Chapter 16:

Chapter 16:

The experience with Magda had linked Ohlen to a force he had not known before. He became keenly aware of the will of the natural world: the plants, the animals, the trees, and even the springs and streams that fed them. In communing with Magda he had encountered a beauty and simplicity untouchable by sentient beings—an elegance in life made dim by the ambition of humankind. 

The forest and its creatures, the grasses and the rivers, they indeed possessed an ancient and powerful collective will. It was a will to allow lives to run their natural course in their natural time. It was a will to recycle nature’s gifts, to build new life from old, to fashion the dust of the deceased into the lifeblood of youth, to see the rigidity and wisdom of age protect and guide the hopes and dreams of the young.

And it was good.

The ancient presence could be an ally in their fight against whatever accursed evil was befalling them—Magda had made that clear. So as painful and frightening as the decision was to abandon his friends on the road to Rockmoor, there was no question in Ohlen’s mind it was the correct path. The task before him as he strode away, was to seek solitude, and meditate on this newly discovered mythic presence.

So he had walked.

Ohlen had spent the better part of the day walking south from the road through rolling fields of tall grass dotted here and there with rocky protrusions scattered about like tiny reminders of the rugged mountains to the west.

At sundown he had slowed his pace, and veered east toward the lush forest that stretched between the plains and the sea. His feet carried him to the place that would be his home for the next days or weeks. One final rocky finger protruded from the wavy sea of green grass, right at the edge of the forest.

I have been brought, Ohlen realized, to the perfect convergence of rock, field and forest. 

With some effort, Ohlen hoisted himself onto the enormous craggy rock. Several birds hastily took flight as his fingers slid in layers of muck left behind by their long-undisturbed residency. But Ohlen was not bothered in the least. What lay before him would be days and days without food or drink, without the comforts of civilization or the company of friends. Ohlen was no stranger to mental and physical deprivation. Indeed, he found the regular routine of the body’s natural cycles to be an imposition on the development of the spirit.

He was, however, keenly interested in finding a comfortable place to sit. He recalled from his many lengthy meditations that sitting on uneven or jagged surfaces could cause great distraction during meditation and significant discomfort afterward. So he stood and paced carefully about the small ledge and eventually settled on just the spot where, by layering some articles from his bag on the rock, he prepared a seat his bottom could agree with.

His mind traveled first to his companions. His generous, heroic, resolute companions. Among them, Ruprecht loomed large. The man he had been, and the shadow of himself he had become after his corruption. Ohlen gently eased his fixation, borne of fear and worry, from his troubled friend, and brought to himself, instead, the warmth from the shining qualities embodied in Gnome, X’andria, Arden, and Boudreaux. 

He was not sure if he became aware of the ancient presence, or if it became aware of him, but by morning, his consciousness began moving away from the people in his life, and pushed ever so slowly instead into the deep natural stone beneath him. This was a new awareness, a sensation like none other. Had he not experienced the force of nature’s spirit focused through Magda, he would never have been able to recognize the simple and gentle pulse of stone reaching up from the earth beneath him.

The spiritual communion extended over two days.

Two full days of unceasing concentration passed before he felt not only what he thought to be the complete presence of the stone beneath him, but also the earth beyond. As the soil was less dense than the rock, his consciousness pushed outward ever so slightly faster. And here he encountered hunger and satiety, fear and safety. Here, in the small animals and in the bugs and worms, were lives free from the complexity of ego, yet still wrought with the primal urges of survival and self-preservation.

Then the forest greeted him. These are like the spirits I encountered at Magda’s, he recognized. Five glorious days passed in which Ohlen embedded his consciousness in the vast and ancient rhythm of the natural world. The birds returned and alighted on the massive rock, and on his body, depositing waste on both that would be rinsed by the rains, and become nourishment for new growth. With time Ohlen gave over his singularity to the vast collective.

Until the biting fingers of pain penetrated deeply enough to wrench him back to the surface of consciousness.

Sound and smell were the first to awaken. There were dull thuds of fleshy impact on stone. There were bloody squelches. There was the putrid odor of rotten death.

As Ohlen’s eyes slowly began to flutter and illuminate, he realized the pain was coming from his right leg, which was wet and screaming from being violently gouged.

Shock and pain are a potent combination to rouse someone from even the deepest cogitation. With the stiffness in his limbs, and the heavy fog in his mind rebelling mightily, Ohlen willed himself to alertness and looked down at the cause of his pain.

