I woke up gasping for air.
I was drenched in sweat, lungs burning, and lying on the floor of a strange, dark room. When I felt my breathing begin to steady, I sat up and tried to remember what had just happened.
It was the dreams again, as always. I looked at my wrist. The storm cloud living under my skin was rolling, and occasionally would crackle with the muted lighting inside it. My mouth tasted awful, and I could still smell the soupy decay that had been washing up on that shore.
I looked around the room again. It looked very similar to the room I had been in with Serene, but the furnishings were different. The room was smaller, less lavish, and there were no rooms connecting to it. There was a bed next to me, and above it there was one small window. The window was covered completely by a heavy curtain that shut out the light. Despite the lack of sunlight, it was suffocatingly hot. Odd for the Midlands, at this time of year.
I stood up, and froze. There was someone sleeping in the bed. The someone appeared to be a man, with a narrow build, and their back to me. They had dark hair, probably black, but I couldn’t quite be sure in this lighting. They were sleeping shirtless, and although it was very dark in the room, I could tell that they were fit and muscular. Their breathing was steady, and absolutely silent.
I stood still for several minutes to be sure they were sound asleep. When I felt assured enough, I crept softly towards the door. My boots and bag were nowhere to be found, but that was the least of my problems right now. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, although the furnishings made it appear that I hadn’t left Cutforks. But whose room was I in?
I reached for the door handle, and the silence exploded as the door was knocked on furiously. I suppressed a yelp and whirled around looking for somewhere to hide. It was too late. The sleeper had woken, and was sitting up. I had to just make a run for it, then. I tore open the door, already half-running as I opened it.
And ran, again, into Serene. Her eyes were wide with surprise. I paused, as I realized who it was, but fear instincts were already in charge, and I kept running towards the set of stairs. I was not fast enough. Before I could reach them Serene darted out next to me, almost faster than I could believe, and with one smooth motion kicked into the back of my leg. I dropped hard.
The wind knocked out of me as I hit the floor. Strong hands grabbed me before I had opened my eyes and pulled me up by my collar. The arms attached to those hands wrapped around me, and picked me up with one while the other reached up and covered my mouth so I couldn’t shout. My captor’s body and hands were hot, like someone with a fever. I struggled, and tried to see who was holding me, but they were much stronger, and taller, than I was.
Serene sighed furiously and waved them to follow her. They took me upstairs to her room again, and dropped me on the floor. I looked around for my things. They were still where I’d left them, and my boots had been placed next to them. The dishes from dinner had been cleared, but one of the flowers from the drugged drinks had been left on the table. I felt myself become furious.
“Sorry about all this,” said Serene. “But I want to know what the name of the Sister yah did to me last night.”
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t even disguise my anger. “You drugged me!”
“Yeah! And yah bloody burned my hand!” She pulled up her sleeve and stuck her hand out at me. Her fair, pale skin was discolored and blotched with ugly bubbles. Red burns swirled up her arm like angry lightning. Goddess, it was horrifying. Had I really done that?
“I don’t know what happened!” I felt sick looking at her hand. “It just did. Why did you drug me?”
“Because I wanted yah to tell me what that,” she pointed at my wrist, “ was all about. Yah’ve got a foul magic in yah, and yah bloody burned me with it. Almir didn’t even know what kind of magic it was.”
“Almir?” I asked.
“That would be me,” the stranger’s voice chimed in. I looked up, remembering that he was there. I couldn’t suppress my yelp this time.
He was the sleeper from the other room. He was, first of all, insanely tall. I wasn’t the tallest Northlander out there, but I was accustomed to being taller than most people. This man, Almir, was the tallest man I’d ever seen. He was narrow built, with dark olive skin and black hair that came to his shoulders. From the neck down, his body was beautiful. But his face was all wrong.
His eyes, upturned even more than Serene’s, were completely black. He had a long but flat nose with small nostrils. His mouth was where my eyes got stuck. It was disturbingly wide. He smiled as he saw me staring at it, mouth extending as he did so. At his broadest smile, he looked quite like a snake.
“Go on, stare all you like,” he said, with a friendly tone. His voice was strange too. It was soft, and his words sounded soft, but he enunciated them sharply.
