First Rider's Call

Page 91

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He saw more statues on alternating sides of the road. Some appeared whole, if marred by neglect, while others were missing arms or heads, or had tumbled from their pedestals altogether and lay shattered beneath the carpet of moss. A few held the fragments of curious amber orbs in their upraised hands.

He didn’t pause long to examine the statues or anything else along the road, for the barely suppressed menace of the forest eyed him warily. As long as he was given the grace to retreat toward the wall, best he make good use of the time while he had it.

The road meandered now and again, but it generally traveled in the direction from which he remembered hearing the voices. Maybe the wall was only a mile or two away, maybe a hundred. It was impossible to tell with the interlocking branches of the forest overhead, and the opaque mist that shrouded all. So it was to his surprise when the wall appeared immediately before him. It had been constructed right across the road.

Alton pressed his body up against it, finding it as welcome as his mother’s embrace. It was cold, and it was stone, but it was real. The wall did not react to his touch, nor did the voices sing out to him. With his hands still pressed against its stony façade, he looked over the sur face and found a hairline crack.

He couldn’t be far from the breach, but in which direction did it lay? East, or west? The crack provided no clue, for it wended off in both directions. All he could do was choose a direction and walk. If he didn’t find the breach within a day or two, he could turn back and search in the other direction—providing he was still alive. The road would serve as a good marker.

He took a deep breath and headed east, the direction of the rising sun, wishing he could see it. The cloying fragrance of blooming roses in the damp-laden air washed over him.

“What are you?”

Taken by surprise that the man addressed it directly, the sentience paused the feline in its attack.

What am I? I am the forest. I can be the lowliest insect, or the mightiest feline. I can be a tree. I can make rain or drain a pond.

Yes, it was the forest, but once it had been a man. The better question was: Who am I? The sentience had some suspicions thanks to its re-emerging memories. As it gazed at the man laying there on the ground, it decided to try something, something that would get around the shield that protected him, and open his mind.

The sentience bounded off into the forest. It knew the guardians were trying to reach the man, to call out to him. The sentience itself barely felt the lull of the guardians anymore. They were losing their power to call it back, subdue it, make it sleep and remain ignorant.

Imprisoned.

The sentience had glimpsed the other side of the wall, and wanted to know more, to explore that which lay beyond. It wanted to crush the wall and bring to bear its full self. The man might be the key.

The feline loped through the forest ahead of the man. Near the wall, the sentience would set its trap.

Hidden in the underbrush, the sentience settled the feline down into a crouch, and set to spreading its influence to an area near the wall. It pushed away layers of mist so that a mere gleam of sunlight thrust its way to the moist ground, producing a tendril of steam.

The sentience then expanded its mind throughout the forest, seeking the agent that would subdue the man for its purposes.

Ah, just the thing.

Beneath the column of leaden light, beneath the duff and soil, the sentience germinated seeds that had long lain dormant for lack of sunshine. Spidery roots quickly spread through the soil and shoots probed upward, seeking that shred of sun. Fighting their way through leaf litter and decaying matter, the shoots snaked up from the ground sprouting thorns along stems. Buds, closed tight, led the way in their journey, until maturing within moments to blue-black roses in full bloom.

The sentience enhanced their aroma—not to attract pollinators, but to attract the man. It waited.

The feline was hungry, demanded release to hunt, and struggled against the sentience’s hold, especially when the man-scent drifted near, discernable despite the strong fragrance of the roses.

The man emerged into view. He blinked in dazed fashion at the bleak sunshine and roses, and he sank to his knees and yawned. The sentience could tell he fought with himself to stay awake, but the roses overpowered him, and soon he wilted to the ground and slept. The man’s shield fell away.

The sentience retained enough control over the forest to hold predators at bay, and seeped into the man’s mind.

Unlike the last time the sentience had done this, when the man lay unconscious, it found a mind filled with vibrant color and sparks of energy. It found language, vision, and memory.

The sentience considered inhabiting the man’s body, using it to enter the world beyond, but it feared doing so. It feared leaving behind the safety of the forest, which was so much of what it was. It needed to know more about the outside world before venturing there.

The sentience paused its probing just to feel what it was like to be a man. It opened and closed a hand into a fist. The hands were large and strong. It flexed an arm, and felt gnawing hunger in the man’s stomach. There was pain, too, in his hip. Poison from the thorn scratches had begun to work its way into his blood, and soon he’d be experiencing the ill effects.

The lungs expanded with air, and the scent of roses was strong in the nose, though lacking the layers of nuance possessed by the feline’s olfactory organs. Eyes fluttered open and it took some experimentation to focus them.

How very astounding!

It saw colors and shadings not even the sharp-eyed avian could detect. The shifting gold light pouring through the hole in the mist the sentience opened, the deep blue veins in the dark rose petals, the diseased brown leaves of an overhanging tree . . .

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