and kissed the ground as he joyously praised the Ancient Ones.

Ziksana cut the chatter short as she rose from the hand and began the proceedings. A necklace of blossoms hung from her neck, attracting a cloud of cinderwings, hovering half-crescents of light. They fluttered about her, veiling her face. “The Circle is not unlike the wood itself.” With a finger she drew in the air and the cinderwings took the shape of the Circle. “It has no true beginning and no true end. Any may join or depart as they desire, and the Circle remains unbroken.” A pair of cinderwings flew off and two more replaced them. “The same could be said of the Zikia, if they could only see it.”

One after another, the elders offered their names and those of the tribes they represented. Every corner of the Wildwood appeared to have an envoy.

After the formalities, Nava stepped forward. His mossy beard was tucked into a belt of woven roots. Even for the Zikia, his adherence to traditional garb veered towards the ridiculous, but wardens tended to like the attention it brought. “I bear news for the Circle from outside,” Nava said. “But first, I bring the voice of the Dhatu.”

Ziksana nodded her head. “Please share.”

Nava entered into the center of the Preveza. As he spoke, he compulsively dry-washed his hands. “I’m pleased to say that after much discussion, the Dhatu will join the Samula in leading the Zikia to unification.”

This drew as many cheers as it did detractions. The Circle grew boisterous with arguments and approvals, but Ziksana raised her voice above the rest. The cinderwings that had been fluttering in place now dispersed from the clearing as if caught in a sudden squall. “This is a blessing,” she said. The Circle remained animated as she spoke.

Nava cleared his throat. “Our tribe has but one request.”

“And the Circle shall hear it.” Her gaze focused on each member of the court, silencing them one by one.

“The Preveza should be open to all  Zikia who have stayed true to the way.”

“As it is.”

The dignitary’s face reddened, his hands still rubbing together as if caked in mud. “Surely, there is more to it than you’ve revealed.”

“There is nothing I can tell you that I haven’t already.” Ziksana’s expression was that of an ironoak—that is to say, hard enough to break an axe. “If my presence is a boon to you, then perhaps I can aid you and the Dhatu in opening yourselves to the Preveza.”

The elder clasped his hands together as if it were all he could do to keep himself from rubbing off the skin. “Yes, I’m sure a little more guidance is all that is needed.”

“The rest?”

“What?”

“Your news.”

“Ah, yes. Yes, well,” he paused. “There is one more item of news worth discussing.”

“Be free with it. You stand in the safest haven in Eretsu.”

“Second only to the Mahatavi, of course,” he said, then continued. “It’s reported your son has sworn allegiance to the Durani.”

She tilted her head. “That is none of our concern,” she replied. “When a leaf falls from a tree, you do not mourn. It, like all things, will return to the soil and return to the tree.”

“They say he suffered a great defeat at the hands of the Gudanna.”

“For Vanya, a single defeat often marks the beginning of a greater victory. He never did take losing well.” For a brief moment there was the tiniest hint of a smile on her lips, but it quickly disappeared. “If the divine Rantu sees fit, Vanya must atone for straying from the path, but I can’t condemn him. I don’t place myself among the Ancient Ones.”

“He’s not alone in that regard,” Ajin said. Her glare was like the midday sun, inescapable. Nava jerked visibly in response, looking as if he might wrench his hand free from his wrist. The proud young warrior stepped into the center of the clearing. An axe hung on one hip and a hammer on the other.

“Weapons are forbidden within these boundaries,” Ziksana said. “If you are always ready for war, you may never find peace.”

“Tools are not forbidden.”

This caused the members of the Circle to stir once more, their voices agreeing with Ajin. Further emboldened, she brushed past Nava to confront Ziksana. The entire Circle pressed in further, and as they did, Nava slunk away.

Ajin continued: “The Samula have long flaunted their immunity to our laws.”

“You speak for all Zikia?”

“This Circle is no different than a Durani court. Sycophants and cowards allow you to bend tradition as if it were a twig, but it will snap if this continues.” She tightened a hand into a fist. “When a branch is blighted, it’s best to cut if off, lest it ruin the entire tree.”

Unable to stifle my unrest any longer, I lent my voice to Ajin’s argument. “Do we not all have divine directives from the Ancient Ones to protect our Wealds? What must the Ancient Ones think of the Samula growing like mold in the Wildwood, attempting to swallow other Wealds whole?” The Circle now clamored for Ziksana’s attention, each elder calling for his own doubts to be answered. The uproar nearly drowned out my words, but Ziksana’s face revealed that she heard me.

