Just one word. “No”
No, you didn’t search hard enough.
No, you didn’t do all that you could.
No, he is not dead.
Fiel was standing squarely over the golden metallic floor, yet he was sinking. Every bone, every organ in him turned to lead as the examplar woman talked. He didn’t hear any of it. Her words: “something happened”, “we were attacked”, “pursued into Maguuma”, “was shot”….. they are lost in the fever that clouded the necromancer’s ears.
“I did all I could.”
Those words, however.
They pierced through the veil and hooked at Fiel’s mind, reeled his soul back from the abyss, thrashing like a furious leviathan. And “no” was his only reply.
He stomps away and towards Rikvi who seemed to just be standing there. Idling uselessly. She doesn’t meet his gaze and it’s probably for the best. No protest is made as he unceremoniously ripped the hat with the tattered feathers off her hands, and the guns too. Fiel is angry. He barely remembers to shout in the vague direction of Ambrosine to keep an eye on his bird while he’s away.
He goes to the place where the guild members would leave their raptors and finds Samantha there, basking in a patch of reflected sunlight. A creature of the desert, she is slowly getting accustomed to the damp and suffocating climate of the jungle. She trills a small protest when the saddle is thrown on her back and the reins over her head, but it dies quick against the crushing will that exudes off her master.
The necromancer doesn’t even take a minute to prepare. Time is of the essence. He tucks the wide brim of the hat under his belt and shoves the guns in his satchel. A click of his tongue and a spur if his heels, and they are gone. A sapphire blur cutting through gold.
They are rushing through luscious crimsons and indigo and pale white, dashing through vibrant green. Frogs and birds and tiny saurians singing all around them. The jungle dragon died, and Maguuma is slowly healing herself.
But Fiel has no eyes for that.
He meets with the Exalted. Briefly. He pleads for their help in this search. The golden guardians are empathetic, but could not, and would not, stray far from their temple. They assured that the message would be relayed to their agents out in the wilderness and that succor will be offered if the man is found as the norn leaves, already no longer listening.
The first day is a mad rush towards Verdant Brink, the place where Jesse was last seen.
Samantha huffs and groans under the oppressive moisture and claustrophobic heat, long tongue lolling. Fiel dismounts when she is tired, but still he presses on, a slow walk to preserve the raptor, but a walk and a progress nonetheless.
He pushes her through miles and miles of giant roots and gargantuan leaves, ignores the beasts of the jungle as they hiss and snarl and bash their tails against the ground menacingly when they cross their territory. He ignores the raving left-overs of the war against the jungle dragon, the drying husks of its soldiers, waving their crumbling weapons at him, gurgling and growling like animals, their blind fealty finding no voice now that their master was dead.
Fiel stops at night, because searching in the dark yields poor results, and because the raptor whines and drags her feet. He creates a squadron of minions from the many rotting carcasses littering the jungle floor and sends them scouting forth as they rest, while Fiel fiddles with the wide brimmed hat in his hands nervously. None return. They are not supposed to, unless they find the captain.
The norn eventually sleeps, but only briefly.
His dreams only bring forth images he’s eager to forget as he starts awake. White tundra. Broken sculptures of ice. One of them as a hat, the feathers long since shattered by the wind.
They set off again before the sun can manage to pierce through the thick canopy above. Fiel knows he’s being hunted now, and by something more fierce than the giant saurians stomping around them, more gruesome than the remnant abominations of Mordremoth.
The creature snarls and snaps its jaws in his back, graze his heels with its talons.
Fiel spurs Samantha harder.
On the second day the sight of tall rusting spires and moss-dappled wings of shattered crystal, trapped in dead thorny vines the size of the Great Hall of Hoelbrak and taller still, herald their arrival at the Verdant Brink, where in the span of barely a moment Mordremoth destroyed the proud Pact fleet with its far-reaching tendrils, gutting the earth and digging wide chasms in the process.
