I had no choice.
The words sat on the damp page of the journal, mocking the dirty, battered woman who had just written them. She wiped the latest bit of dampness from her furrowed brow, checking her torn sleeve to make sure it was sweat, not blood. She had seen enough of that—both hers and others—to last a lifetime.
For the thousandth time, she glanced up at the verdant forest surrounding her, the thick trees and vines that created a nearly solid green wall, blocking anything beyond them. Interspersed among it—covering the entire land, really—was a light, cool mist that had felt refreshing when she and the rest of her party had first arrived here. But soon, the mist had left its chill over all of them, dampening clothes, tents, food, fire, and spirits equally.
And always, there was the silence—thick and oppressive, with no bird call, no woodland creature’s grunt to break the eerie quiet. It hung in the air like a living thing, devouring any sound, rendering conversations, and any noise in general, flat and dull.
The woman shook off her oppressive thoughts and turned her attention back to her journal entry, angling the page to better catch the weak blue-green light of her fire suffusing the campsite.
Even after four months here, we—
She pressed her fisted hand to her suddenly tearing eyes for a long moment, then wiped the wetness away before scratching out the last word.
—I am no closer to discovering why this place is what it is, why it has this effect on those who venture into it. But I intend to find out, even if it is the last thing I do. I will figure out how and why this place does what it does! Those who came here with me—Administrator Priven, First Scientist Areund, Second Scientist Cathor, and Second Biologist Wies—deserve that answer, at the very least.
Again, she stopped writing as recent memories overwhelmed her:
—Priven, his green eyes wide with fear and face streaked with sweat, raising a trembling hand to slap Cathor across the face—
—Areund, crouched by the fire on his hands and feet, rocking back and forth as he stared into the blue-green flames—
—Cathor, sleeping next to the strange hearth crystal they had painstakingly assembled from the shards they had gathered in the forest, never leaving its side once it was together—
—Wies, who had left camp one night, and never returned. Their search party had found what was left of her high in a tree, her body…stretched beyond recognition—
The woman rubbed a hand across her weary eyes and shook her head. She picked up her pen and continued writing.
I must get out of here before the same madness claims me. If I do not survive, whoever finds this journal and my pack should take both of them to the Academy of Sciences. You shall be rewarded for delivering them to the Headmaster there.
—Third Level Initiate Laureat
Taking a deep breath, she closed the journal and bound it shut with a leather thong, then slipped it into her pack, next to a cloth-wrapped bundle.
The exhausted woman hesitated, then reached in and pulled out the small bundle and unwrapped it to reveal a gray, lifeless hearth crystal. She stared at it for what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than a few minutes, trying to peer into its dull core, hoping to feel even the slightest pull that a healthy hearth crystal normally gave off.
“Why…” she muttered. “Why aren’t you alive…?”
She stared at it for a long time, then slowly looked up and around the campsite at the dozens of similar crystal shards surrounding her. Many were embedded in the trunks of the nearby trees. Others gleamed just beyond the perimeter, having sliced their way clean through the leaves and branches of the forest. Still others…they had cut through a different kind of living tissue.
—For a moment, everything was reduced to a dull roar in her ears, drowning out all other noise. She looked through the shimmering veil of her shield, which she had managed to throw up in the instant before the accident with the hearth crystal.
Then, a sound penetrated her senses as the roar slowly died away. A panicked gurgle. She opened her eyes to see Priven standing before her, both hands clutching his throat as crimson spurted out between them. Before she could push past her shock, he fell to his knees, his face whitening as he stared at her, pale eyes radiating accusation and sorrow, before falling over to land in the small scattering of hearth crystal shards at her feet.
About to step forward, she was stopped by something catching on her ankle. She turned to see Cathor lying off her left side, her face pierced by several of the gray crystals. Blood stained the front of her blouse, and even as Laureat turned to try and help her, her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
“I…I’m sorry…” Laureat said. There had been no time to save the others—if she had tried to envelop anyone else, the shield would have been too thin, and she would be dying like the rest of them now.
She knelt down and cradled Cathor’s head, holding the older woman as she gradually stilled…—
Shaking her head, she quickly rewrapped the crystal and shoved it back into her pack. Rising to her feet with a groan, she slung it over her shoulders, then picked up the crutch she had fashioned from a tree branch. Snugging it under her shoulder, she began hobbling back toward Adriel, leaving the former campsite—and the four mounds of earth, each with a rough wooden cross marking it—behind.
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.