“You’re right,” Ziksana declared. The elders hushed once again, perhaps in awe of the First admitting a failing. “Perhaps I am not unlike my son; certainly I am no different than my mother and her mother before her. If the Samula have skirted tradition, it is only in order to preserve it.”

“You create your own instead,” Ajin said. “As if you consider yourselves as mighty as the Ancient Ones.”

“All Zikia must plant their roots one day. Yes, the Samula have done so early, but the Durani continue to press more deeply into our homeland. If we don’t preserve it, if we do not unite, then there will be no pilgrimages left to make. There will be no tradition to uphold.”

“Then why are not all tribes represented here?”

Ziksana opened her mouth to reply, but she was interrupted by a gale-wind that shook all, even the trees that surrounded us. The back of my neck tingled as the gust rushed around me. The wind carried the woods with it, bringing leaves, branches, acorns, grass, and twigs into a blustering cloud. The shifting foliage formed into a roughly human shape, a forest spirit. The spirit dropped a young boy, battered and bloodied, in front of Ziksana.

The boy wobbled as he pushed himself up from his hands and feet. He blinked, rubbing his eyes, then took a step back, unsure of his new surroundings. He raised his hands defensively. “Where am I?” The Circle pressed in around him, looking on the forest spirit and the boy with equal amazement.

“You’re safe at the moment,” Ziksana looked to the shifting form of the forest spirit and something seemed to pass between them, though nothing was said. “I want to hear, in your own words, what happened to you?”

The boy held his head high, unintimidated by the crowd of wizened faces peering down at him. “My family was on a pilgrimage to the Forest of Forests. We had stopped in Arati to lodge for the night. The screams woke me up, but by that time it was too late. The town was already under attack.” Ajin pushed the crowd back and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. She said nothing but kept her defiant gaze on Ziksana.

Ziksana should have pressed him for more about his supposed family—no one would have mistaken him for Zikian with his dark coarse hair and olive skin. At first I thought his heritage Gudanna, but then I noticed he had the broad nose and lips of the Durani. Nobility mixed with the crudness of a warrior’s breed. Likely a bastard, the common offspring of war.

Ziksana continued to inquire on the attack. “Durani?” she asked.

The boy nodded his head solemnly. There was more though: I could see the tension in his face as if he was reliving what had happened. I’m sure he thought of vengeance, but there was wisdom in his eyes too, as if he knew that paying blood for blood would bring him no peace.

“You’re blessed to be alive.”

The boy didn’t appear swayed. “I tried to fight them with one of their own golems, but I couldn’t stop them.”

“To command a golem that you haven’t trained with is an extraordinary feat. Undoubtedly we are in the presence of a gifted young boy,” Ziksana said. “Though it remains to be seen whether his talent lies in telling tales or if he is as he claims.”

Ajin glared up at Ziksana while she rubbed the boy’s back. “Every defeat will follow you,” she said, more to the boy than anyone else, “but every failure only spurs us closer toward greater victories.”

“By that measure, I’m destined for greatness…” the boy said humorlessly.

“I’m sure of it,” Ajin said.

“…If my failures don’t end me first.”

Returning her gaze to the forest spirit, Ziksana raised a brow quizzically. “You attracted the attention of a forest spirit without offering anything in exchange for its favor. I’m inclined to disbelief, but no spirit would lie about such an embarrassing detail.” A trembling wave climbed through the forest spirit’s cloudy body, not quite a flinch, but not so unlike a human response to a stinging slight. She smiled at the boy, a rare gift. “Destined for greatness indeed.”

The boy turned angrily toward the spirit. “Take me back.” He reached his hand to grab at the spirit’s arm, but his hand passed through its body and poked out the other side. He retracted it and turned to Ziksana. “There’s still time to help them.”

“They have found peace.”

“They’re dead.” The boy stood silent. From the redness of his eyes, it was clear he had no tears to spare. He stared up at the trees as if they were prison walls, and the sun the warden. “And you’re as responsible for their deaths as the Durani. Where were the Zikia?”

Ziksana and the spirit shared another significant look. The wind picked up, tickling the back of my neck, and I swear I almost heard the whisperings of the spirit underneath the rustling of the trees. I’m certain something passed between them, magic of a sort, I must assume. She looked back to the boy. “Arati is not ours to protect, and even if it was, you know as well as I that it is far too late.”

