Part 1) Loden
Loden drifted along the edges of consciousness, he struggled to stay in the darkness, to stay away from the insanity of his waking world. Sadly the pain he was in kept him from floating back down into the dark. He opened his crusty eyes and shuddered as his senses once more confirmed his grim situation. Breathing was difficult, his throat was raw and his eyes were dry. His arms, shoulders and neck ached as though he had been doing heavy labour for days, his guts roiled. It was a small victory that he had not vomited or shouted out violently against the reality he confronted. His breath came is rapid gasps and his heart raced for a long while before slowing as the brief adrenaline rush passed.
He hung, suspended in an icky goop, from the edge of a barren stone outcropping. He was only a few feet above the steep, downward slope of the mountain. The dwarvern-shooter he had dropped, just as the strange creature had captured him, lay less than four paces below him. It might as well have been a thousand yat away. The goo that encased most of his body greatly limited his mobility and he knew, from past efforts that no matter how much he struggled that he could not free himself.
Too much effort on his part would draw the creature’s attention, this he had learned. Though his mind shied away from the memories of what that creature had done to him. He knew he could not escape. He knew there was no hope.
Loden could not tell how long he had been here, he looked to the horizon, the two moons were in a somewhat different arrangement, maybe. The big blue one had not moved much, was it slowly rotating? The nearer, smaller, pale moon certainly moved, slowly across the face of the larger orb. They seemed to share a strange arrangement of shadow and light, certainly he felt unable to discern any accurate passage of time. He thought he may have woken once with neither moon in sight, though that may have been a dream. Had there been darkness?
He struggled not to let despair overwhelm him, still, a few shuddering sobs escaped as he peered past the edge of the goop that only partially shrouded his head. He could see what was in front of him and somewhat to his left as well, with effort he could turn his head a bit further to the left. Not far over, along the rocky ridge, was a husk of a strange animal and the remnants of the viscid covering that had once entrapped it, now covered in dust and grit. Maybe it had been an animal? Or some sort of goblin? It was hard to tell, an exposed skull and what may have been a limb or tail had not been covered in the goop. Dried papery skin hung off oddly coloured bone.
Vaguely, Loden remembered having had a long one sided conversation with his neighbour, that seemed like it had happened a long time ago. He could not remember what they had talked about. The trade road to Tisp, maybe…
His left arm was bent at the elbow and pinned between his body and the goo, with effort he could scratch his chin, feel his scruffy beard. With his thumb he could scratch at his chest through his shirt, just below his collar bone. With a twist of the wrist he could also feel the edge of his coat. Sometimes, after a fit of spasms or enraged flailing, he could feel the bowl of one of his pipes just under his elbow. Or was that the pommel of one of his swords? No, it was too high up. He kept both pipes and his tobacco pouch in the inside pocket of the coat. He would love to have a smoke. Or a drink. Had he not also put the hat in his pocket? Ander’s hat.
He seemed to always be thirsty, though never hungry; the monster fed him regularly. His body shuddered again, he was wracked with uncontrollable spasms for a long agonizing moment. When the fit had passed, Loden hung exhausted, barely conscious, his gazed locked on the strange landscape below.
There was a distant valley between mountains and the rough terrain was mostly devoid of vegetation. The few plants he could see were strange, unknown to him. He had seen no other living creatures since the monster had stuck him to the edge of the escarpment.
He wondered what had happened to Flint. He kept expecting, hoping, the ranger would show up and cut him free. Or, even give him a nudge, to wake him from this perpetual twilight nightmare, to tell him it was his turn to take the watch and give him a friendly reminder not to burn the mash.
He knew that Asta had been with him. She had fallen through one world into this strange place just ahead of him. He was sure they would have been better off being impaled on the spikes that had appeared to be at the bottom of that moat. Maybe they had died. Was this some sort of grim afterlife? If so, then he felt that Asta’s goddess was cruel and terrible. This was not a place of mercy, it seemed that there was no solace to be had here. The air was harsh and the denizens malevolent.
She had said that they would travel together, beyond the ruins. Had she not? Surely if she had seen this fate within her visions she would not have lead them to this end. Would she have?
Asta had been ahead of him when they had tried to move down slope, she had been running down the mountain side, barely keeping her footing. Ahead of them, floating through the air, they had seen a strange undulating form. It had trailing, strangely flexible limbs or maybe it had been a cluster of feelers, like those some insects had. Loden had slowed and drawn one of the dwarven-shooters, unsure if the weapon would do much to the creature, but also without other recourse. As he had been about to shoot the translucent, undulating monster, another had come over the ridge behind him and quickly entrapped him with its pliable limbs. He was dragged up and backwards, losing the shooter, he was slammed into the rock wall and the monster had settled over him. Briefly he had seen the underside of the thing, its nearly transparent form had a strange globular mass in the centre, near where its limbs protruded. Loden had thought they might be eggs, like a frogs eggs, but then maybe they had been a cluster of eyes. He shuddered and his mind veered away from what had happened next.
“Loden!” His mother’s call startled him. He ducked back from the edge of the bushes where he had been crouched, watching the girls bathing in the rocky pool under the small falls. The brook was the boundary between his family’s property and that of the Goshten family. When the weather was warm and the chores were done, his sisters and the Goshten girls would gather at the pool to swim and bathe. Up until last spring he had been allowed to join them, though that was no longer the case. His mother said he was too old to play with the girls anymore. She told him he would have to bathe on his own or when his father went down to the brook.
He could hear his mother approaching so he lay motionless among the bushes hoping she would not spot him.
“Loden! If you’re up here, so help me, by all the gods and goddesses I’ll tan your hide.” He knew better than to come to the brook to watch the girls. Last autumn he had been in trouble a number of times and his mother had tried to explain to him that it was not appropriate. “The Teachings say; that lust, like envy and greed, are the downfall of all men. Resist such urges and keep your thoughts pure. Hunger not for wealth, resist the temptations of the flesh and do not covet what belongs to others.”
Loden had not really understood what that had all meant, he did know that he liked watching the girls, naked in the pool, splashing around and laughing. It made him feel good. He was especially drawn to Baethy, who was the oldest of the Goshten girls. She had the biggest breasts and he dreamed of her often.
Despite his efforts to hide, Mother found him and reached into the bushes, grabbed him by the ear and dragged him to his feet. She slapped him, “I told you.” She scowled, dragging him away from the brook and put a foot to his backside. She was really angry. She harangued him all the way back to the house. Briefly his father had come out from the barn to see what was going on, he quickly returned to whatever he had been doing, however. Mother marched Loden into the house and sent him to his bed.
A while later, after his father had come in from working, he could overhear the two of them talking. His mother was furious, at Loden and then also at his father when he did not give the response she had wanted. “Don’t you tell me about the Teachings of Thray, or you’ll see what real anger is all about mister. Now, you’ll be taking our little pervert with you this year. I’ll not have him moping around all summer, lurking on the girls.”
“Well, he’s a bit young for the road, love.”
“I’m sure you will manage. Besides, if you don’t take him with you this year, I’ll send him to the monastery. Might be the best thing for him, anyways.”
“I’ll not have my only son become a monk.”
“Then he goes with you.”
“Alright then woman. I’ll take him on the road with me.”
A long silence had followed. Briefly his mother had looked in on him, he could see that her face and head was full of unblinking eyeballs, like dozens of frog eggs.