The place is a maze. The fires of conflict and destruction had long since died down, and vegetation was crawling back to cover the metal bones of the airships.
A hungry world, gnawing at its inhabitants like a great, green worm.
The norn’s gut in wrenching. The creature at his heels howls, ever closer.
They run up and down root bridges, jump from rocky ledge to old metal floor panel, walk along the edges of the deep canyon at the bottom of which giant dragon tendrils rested like sleeping snakes.
The wyrm was dead, and they were no longer twisting and pulsing with devoured energy. But they were still a nightmarish sight, harboring death among their coils.
If Jesse fell in there…
Fiel pushes those thoughts away. He is close. He has to look. He has to find him, before…
A grisly image is brought to his eyes, beckoned by the trails of carrion birds that swooped down to a certain part of a particularly wide canyon.
A body is there, below. Skewered on a giant thorn. It wears a long cloak and for a moment the norn’s heart drops and his head swims, but as his heels hit his raptor’s side and she jumps and jumps closer, he realizes it’s not him. It’s too small, human. Despite the scavengers not wasting their time cleaning the carcass, the necromancer can tell. It’s a bitter-sweet irony that he knows the captain’s body well enough to be able to tell even at this distance.
Fiel lets out a shaky sigh or relief. Not him. He must be close then.
He gets an idea.
This was probably the woman they were after, the one that shot Jesse. If Fiel could get closer, he could be able to make her talk. Summon her spirit. And maybe she could tell him what happened to the man.
But how to get to her?
She was impaled on the tip of a thorn as tall as the lighthouse of Lion’s Arch, and surrounded on all sides by a canyon a few miles deep. And Fiel, the impulsive, desperate fool that he was, did not even think to stop to grab a glider on the way out.
Too late to turn back.
The rest of the day his spent climbing up and down dead vines clinging to the cliffs. Maybe he could find a way down there, and climb along the thorn? It stood at an angle, it would not be impossible.
He does not stop to rest or eat. He doesn’t let his poor mount do it either. Not now. Not now that they are so close…
But he searches and searches again. The vines below prove to be just as labyrinthian as the roots above, if not more. When Fiel thinks he found the right path, he finds himself traveling up and away from the thorn.
They disturb nests of pocket raptors –Samantha gobbles a couples of them gleefully–, step over dying mordrem that feebly try to snag them as they passed. Fiel even used his spells to suck the life out of a lone tiger that eyed them with a little too much interest.
He was not going to let anything stand in his way now.
By as time went by and the sun continued his mad race across the dome of the sky –a run that seemed to go much faster than usual to Fiel– panic began to grow in him.
Each second spent feels like a drop of blood spilled from a grim clepsydra, each second passed is like one step closer to death.
He spurs and prods at the blue raptor, even as she huffs and trills hoarsely.
“One last jump,” he coos, himself feeling more than spent, glancing at the depth below, so deep and dark he could barely make out the shape of the tendrils laying there. Samantha was looking too, eyes wide, foam at the corner of her maw, and kept trying to back away. “One last jump, come on… we’re so close…”
The sun was diving now, blazing like a phoenix, rushing to meet his end somewhere over the horizon, painting the sky blood red.
He too, it seemed, was desperately pursuing some unattainable shadow till the bitter end.
Finally the raptor did begin running, forward, towards another slope of yet another vine… until she saw the drop again and faltered. Caught between running and skidding to a stop, she fumbles, careens left and right, and loses her footing.
Samantha wails, and topples over. The world tumbles upside down as the norn is launched from his saddle and lands roughly over a smooth mossy root, barely catching himself before he fell into the darkness below. His raptor is not far, struggling to stand back up. Crimson is running through the grooves of her scales, pouring from the spot where a vicious metal fragment pierced through her foot.