“Misfortune follows my footsteps,” he said. “Arati is not the first, nor the last.”

She nodded. “You speak with confidence. If only that was enough. This decision is in the hands of the Circle now.”

The elders had all but forgotten the forest spirit as they discussed whether Arati was their responsibility or not, but I kept watching it. While they deliberated, the boy retreated from the Circle, Ajin staying at his side. His head bobbed with obvious strain, as though he wanted to observe the Circle’s proceedings, but struggled to fight off sleep. As the conversation grew heated, and as if spurred, or perhaps out of confusion, the spirit vanished. Its windy body shook, then all the flotsam from the forest fell to the ground in a pile. This only stirred new discussion and lulled the boy closer to the clutches of sleep as each elder interpreted and reinterpreted the spirit’s visit.

The boy’s head lolled forward, his chin resting on his chest, exhaustion finally reaching him. While Ziksana tried to bring the Circle back under her direction, the boy rested his head against Ajin, his eyes closing. “We can decide on what to with him later,” Ajin suggested.

“Rest,” Ziksana said to the boy, ignoring Ajin. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t meant to be, but how long you will remain with us has yet to be decided.”

Ajin picked up the boy, now sound asleep, and passed him to a pair of white-haired dignitaries, who took him back through the door that is not a door.

While the members of the Circle continued conversing about the spirit, the argument between Ziksana and Ajin resumed, as if their embers had no time to cool. Ajin’s anger quickly ignited the tinder of the Circle, and their voices soon joined with hers.

“You’ve strayed so far from the path that you no longer know where you’re headed, Ziksana. You are lost. You have misled the Samula, broken from the Zikia. You’re no different from the gardeners in the cities of stone and blood who defile our name.”

“You have sharpened your tongue since you were just another girl fawning over Vanya.” Ziksana said, drawing herself up. “You wish only to tear down what we’ve worked hard to build.”

“Then why did you give the Spider safe passage through our lands?” Ajin’s accusation whipped through the clearing like the forest spirit only minutes before.

The elders all at once pressed toward the middle of the clearing, demanding Ziksana explain. She moved behind the ancient hand, gripping it as if it could shield her from the outrage sprouting all around. “The Circle doesn’t entertain gossip.”

“I discovered them on patrol, west of here.” She reached down, her fingers brushing the handle of her axe, but her hands found the pouch on her belt instead. She pulled free a string of blossoms that matched the ones around Ziksana’s neck. “They said they had your blessings.”

“That is not entirely true,” Ziksana said. “I offered safe passage through the Wildwood once in exchange for important information about the death of the Khan and the Durani troops in the north. We are all petals on the same blossom.”

“Spiders draw Durani like pollen draws bees,” Ajin said. She hoisted her hammer into the air, and addressed the elders forming around her, their backs now to Ziksana. “Be they Durani, or anything else, we shall show any invaders that the Zikia still have thorns.”

“You speak boldly, but what army will you command, Ajin of Clan Zura? Perhaps you have greater need of the Circle than the Circle has need of you.”

“You’re twighearted.”

“It’s not my will, but the Circle’s.”

“As long as you sit on a throne like an uprooter, you’ll never have authority,” Ajin sneered. “The Zura will defend the Wildwood against all that would defile her, Durani or Zikia.”  Then, perhaps, Ziksana twinged as I had imagined, or maybe she finally saw herself as she appeared in Ajin’s eyes and realized she had been mistaken.

It was a brief moment, and soon enough Ziksana opened her mouth to interject; but the elders’ voices drowned her out as they marched toward the door that is not a door. Their voices called for the protection of the Wildwood. The Circle had been stoked up into a fever. They rushed through the door that is not a door without offering a single prayer or bowed head. Those who remained whispered uneasy reassurances to each other. Ziksana crumpled upon the hand, her head lowered in defeat. The tremendous sculpture could have been mere rubble in this light. Ziksana’s power vanished as easily the forest spirit, as if it too had never existed—yet it had, and that made the sudden emptiness all the worse.

There are secrets in the Preveza and weaknesses in the Circle that I know too well, but I lack the power to exploit them. Lend me your support and I promise you shall gain entry into the Preveza. The Mahatavi is out of the question. Together we may uncover the mysteries of this sacred enclave, and we can restore our peoples to their rightful place.

Illustration: Joel DuQue