Book II Chapter 23: Whispers of Ages Past
Degregorius rose high in the sky over Aensdoun, painting the pristine forests and meadows in its radiant blue light even as it blocked little Ciere partially from view, her yellow radiance washed away in her brother's shine.
The Grove of the Sunken Idols seemed to dance in the light breeze that tickled its boughs, sunlight dappling the forest floor below, briefly flitting across squirrels and foxes darting along the brush, over little songbirds making their way from branch to branch in short bursts, hopefully out of the eye of hungry raptors, and over a huge brown beast of a bear, slumbering less than peacefully with a tiny elf clad only in an elkskin kilt tucked in beside him.
The great bear-god Sasha lay in the tall grass, his eyes half-closed, his paws flopped down in front of him. His snout twitched as he grumbled and sighed, his troubles weighing heavily upon his mind.
His distress did not go unnoticed by Bastion; the elf stirred, turning from his resting place against Sasha's massive shoulder.
At once, the beast fell silent, his ears pricked. Had he been speaking aloud-- had he been overheard?
One eye widened, rolling back to glance toward the little chapter.
"Honey-hair... did you hear me?"
"You were growling. And it sounds really loud when my ear's against you."
Bastion's ears drooped slightly, aware he had been hearing something not meant for him.
"I am sorry. I.... did not mean to wake you." Sasha's eyes closed once more and he turned his head, attempting to coax himself back into slumber.
It would have been far better than lying there, lying there and thinking about the past, about the things that had come to pass in spans of time longer than he could comprehend.
About the things that he had spoken of only to Dilndrou and Aqk, when they were still a trio, and now spoke of to Dilndrou when the moody alligator ascended from his alchemist's palace hidden deep beneath the muck.
Aqk had flown off to survey the world long ago; she had always done so, though this had been the first time she had failed to return.
"What's the matter? ....Maybe I can help?" Bast asked, gently running his fingers through the thick dark fur of Sasha's shoulder.
"You cannot help me, Honey-hair. You can, perhaps, hear my confessions. I have wronged you, unwilingly, for a very long while."
Bast frowned, pulling himself into a proper sitting position and meeting Sasha's gaze.
"I'll listen, of course."
The bear sat in turn-- more as a gesture of honor than of any necessity-- bowing his head to look down at him.
The blonde elf should not, by any stretch, still be alive; he had been born before Aqk had departed, before Dilndrou had grown sorrowful over the loss of his children, before Voghn had attempted his fatal ambush upon himself and the Grove.
He was far more ancient than any fae, blessed by Chira or not, had any right to be. All of Sasha's Speakers had had cubs, had parted ways, had been killed or died off and been long forgotten... except for Bastion.
Honey-hair, who considered the other bears his family as much, if not more, than any other Aeneski from his tribe had ever been.
Always cheerful, always dedicated, up until the day something had gone wrong in his tribe's village and he had vanished with two other Speakers, elves that served his eagle and alligator companions, and that strange, magic-sweet scent that reminded him so very much of his charge wafted across the village with the scents of blood and death.
He had thought Honey-hair dead, then, dead or frightened away by whatever had come to pass along with his tribe.
"Little... little Aeneski. I will begin from the beginning, as that is the only way I know how to. When I was born, I was a bear. A normal bear, smaller than your little arms." Bastion couldn't help smiling at that idea-- Sasha, a tiny cub-- but he kept quiet, his ears alert.
"And so, I would have been until the end of my days, a normal bear... but I was chosen, and taken from my den, and given a gift. And I learned to speak, and think, and be something I was not born to be. This is what I am now."
"...You were chosen?"
"I was chosen, just as Aqk and Dilndrou and Cauakac and all of the others, every one of them, were chosen-- by those who became their masters. That was many, many ages ago, before your people had come to be what you are now, and a different people ruled these lands."
Bast nodded and fell quiet again, letting his ears droop once more.
"After the ones who chose us vanished... all of us were made to enter a truce that we would never tell the Small creatures of what had been. But, Honey-hair..." Sasha rumbled, loud and low, hanging his head and blinking his eyes to clear them.