I looked to Serene for an explanation, but realized I’d missed something in my earlier panic. She had put up her hair, tied in a high tail, revealing that her ears were as strange as Almir’s face. They were larger than normal ears, pointed, and, strangest of all, moving.
“What in the name of the Goddess?” I looked between her and Almir, feeling some mix of curiosity and pure terror.
“I’ll answer the questions before they start,” she sighed. “No, we’re not human. Obviously. I’m a Glendweller, or at least mostly. Yah ought to recognize my kind, though we don’t travel much, if only by name.”
“I’ve heard stories,” I said. “But you don’t seem at all like what the stories say.”
“I’m sure I’m not,” she said, eyes rolling. “Yah have all gone too long without seeing a true Glen.” She gestured at Almir. “Almir here is the true rarity in these parts. A Kruipen, from beyond the Forest.”
The Forest. Said to be impassible, no sane person entered into the Forest expecting to come back out again. The few tales from those that had somehow made it back claimed that the Forest was alive, and would draw you deeper and deeper. Evil lingering from the Sister had poisoned it, making it a foul and terrible place.
“You crossed the Forest?” I believed it, looking at him, but not without willing myself to. “So it’s not impossible?”
“Not without help,” he said. “It’s difficult, but not impossible.”
“Back to my point,” cut in Serene. “What in the Sister’s name kind of magic did yah use on me?”
“I said I don’t know!” I finally stood up off the floor. “I don’t know what this is or how it got in me but I don’t want it. Alright?”
“I believe yah, but what is it?” She cradled her hand to her chest. “And how’d it go and do something like this?”
“My people have magic that burns,” said Almir. “I even do. But it doesn’t act as she described this happening” He turned to me, and I got a more accurate gauge of his height. He stood about a foot taller than I did. Serene, who came up to the top of my chest, came up to the middle of his stomach. She looked even more absurdly like a child next to him.
“Tell me,” Almir said, taking my hand gently, turning up my wrist, “have you always had this marking?” His skin was still feverish and hot, and the marking began to itch furiously at his touch.
“No,” I said. “It hasn’t been here long. Just about a month.” Less, I realized, after I’d said it. A couple of weeks before I left home, and seven days since I had left.
“And what led up to you acquiring it? Anything out of the ordinary?” He looked into my eyes with his solid black ones. Between his eyes and his strange mouth, I couldn’t read his expression. “Anything at all?”
The itch became even stronger. I pulled my hand away from him quickly. He raised one of his eyebrows. The itch subsided somewhat.
“Dreams,” I said. “Odd dreams. Bad dreams.” I stepped away from Almir. “Please don’t touch me.”
“I will refrain,” he replied. His eyebrow remained raised. “Please, continue.”
“I had…no, I have, dreams where someone is speaking to me. They gave me this somehow.” I looked at the marking. When it had first appeared it was a small patch of skin, just a blot that looked like a lumpy birthmark. But as the days passed, it started to grow. And then it started to move. The blot started to swirl freely, like my skin had come alive. Since then it was always the storm cloud, moving subtly.
Had I imagined it, or had there been eyes looking back at me?
“What exactly were yah doing when I found yah?” asked Serene. “Why are yah here, really?”
“I was trying to sell my boat. I have something I’m supposed to find. I don’t know where it is, but this,” I held up my wrist, “has been giving me some clues.”
“What are you looking for?” asked Almir.
“I don’t know, exactly,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “A bell, I think. They don’t speak very clearly, and I only remember a little when I’m awake.”
“A bell?” asked Almir. “Can you explain more?”
“I don’t know!” I sighed. “In every dream I had before I left home, the only words I could remember were my name. I just knew that’s what they wanted.”
“A bell,” mused Serene. Her ears pricked straight up. “The Bell of Spring?”
“Maybe?” I said, uncertainly. “What is that?”
“The Bell of Spring!” insisted Serene. “Yah don’t have stories of it?”
“None that I know,” I said.
Serene looked at me as confused as when she’d tried to shake my hand. “The Once Rung Bell? The Words Unspoken?”
I felt a sharp stab in my wrist, and a burning sensation. I looked at the marking. The two red eyes were back, looking at me.
“I think that might be it,” I said. “Tell me the stories?”
“I am surprised yah don’t have any,” she said, sounding puzzled. “I would think such a legend would be well known.” She settled down into one of the armchairs. “Well, where to start? It’s an old story.”
