We packed slowly in the morning and started on the trail. We hadn’t gotten far when we spotted the sisters heading towards us. They actually looked worried.
“Ho, sisters.” Thain called.
“Ho.” Janna called back.
They approached us quickly. Something had to be wrong for them to show themselves to us. I thought to run ahead, but my blistered feet would not allow it.
As they got closer Janna stopped and raised her hand in front of her. Ashlyn started to circle.
“Behind you!” Janna said.
I we turned but saw nothing coming up the trail. We all looked back for clarification.
“The tigerwolf!” She yelled.
I tried to laugh but nothing came out. “That’s Melsa!” I called back.
The sisters looked at each other. Ashlyn stepped back to the path and Janna relaxed. We continued forward and met up with them.
“We were attacked by a pack of tigerwolves.” I began.
“That’s not important right now.” Janna said in a hurry. “We ran into plague up ahead. We’re still a day from where you said the error was.”
“We’ll have to go around.” I said.
Janna shook her head. “There is no going around. We trailed along the edge and the plague just kept coming. I think it’s so heavy that they’ve stripped the trees bare up ahead. We could see clearings where the forest should be. We need to get away from here, the plague is moving in this direction.”
“There’s no way we can go around and still out run them.” Thain said.
“So what, we just run back to the village?” I said.
“We have to! Even inside the walls, the plague will still break through. Out in the open like this, we don’t stand a chance.” Thain said.
Morg came up close to us and whispered low. “You realize that mastodil can’t outrun the plague and we can’t carry Hane in his condition.”
“We don’t have a choice.” Thain said through gritted teeth.
The party turned around. Dilan did his best to get the mastodil to move quicker than it’s usual plod.
I walked to Ashlyn.
“Have you ever been attacked by the plague?” I asked.
She glared at me. “No and I don’t plan to ever be.”
“I’m just wondering if they can see us.” I whispered.
“I don’t want to find out.” She said.
I knew the sisters would object to me risking my life. I started walking with the party but stayed to the back. In all truth, I was having trouble because of my blistered feet and I wasn’t holding back much more than I normally would.
As everyone settled into a pace they stopped paying attention to what was around them. The sisters pulled way ahead of all of us, which I was glad for.
I looked at Melsa walking beside me. She seemed completely unfazed by any of this. Her only concern was to stay close by me.
“We have to observe the plague.” I said to her.
“I don’t have an entry for this plague. Your classification must be in error.” She said.
“Can you identify any creature by sight?” I asked.
“I am able to identify any organism by it’s data, but yes, I should be able to classify visually also.” she said.
“Can you identify the plague from here? It should be behind us if the sisters aren’t lying to us.” I said.
“I’m not detecting anything in the forest behind us.” She said.
“Maybe they are lying to us then?” I thought out loud. “Wait, shouldn’t you detect something? Are you literally detecting nothing?”
“Correct, there are no animal life forms and the number of plants is dwindling rapidly. That is unusual.” Melsa stated.
“It must be the plague, I need to get you to see them then. We need to break away without alerting the others. Can you do that?” I asked.
“As a tigerwolf I’m significantly quieter than you are. You should be concerned about your own noise level.” She answered.
I turned as soon as the trail rounded a bend and the rest of the party was out of sight. I did my best to be silent but Melsa was right, I made a lot more noise than she did.
My feet were in excruciating pain but I needed to keep moving. Thankfully we didn’t have to go far before we first saw them. It was good for me, but bad for the rest of the party. It meant that the plague was catching up to them.
“There! Right there Melsa, do you see it?” I said, pointing to a plague moving through the undergrowth.
“I do, but there is an error. I cannot communicate with it.” Melsa said.
“Can you lock it?” I asked.
“I can not.” Melsa said.
Melsa bounded forward and trapped the plague in her paws. Even as I watched this, more started to appear in the undergrowth.
“Strange, I’m still unable to poll it.” Melsa said.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked.
“It is not in my database. Taxonomically it is a rodent, a feed stock creature but it is inflicting significant damage to my paws. with its teeth. It should not be capable of that.” Melsa said as she let it go.
The plague bounded away for a moment and then attacked Melsa. Soon others joined it and swarmed over her.
