Fog rolled in the next morning, thick and heavy, like a soggy blanket trying to smother us into the ground. It wasn’t certain whether one of the Lady Blue’s creatures had caused it or if the fog was natural, but no one doubted that our enemy would try to take advantage of it.
The whisper women with blessings that helped with detection without needing line of sight bore most of the burden to make sure we knew about an incoming attack. Tension thrummed through the camp as everyone did what they could to prepare for whatever came next. From what I overheard, there was some debate about whether or not to increase patrols. On one hand, we would be more likely to find any threats the Lady Blue wished to hide in the fog, but on the other hand, those patrols would be out on their own, isolated.
The main trouble with the fog, other than reduced visibility, was that the shadow paths weren’t a viable option. Sure, the shadows clung unnaturally large and dark around the three giant trees in the camp, but the same couldn’t be said for the normal pine trees covered in fog along the coast. If the sunlight was stronger or the fog lighter, some of those with better skill navigating the paths could have forced their way through faint shadows, but that wasn’t what the day brought.
Part of me wished that the commander could drink down the fog like she had the thunderstorm, but either it didn’t count among the type of storm she could affect or it was too widespread or there was some other limit I wasn’t privy to. I doubted that she would have left it as it was otherwise.
We were still expected to go and take care of our new duties. Outpost patrols didn’t take care of themselves and no one in our squad had a blessing that would help detect an attack before it came. Besides, the fog could help us investigate the caves undetected.
So, we had two choices: wait for the outpost teams who had been on duty overnight to make decent, steady shadows with a strong flame near a pine tree, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded, not with this fog and taking care not to set the goddess’s forest on fire, and that was with the assumption that all the teams had a fire starter with them. Not all of them did. Or we could take the mundane option and travel overland to our destination, risking attack or becoming lost without a quick way back to the safety of camp. Like the patrols and outpost teams caught in the fog, we wouldn’t be able to count on quick back up or easy escape.
Mishtaw ordered us to pack like we would be gone for the full week. Better over prepared than under. It seemed we wouldn’t be waiting for shadows to be artificially made. No one knew how long the wretched fog would last and Mishtaw wasn’t in a patient mood.
Prevna, Idra, Juniper, and I all packed up our bedrolls, a change of clothes and our weapons and other supplies in our quarters. Breck and Ento had both tried to persuade Mishtaw that they were well enough to join us, but she didn’t change her mind. Neither was fully healed and we didn’t need the extra worry of watching over two wounded. I quietly supported her decision. Between the damp and the extra strain, infection and reopening the wound had increased risks, along with the risk of gaining new injuries by trying to compensate for the still healing one. Still, even I could grudgingly admit that I didn’t like losing two of the seedlings’ heaviest hitters when it came to a fight.
Petra would be joining us, however. Her shoulder had healed and I thought that, in Mishtaw’s eyes, regaining her and completing her squad’s normal setup made up for the loss of the other two. I wasn’t so sure about that, but given how well she had fought before having Petra back was certainly better than being down another person.
My side still had some bruising as well though it was by no means the mottled mass it used to be and I was used to the ache of the remaining bruises by now. By rights, I shouldn’t have been participating in all the fights since I got here if I was being held to the same standards as the others. But given the fact that the cave mission had been issued to me as had the crawler one, I got to go. That was also beside the fact that knowledge of my blessing made others treat the severity of my wounds a little more loosely. After all, if I couldn’t die from them how bad could they be? No one seemed keen to fall dozens of feet and land with a railing in their side to find out.
We gathered outside the tent before setting off for the western side of camp. I was curious to find out how we were supposed to get past the wall. Nothing that looked remotely like a doorway or path had ever stood out to me among the mass of roots. As we got up close to the wall I noticed that ropes hung down at regular intervals. So, I could have gotten down on my own without Kaylan’s help if I had found where those were stashed during my time as a lookout. I couldn’t see the lookout baskets now, the ropes disappeared into a haze of white, but if I was ever in one again I’d find the rope first thing.
We slowed as we reached the end of a slow moving line. I couldn’t see where it headed, but clearly this was a secondary way to leave the camp. The couple groups ahead of us, that I could see, had their gear, provisions, and weapons ready, just like us.
Mishtaw glanced back over the other seedlings and me before gesturing with her chin in direction the line headed. “Blood Gifter’s Gate. Exactly like it sounds. Once you give the roots a few drops of blood in the right place they’ll recognize you as one of Her people. Doesn’t have to be from your mark. Then you’ll have ten seconds to get through before the roots close again. Don’t try to enter without offering unless you want the roots to kill you.”
Petra answered my unspoken question. “They don’t open from the outside. Think of them more as an emergency escape route.”
Idra scowled. “Why would you want to go rushing out to where the enemy mostly is?”
Petra gestured back towards the center of camp, where the main tree was hidden by fog. “Not all of us can travel by shadow and, even if we could, there’s only so much room in a single shadow. If something went terribly wrong I’d rather take my chances outside than cooped up in here, trapped with the enemy.”
Idra nodded, a little grudging.