“From the start then,” said Almir, sitting down on the loveseat.
I took my seat from the night before, feeling a shudder of uneasiness as sat down. It was hard not to be uncomfortable after the night before.
“Let’s see then,” said Serene, clearing her throat. “There are several versions, but they all have a few things in common. The first is that the Bell holds the last power of the Goddess, and that she created it to help humanity in the event that we would need her after she had gone. They say it can only be rung three times, and that if it is rung it can do anything, and even undo death.”
“No magic can undo death,” said Almir. “And if such a magic ever existed, it does not exist now.”
“Well true or not, that’s just what the stories say,” sighed Serene. “Myths, undoubtedly, and no one knows where the Bell was kept, if it was real.”
The warmth left my wrist, then burned from the cold. I winced, and looked at it. The red eyes were gone, but an image had taken their place. Trees, a clearing, and in the center, a golden light. It glowed faintly through my skin. I felt a tugging sensation, coming from it.
“Sister’s Warmth,” hissed Almir. “How long has it been doing that?”
“A few seconds,” I said.
The image changed again, and my wrist got colder. Replacing the golden light were two cold, blue eyes. I felt an understanding of what they wanted. Go; Follow.
And then the image reverted back to the storm cloud from before. My wrist felt numb from having been so cold.
“I have seen many things, Kulen Northlander,” said Almir. “But I have never seen anything quite like that.”
“I don’t like it,” spat Serene.
“It’s not exactly my favorite either,” I snapped. “But I have a feeling it’s here to stay unless I do what they want me to do. Look for this Bell, for one thing. And I have a feeling it’s somewhere in the Forest.”
“Plausible,” mused Almir. “Most strange magic lives within it. But who or what are they? That feels like the important question.”
“I don’t know how to find that answer.” I looked at the cloud on my wrist. I never knew what it meant, even in the dream. But I did know how it made me feel — anxious, scared, and out of time. “I don’t know if I can find that answer. But I do think the Forest is part of this somehow.”
“You’ll need a guide,” said Almir.
“A guide. That’s how I was able to get through,” he explained. “There are very few points where entry into the Forest is even possible. Crossing it is a difficult thing to do, even with a guide.”
“Can you tell me where to find one?” I asked.
“I can do better than that,” he said. “I’ll introduce you to mine. I imagine they haven’t left the city yet.”
“I would appreciate that,” I said. I looked over and saw my bag, and remembered that I had very little to offer as payment. But I still had my boat to sell. Maybe that would be enough.
“Wouldn’t be any trouble at all,” said Almir. “I’ll stop by where they were staying when I do my errands tonight.”
“I’ll stay with Ku,” said Serene. I wasn’t sure how I felt about her calling me that. “He can help me sort this out.” She pointed at her disfigured hand.
“Fine by me,” said Almir. “Let’s meet back here tomorrow morning. I’ll see if they are interested in meeting you. For now, though, I’d like to get back to sleep.” He emphasized this with a disconcerting yawn that opened up his whole face.
“And in the meanwhile,” said Serene, grabbing my mark-free wrist with her uninjured hand, “yah’re coming with me.”
“Do I get a choice in that?” I asked. My other wrist itched.
“Sister, no,” scoffed Serene. “Not until this is sorted out.” She waved her disgusting hand in my face.
“Alright, fine.” I pulled my wrist out from her grasp. The itch in the other one subsided.
“I’ll see you all tomorrow then,” said Almir. He opened the door slowly, making sure the hallway was empty, and slipped out.
“Get your things,” said Serene. “And eat something. We’re going outside of the city. Yah’re gonna be hungry if yah don’t eat now. Leon’ll take care of yah downstairs. Meet me out by the South Gate in an hour.”
“Uhm, okay.” I picked up my bag and put on my boots. “What should I do until then?”
“That’s all your choice,” she said, winking. She opened the door, and held it open, gesturing that I should go.
“I think you need some lessons in hospitality,” I grumbled, as I shuffled out the door.
“I think yah need some lessons in trusting pretty strangers,” she quipped back at me. My face went red. She laughed.
“See yah in an hour,” she said. She closed the door, leaving me alone in the hallway with my boots and bag in my hand.
“An hour,” I said, to no one. I put on my boots and went downstairs.