Fiel rushes over as she thrashes and brays in pain. He pins her down with his body and yanks the spine out. He uses it to tear his own palm open and applies it over the wound. An incantation, and some of his own life closes the wound his stubbornness inflicted on his mount. He pay in blood for his madness. He looks around, and finds himself in a mossy platform hovering close enough to the intended thorn. For a moment he rejoices. Now all he had to do was jump on it. He could probably do it himself, leave Samantha behind while she recovers, except…
Except for the large wyvern that suddenly swooped into view, scaring all the birds away. It came, attracted by the smell of dead flesh, presented in the air as if just for it, like a plump, juicy, rotting shrimp at the tip of a giant cocktail pick.
“No… no nono NO!!”
Fiel shouted, but the noise of the mighty wings carrying both wyvern and corpse away drowned the sound.
No more leads.
Lost. Cornered. Vulnerable. Stuck.
Unable to flee as they lay at the bottom of the shallow recess within the dead dragon’s dead arms.
This is where Fear finally catches up with him.
It has been dogging him since the guild hall. Since the moment Soha’s words sparked denial in him. It followed quietly, a heavy shadows on his steps urging him along.
Fiel fled forward, hoping to escape it. Hoping to kill it with the proof that his friend was still alive.
It was always one step behind, waiting for the moment he would lower his guard to take hold of him. His motivation, his hope, his denial: a high wall to keep the beast at bay.
With Samantha wounded but healing, thrown to the ground and unable to stand for the time being, with him knelt down close to the dragon’s festering entrails, with their only chance of finding the captain now gone…
Fiel could feel the fight in him dwindling. He burnt himself and his mount thoroughly, and the weak flicker that remained threatened to vanish at any moment. He looked up and the cuts in the canopy looked like the maws of a great beast, ready to close on him at any moment.
Him, and Jesse.
He was already in the monster’s gullet.
Jesse has been there for even longer.
He could no longer deny it.
And the wall crumbles.
Fear, ever the patient and dedicated hunter, finally pounces. It sinks its fangs into his heart, digs its talons into his back. Fiel struggles. Weakly. He gets up but the beast is heavy, he knees buckle and its weight over his shoulders casts him down once more, pins him against Samantha’s side. Its breath makes his eyes sting and his throat close.
The flicker in him is snuffed.
There is another name that the beast has when he finally catches its prey. While it hunts, it is Fear. The thing you keep away by any means necessary –Hope. Lies. Willful ignorance. Distractions…– It is a Fury called also Denial.
But when it has you, when you can no longer flee and you are at its mercy, it bears the name Acceptance.
He is dead, Acceptance then whispers into Fiel’s ears. He is not coming back.
The norn’s heart shatters and it purrs on and on. It’s too late, it hums, like a lullaby, embracing the norn like a lover, crushing him down body and soul, and Fiel can only weep against his raptor’s scales. It licks at his heart and each lick sings to him the tale of a young norn, a band of merry fools, and a great white monster(*). It’s too late. He is down below, scattered and broken, below where the worms and the giant beetles already made a feast of him. It’s too late, and you failed him. It’s too late, and there is nothing you can do.
Something in Fiel stirs. Something struggles.
From deep within him, something fights back. That last flicker of hope that seemed dashed under Fear’s crushing weight is once again burning in him.
No. This isn’t like last time. There is something I can do.
He wipes his tears and pushes himself up on his wobbly legs, and Fear-Acceptance falls off him like a discarded coat. Samantha was calm now, but not budging now that she has the chance to lie down. Not that Fiel is going to disturb her. He had already asked enough of her.
He gathers himself and utters a silent prayers. He asks for strength, from Raven, but also Bears, Snow Leopard, and Wolf. The wind is howling in the canyon, greeting the Moon as she rose to chase after the sun in their everlasting game of cat and mouse.
Darkness begins to creep over the jungle, and over Fiel’s skin. Samantha raises nervous eyes as her master takes the shape of a giant carrion bird, a humanoid raven, and lifts her up on his hunched shoulders.
The road back home is going to be a long one.
Good. Fiel will need to think.