Dead eyes. Even though the dirty nails of its thick fingers pulled free a bloody chunk of Ohlen’s leg, it was the total absence of life in the blank white eyes that arrested Ohlen’s attention. He struggled desperately, forcing his body to obey as he grabbed the wrist of the monster and tried to wrestle it free of his leg, without separating any more of his flesh than was already stripped.

Inhumanly strong. The cold grip was like iron. It wants me, Ohlen realized. He managed to wrest away the fingers from burrowing into his thigh, but as soon as he grasped the hand, it tried to pull him down from the rock completely. Woozy from his meditation, Ohlen nearly fell, but somehow managed to extricate his fingers from the vise-like grip and still keep his perch.

Ohlen was standing painfully now. The monster was relentless. Now it tried to climb onto the rock with him. It placed bloody fingers on the ledge and began to hoist itself up. Ohlen stamped hard on the fingers with his left foot, nearly toppling on his wounded right side. Any normal creature in the world would have pulled its hand back off the ledge from the pain, but not this one. It registered nothing at all, and instead just kept coming. As Ohlen retracted his boot from the fingers, so, too, came squashed dead flesh that had been covering the bones and tendons.

This being is already dead! It did not breathe, it made no sound. It did not yell in pain, gasp in frustration, or grunt with effort. It just kept coming. Ohlen’s sword was leaning against the rock behind him. More alert now, he grasped the hilt, removed it from its scabbard, and swung the blade swiftly down into the forearm connected to the now-skeletal hand.

The beast fell to the earth, but immediately stood and approached the rock again. Now ending in a bloodless stump, its right arm lodged over a lower hold in the craggy stone, and its feet scrabbled for purchase beneath. Ohlen retreated to the far side of the ledge.

Moments later, the monster’s ghostly, decaying left hand swung with a thud onto the top of the ledge, it grasped Ohlen’s bag, and then both disappeared out of sight.

Strapping his sword to his waist, Ohlen crept to the near edge of his perch and peered over the side. He was now becoming aware of his weakness, of how starved his body was of nutrients, of how his right leg was teetering on the edge of debilitation.

On the ground ten feet beneath him, the frightful fiend had pinned Ohlen’s leather bag to the earth with its stump and was savagely stripping pieces of it away with its left hand and with its teeth, like a dog ripping sinew from a bone.

Then, in abject horror, Ohlen realized what it was after. My ivory case! The beast, an animated corpse, was standing now. Having uncovered its prize, it turned and began shambling back toward the forest.

Ohlen flew madly through the air. His arms contacted the cold mountain of flesh, before his legs hit the ground, his right giving out completely. Lying prone in the grass, he saw the beast turn slightly to regard him with its dead eyes, and then proceed onward toward the trees, the ivory case clutched tightly in its remaining hand.

With effort, Ohlen’s sword passed halfway to the hilt into its wide back right where the heart should be. There was very little effect. The beast just turned around once more as though it had heard something curious behind it. Ohlen managed to keep hold of his sword as it spun, and, after regaining his footing, extracted the blade, now smeared black with thick, dead blood.

It had entered the forest. It was lumbering faster, and dropped into a crouch to use its stump as a third leg to navigate the terrain.

Ohlen would not be able to catch it. His right leg nearly useless, weak from starvation, and bleeding liberally as he was, this was not a flight he would be able to pursue for long.

With his last burst of energy, Ohlen caught up once more to the horror, and hacked with all his might at its left arm just above the elbow. Its momentum carried it a few feet further, but the arm, Ohlen’s ivory case, and the horrid black orbs within, stayed behind on the forest floor.

Ohlen fell on the pale severed arm and scrambled backward on his behind to put distance between himself and the now handless monster before him.

But it turned and clambered its way to Ohlen with surprising speed. Ohlen kicked feebly as it pummeled him with its sticky stumps. It was using its weight now to pin him down, trying to bite any part of him it could reach.

But without hands, the creature could not contain him. Holding tight to the severed arm, Ohlen rolled awkwardly away and began to stagger deeper into the woods.

The beast pursued him, but fell to the ground. Turning, Ohlen saw that its foot had been snagged by a large tree root.That root was not there a moment ago! On they went. The monster’s progress continued to be impeded by obstacles appearing before it on the forest floor. So while his own pace was painfully slow, the deathly horror slowly faded in the distance behind him as Ohlen stumbled his way toward the coast.

READ CHAPTER 17

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