It was smart of them to include a way for the fire starters to escape on their own. The whisper women used their shadow travel so often that sometimes it was easy to forget that most folk, including myself, still needed to do things the mundane way. Even if the whisper women took others with, through the shadows, should the wall be breached, I wasn’t sure that they would be able to account for everyone.
The others chatted quietly as the line slowly moved forward. Something about the fog made you want to draw as little attention as possible—perhaps the thought that something might be lurking just beyond your sight. What sounds did come through from the groups in front of us were muffled and disconnected from their source.
Prevna stuck close by me despite a scowl and a glare followed by a blatant attempt to ignore her. I didn’t need a companion and I didn’t want to talk. I’d get things done on my own.
She considered me. “You’ve got that look again.”
“I don’t have a look.”
She snorted. “Yes you do. Flinty eyes, clenched jaw, stubbornness practically rolling off you. You get it whenever something happens that you don’t particularly like.”
“I don’t have a look.”
Prevna looked throughly unconvinced. I kept silent.
“So what happened?” she ventured.
Nothing she needed to know about. I crossed my arms and stared mulishly ahead.
She started to tick through ideas on her fingers, watching me closely as she did. “Killing the crawler went well, so can’t have been that unless you really wanted that killing blow. Did something happen when you went to see the commander? Or after? Eliss stopped you by the fire last night, right? You’ve been prickly with her. Did she say something?”
I shifted my gaze to glare to the side, away from Prevna. It was a mistake.
“So that’s it then,” Prevna frowned. “I didn’t think you’d let anything like that get to you.”
My jaw clenched tighter. “I don’t.”
She huffed out a breath of amusement. “Sure.”
I got a minute of sweet silence before Prevna spoke again, concern mellowing her tone, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Nothing mellowed mine. “No.”
She sighed in exasperation but finally dropped the subject. I still didn’t really feel like I knew why she bothered. Kindred spirits might be one thing, but there were plenty of others who’d welcome conversation, who’d answer her meddling questions.
My point was proven a few minutes later when Petra drew her into a conversation about their favorite celebrations, no doubt prompted by the blood offering the gate needed. Prevna talked easily with her and Creed, but she didn’t move up to join them. Instead, they drifted back a few steps to join us. At one point, Petra tried to draw me in as well but I didn’t take the bait.
As we got closer to the gate I saw why it was taking so long to get through. A fire starter stood near the front of the line with a slate board in hand. She was checking everyone’s destination and how long they planned to be away from camp, just in case a search party or reinforcements would need to be sent out later. Of course, the whisper women could still talk to each other on the wind but this was another way to make sure no one slipped through the cracks.
After she finished checking on a group and recording their answers they stepped up to the wall. I couldn’t see past everyone well enough to see what they did to get the wall open, but suddenly roots were sliding apart and I could see the edge of an opening. It stayed open well past ten seconds.
Prevna noticed the same oddity and turned to Creed and Petra as the roots wove back together. “Why did the gate stay open for so long?”
Creed rolled his big shoulders and grinned. “Not big enough for more than two people to run side by side. You might get ten seconds and I might get ten seconds but that doesn’t mean we both gave our blood at the same. So the gate stays open until the last person’s time is up.”
“Couldn’t the first person stay in longer then?”
Creed shook his head. “Wouldn’t recommend it. Not sure how it knows, but the deal is blood for ten seconds. Try to stay longer than that and the gate recognizes you as a threat to the wall, so it closes with you inside if no one else is there or it’ll spear you through to make way for the others.”
“I assume it’s the same for anyone who tries to enter from the other side?”
Creed looked surprised that I had finally joined in on the conversation, but I couldn’t miss out on knowing important facts.
Petra was the one who answered, “Exactly. There’s some fish who found that out when the others went to clean up the field after they attacked the camp with that wave.”
The group in front of us moved up to the wall and it was Mishtaw’s turn to deal with the fire starter. She gave her the facts as the root wall split up open and the group in front of us each slapped a bloody finger against the side of the opening before running through. Peering closer at the spot, I saw that a knot of fine roots formed an open eye there. It was starting to run red with the amount of blood being offered to it. Apparently, not many were keen to wait on the shadows paths opening up.
Mishtaw finished with the fire starter and pulled her prayer needle free. We all followed suit as she gestured us forward. The gate had threaded closed again into an impenetrable wall of knotted roots. Mishtaw pricked her finger and pressed the bead of blood that formed against the eye’s pupil.
Roots slithered apart, silent and eerie. Mishtaw bolted forward even as Eliss pressed her own bleeding finger to the eye and followed after. One by one we added our own blood to the goddess’s eye before running forward into a tunnel that barely cleared Creed’s head.
The eye felt both slick and sticky when I pressed my finger against it. I snatched my hand away from the odd sensation and ran after Prevna. The tunnel through the wall reminded me for a brief moment of the escape tunnel from Flickermark. Disquieting and unpleasant, only cloying, oily roots were better than carved stone faces.
I breathed out a quiet breath of relief when I emerged out onto the other side of the wall and the roots wound closed behind me.
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Bio: I'm a typical writer who loves reading and writing fantasy stories. Romance often gets mixed in as well, but we'll see if that happens with my current work in progress. I decided to post what I'm working on here to help me keep writing consistently.