“Strange. These organisms are far more aggressive than they should be. This tigerwolf is in danger. I should transfer out of it and allow it’s self preservation instincts to guide it.” Melsa said.
“What will you become if you leave the tigerwolf?” I asked
“There are suitable hosts where we came from. Another avian would seem the best option as I could stay off the ground and out of reach of these organisms.” She said.
“Ok, do it.” I said.
The tigerwolf let out a howl of pain. It rolled on the ground, attempting to knock the plague from it’s body. More and more kept attacking and it started to run away but stopped, snarled and started biting at the plague on it. It then charged into the horde of them, slashing with it’s claws as many as it could.
A white and black owlkin as tall as a man’s arm landed in the tree next to me.
“Strange. The Glyph took over the tigerwolf after I released it.” the owlkin said with Melsa’s voice.
“Nice choice.” I said.
“I’m delighted you approve.” Melsa said.
The mass of plague overwhelmed the tigerwolf. It was soon completely covered with them. No longer occupied with an active enemy the plague fanned out, climbing trees and chewing off their leaves.
The moment of truth had arrived. They were getting closer and closer. Would they attack me? Would they move past me? Without thinking, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t bear to watch them approach.
I felt one on my foot and then climbing up my pant leg. I opened my eyes to see it staring up at me and sniffing. Two more arrived at my feet and sniffed around. Dozens more swarmed about the ground at my feet.
The one on my pant leg begin to shake violently. I watched with confusion as it’s body stretched in two different directions at the same time. Two heads sprouted from it’s belly and then proceeded to eat it’s own skin away. When they were done consuming, there were now two smaller wet plague where the first had been. The bits that they dropped, others below consumed.
“Unusual, the children eat their way out of the mother. They should not be able to metabolize that much food all at once.” Melsa commented dryly.
The forest floor now writhed with plague. They swarmed up me and around, but did not attack. Even so, the experience was very unpleasant with hundreds of their little claws climbing up my clothes and hair. Melsa on the other hand had to be very careful in picking the branches she landed on. If she picked wrong, she would have to find another host.
“Idiot boy!” came a voice from behind.
I turned to see Ashlyn walking up to me, already partly covered in plague. Janna stood back and could only look on as her sister waded into the plague.
Janna raised her arm and loud crack like thunder split the quiet. It thundered again and again as she pointed her arm at the approaching plague.
She spoke something that I couldn’t hear because of the ringing in my ears.
The thunder became louder and with each crack, the ground leapt where her hand pointed.
“Janna!” Ashlyn shouted. “Go! I’m fine.”
Janna looked at her sister with a plaintive eye but quickly backed away and then ran.
“Now. What were you thinking? What does this accomplish?” Ashlyn said.
“My family is in danger. You understand it when you need to protect your sister. I need to find out how to stop this and protect my family.” I said.
“But this is reckless! You’re the key to changing all of this. Walking into the plague, you didn’t know if you’d be invisible to them.” Ashlyn said.
Meanwhile the plague grew in numbers all around us, encircling our legs and climbing all over us. Melsa couldn’t find a place to land anymore and circled above us.
Melsa flew down and did her best to hover.
“Something is wrong, there’s another Glyph at the center of these rodents.” She said and then took off again.
“What does that mean?” I shouted up to her.
“Unknown, there should only be one Glyph in this world.” She answered.
“I have to investigate this.” I said to Ashlyn.
“What does this accomplish? We need to go to the world door. Only then we’ll be able to set this straight.” She pleaded.
“Why? What is this world door? Why does it matter?” I asked.
“My grandmother told us that once the world doors open, we would be the masters of this world again. There is an open door! We have to go through it.” She said.
“But you don’t know that. Your grandmother said that when the doors opened we’d be the masters of this world. The door is open! Maybe it’s already happened?” I said.
“No, she meant that we wouldn’t struggle anymore. She talked about the Glyph doing what we say instead of condemning us. This is not the world we are meant to live in.” She insisted.
Melsa flew low again. “The Glyph is moving.” she said.
“A moving Glyph? That doesn’t make sense.” I said.
I started to trudge through the plague. My legs and arms were heavy with them. Ashlyn followed.