"Things are changing, and there are things you must know. The others can come and try to kill me for breaking my oath if they so wish. I have done what I was made to do. Now, I cannot guard any more secrets."
"Why not?" Bastion demanded, furrowing his brow. "Why couldn't you tell us? Why are you telling me now?"
Sasha rose to his feet, towering over Bast, his eyes full of sorrow. His heart ached that he had lied-- lied with silence and secrets, if not words-- for so very long to those he held most dear, even if out of necessity.
"Some of us believed we could prevent the artifact I have guarded from being found and used again if we never spoke of it, if we kept it locked away and guarded. I am that guardian, Honey-hair. I have always been, and I have never failed in my duty. But it means nothing. Dilndrou has recognized the energy he has been studying..."
"I don't understand. Guarding what?"
"Come with me, Honey-hair. I will show you, and then... I will explain everything."
The great bear gently scooped him up with a paw, offering a seat atop his back. Bastion climbed up, careful not to tug too hard on the old bear's fur as he settled in between his shoulders.
Sasha made his way into the wood, traveling farther and farther in-- the light beginning to fade as ancient trees blocked the suns with their massive boughs, crickets singing in the welcome darkness, fireflies trailing at the bear's big feet.
The pair continued for what seemed an eternity, down hill after hill, through ever-darkening forest floors, through brief patches of clear glade dotted with ancient stone idols and carvings whose crafters were forever lost to time, past old stones that had felt the kiss of warm sun and sky and sprung to life as gargoyles, mulling absently, harmlessly about on rocky paths... until at last, the massive trees had become fully shrouded by the shadows of the forest, their dimly-lit bark seeming to glitter faintly as if coated with hardened amber.
The creatures of the wood had fallen worryingly still, only the sound of Sasha's footfall breaking the eerie silence.
"We are almost there," Sasha rumbled.
Bastion hushed his voice, glancing around the dark, mysterious wood with a sort of nervous dread.
"I don't think I've ever been this far in before."
"There is nothing to fear here, Honey-hair. Nothing has been able to endure this place since our masters and their masters died... That you can endure it confirms my fears, and yet..."
The bear-god's voice trailed away into nothing, and he continued ahead.
Suddenly, a single beam of light from above broke through the darkness of the tunnel-like wood, seeming to set the forest itself aflame.
The trees around them had crystalized, completely, along with every shrub, every flower, every blade of grass within the mysterious place, seeming for all the world like a great palace carved of glass, decorated with strange runes and etchings among the roots.
Skeletons, both large and small, lay here and there amongst the trees' roots, all turned to dense, shimmering crystal.
"This... is the Sacred Grove.... and I am its guardian," Sasha said, blinking the overwhelming illumination from his dark eyes.
"I do not know how long I have protected the entrance to this place, but it has not mattered for almost as long. It kills any foolish enough to approach..."
Bastion looked on in awe, words failing him for the moment.
Finally managing to speak, his voice was hushed, subdued by the magnitude of the place.
"What... what caused all of this?" he whispered.
Sasha dipped his head, shaking it for a moment before continuing on his way down the shimmering path, his heart pounding within his great, furry chest.
At last, he came to a final stop, sitting down and lifting a great paw to gesture at a massive, glowing structure before them, burning with a radiance beyond all else, save perhaps the suns themselves...
...a crystal, larger than even him, seated atop a massive, ornate stand carved from some unknown metal and decorated with more ancient runes of the same hand that adorned the trees before.
Bast drew a sharp breath, flattening his ears, regarding the crystal with a strange sense of recollection that shook him to his very core. "...That... that's a..!"
"...do you recognize it, Honey-hair?"
Surprise and shock were as plain in Sasha's voice as they were upon Bastion's face.
"It looks like... like what Nef made. But this one's a lot bigger!"
"No...impossible," Sasha growled softly.
Next Chapter: Book II Chapter XXIV
Category: Book II | Story