My progress was slow. The trees in front of me were denuded of their foliage, but that was just the beginning. As we walked into the horde, tree branches fell all around us. They were eating through the branches. The remaining trunks were covered with plague and as we moved further it was obvious that even these were being consumed.
Soon there was nothing but a sea of plague. Around it’s shore I could see various creatures tearing into the plague. Each majestic animal would crush, smash or slice up thousands of the rodents but every one would become engulfed and consumed in minutes.
An enormous Alk entered the clearing. It stomped the plague with it’s huge feet. It swung it’s head low and gouged up huge furrows in the swarm with it’s four horns.
I had never seen an Alk before. I’d only heard the stories. It’s was unbelievably tall, bigger than any building in the village besides the visitor’s center. To watch the raw power of the creature as it made it’s way almost to the center was breathtaking.
The swarm congealed around it and it let out a bellow. It’s leg crumpled under it. It rolled, crushing the plague under it in unknowable numbers.
The Alk tried to get back up but it’s front foot would not take it’s weight. Something must have happened to wound it.
Without the ability to raise itself off the ground, the plague raced up it’s neck and engulfed it. The Alk let out another bellow and then it’s head fell. It was now food for the swarm.
“Impossible.” Ashlyn said.
“Melsa! Where is the other Glyph?” I called.
Melsa flew by. “I’ll show you.”
She flew out over the swarm and circled above the spot.
I was now walking on the swarm. Although they complained with shrill cries and tried to scurry from my feet, they did not bite. This was a strange experience like walking in deep snow for the first time as a young child.
“You are mad. You are mad.” Ashlyn repeated as we walked.
I strained in this ordeal. My arms and legs ached. My skin was torn and bleeding from tens of thousands of little claws crawling up me.
I fell and lost consciousness. I woke to Ashlyn pulling my head up out of the suffocating mass that crawled to raise itself up above us. The stench of millions of rodents pissing over each other and us turned my stomach.
“Idiot! What are we doing here?” Ashlyn screamed.
The sky slowly dimmed and my head was light from hunger. Melsa had to call out to us so we knew where she was. Finally her calls grew closer. She was exhausted too from flying so long.
We were directly underneath her, but I saw no glowing Glyph.
Melsa! I don’t see it. There’s nothing here.” I said.
She flew down and grabbed one of the plague in her talons, flapped furiously to get back into the air and tossed it to me.
“That one is acting like a Glyph.” She said.
“This plague? How can it be a Glyph?” Ashlyn complained.
“I don’t know it must be an error.” Melsa said.
“There is an error.” I said as the creature writhed in my hands.
I drew my knife.
“What are you doing?” Ashlyn demanded.
“This is the error I was sent to find. If I kill this, the error is over!” I said.
I brought my knife down to stab the foul vermin but Ashlyn grabbed my hand and kept it back.
“And you will no longer be a Tow! The plague will kill you instantly! We’ll never get through the world door!” She said.
“It doesn’t matter! The Glyph is trying to kill it. I have to kill it!” I insisted.
Ashlyn pried the knife from my hand and pulled the error away from me. I was so exhausted I could not put up a fight. She tossed it away.
“What are you doing?” I yelled. “Melsa! Where is it?”
“You aren’t leaving me a choice.” Ashlyn said.
I saw her wind up, I tried to put up my arms to protect myself but she landed punch after punch until I lost consciousness again.
I woke up in an open plane with the sky bright. My exhaustion combined with Ashlyn’s right fist had put me down hard.
“Oh good, I didn’t kill you.” Ashlyn said with a groan.
“TOW, you are not in good physical condition. You require medical assistance.” Melsa insisted.
I staggered to my feet. The world spun a few times. When my vision eventually cleared, I saw in front of me the path of destruction cut by the plague. Already behind us, plants and shoots were growing up to restore the forest. In front of us, the plague, moving slowly to toward our village.
“You’ve killed them.” I said.
“The village has survived plagues before.” Ashlyn said.
“Not the village, the hunting party. Hane couldn’t get away. Dilan wouldn’t leave Hane. Thain and Morg, they probably couldn’t get away either.” I said.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m not sure if my sister got away either.” Ashlyn said.
“Why would that make me feel better?” I shouted at her.
“Because then you’ll realize I’m serious about going through the world door. That the sacrifice is worth it.” She said.