Chapter XIV - Savagery

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Notes: (Lanstiril, 2022-06-29)


XIV - Savagery

Jena Year 2475

When Belenor opened his eyelids, he saw only darkness. Where was he? What day were we? And why did his skull hurt so much? Since his nose was clogged he couldn't smell, but the taste of blood on his palate made the Fyros wince. What had happened to him? Spitting to relieve his respiratory tract, he noticed with a few seconds of latency that the bloodied mucus he had just rejected had flown straight towards the dark sky, soiling the sleeves of his suit in the process. For his arms were swinging strangely above his head. Gradually recovering his spirits, Belenor looked at his feet. They were entangled in a root net, through which a brazing light seemed to filter. The Fyros bent forward several times to grab it, but to no avail. The ground refused him. He sighed and spat a second time. Again, the mucus flew over his head. Above, or below? Then memories came back to him. Melkiar's terrified look, the explosion, the shock against the wall of the crevasse, the fall. Frozen with horror, the Fyros looked once again at his entangled feet. This brazing light was that of the explosion. From the surface. At this revelation, he was taken by a terrible dizziness. Because he was indeed suspended by the feet in the void. If his first reflex was to scream for a long time, Belenor understood at once that it would not be of any help to him. So he tried to grab the net of roots, again and again, without success. If he wanted to get back up, he had to get rid of his gear. All the precious provisions and supplies it contained. He had no choice... Compelled, the Fyros grabbed the straps of his bag and cautiously untied them. And as his ballast dropped, one of his legs unhooked. Screaming once again, Belenor managed in panic to pull himself up enough to grab the net with both hands. He then had only to channel the Sap that was irrigating it to force the thin roots to spread slightly, enough for his small carcass to make its way to the surface of the mesh.

Belenor's first instinct was to see if any of his comrades had been as lucky as he had. His heart sank with fright as he saw the few pieces of armor still smoking around him. As he checked to see where they came from, terror gave way to relief: they all belonged to the Dune Riders who had been blown up... Still trembling, the survivor ran his right hand over the wound that was gashing his forehead, closed it with a flick of his finger and looked up. At first glance, he must have been two hundred meters below the surface. By chance, he had been thrown by the shock wave, and had fallen down the side of the wall to the root endings of an in depths tree. Had it been the same for his comrades? Belenor swallowed and cautiously walked to the edge of the net, to the place where it was bending under his weight. Now accustomed to the darkness, he was guessing the presence of lights at the bottom of the crevasse. The depth seemed to him quite excessive. He hoped, just as deeply, that his comrades had managed to cling to the edge of the crevasse… Then, imagining himself to be the unique survivor, the Fyros felt his heartbeat quicken and his tears rise. And while, disoriented, he moved back towards the bark wall, he stumbled halfway: he had caught his feet in a strange root, which was now clasping his left ankle. This same ankle cut off by a Rider ambushed on the root bridge earlier in the night. That same root… consisting of five fingers. Then Belenor screamed and struggled like a madman. And if he thought he heard a voice, the echo of his screams totally masked it. The scene lasted for long seconds, during which the hand did not let go.

"Belenor, is that you?"
"Let me go, let me go!"
"Belenor, it's me!"
"Let go of me!"
"Belenor, it's Garius! Calm down and help me!"
"Let go of me, let go... Ga... Garius?"
"Yes, damn it, it's me! Help me, I'm stuck!"

Immediately, sadness and fear moved on to the purest euphoria. He was no longer alone. Everything. Everything but loneliness. Using his strength and drawing on the Sap, Belenor helped his friend to extract himself from the mass of tangled roots that imprisoned him, starting with his massive arms. On Atys, the speed of growth of some plants was such that it was sometimes risky to fall asleep for too long in the middle of nature. When the colossus had regained control of his upper limbs, he had no trouble pulling out the roots that were binding his legs. Feverish, Belenor could not hold back and jumped into his friend's arms. He was so relieved! Then, he observed him from feet to head. The blast had torn the armor plates from his torso, his helmet, and had caused deep burns to his neck, face and skull. For a few minutes, the two Fyros checked to see if others of theirs were buried in the root net, and found that they were well an d truly alone. They only found Garius' gigantic axe.

"There's no one Garius, there's no point. Sit down here, I'll take care of you."

The colossus lowered his head and obeyed. He fidgeted with the handle of his weapon nervously. Belenor, who had not lost his precious magic-amplifying gloves, began to give his friend care. Silently at first. Then Garius spoke up:

"Belenor, do you think that..."
"Garius, it's no use."
" But, V... Varran."

Understanding the concern he was feeling for his twin, Belenor placed both gloved hands on his friend's now healed shoulders. He himself could not help but think of Brandille.

"Garius, we have no idea what happened to the rest of the squad. But if we survived, then there's hope for them too. After all, we were closer to those who blew themselves up. They were logically less affected by the explosion."
"Yes, you're right, Belenor," replied the colossus, nodding his head with a determined look."
"Do you see the fault in the wall?" added the healer, pointing to the place where the roots were coming out of the bark.
"Uh, yeah?"
"That's our way out. These thin roots are from a tree whose trunk is probably not on the surface, but rather in a nearby cavern. It's as if the tree is trying to reach the other wall, and close the crevice, you know? Anyhow, Melkiar had told us that the subsoils in the area were particularly porous. Besides, Fort Kronk is known to be connected to a vast network of galleries. If we're lucky, it may be that we stumble upon it!"

At these words, Garius stood up hurriedly. He was bursting with new energy. With a determined step, he walked towards the wall of the crevasse.

"You're really too smart Belenor! Let's do it. Let's go into your cavern, find the galleries, join the others andsmash the Riders' faces in for good!"

Happy to see that his friend had regained his determination, Belenor went towards him.

"There remains one size problem, though, Garius."

Arms crossed, the colossus turned around. And, with a frown on his face, he stared at his friend.

"Go ahead, Belenor, come up with it."
"I just told you. We have a size problem. Your size. I'm not sure you can fit through the fault."

For all answer, the muscular Fyros showed his axe to Belenor. He couldn't resist adding a comment, however.

"Pickaxe or axe, same fight, Belenor! I am miner's son, no obstacle scares me. And especially not when it comes to exploring the depths of the Bark. We're not Fyros for nothing, right?!"

And without further formality, the colossus struck a violent blow with his axe at the crack. A block of bark and a piece of root immediately separated from the wall, widening the fault a little. Smiling, Belenor sat down. Garius didn't imagine how comforting her presence was.

-–—o§O§o—–-

The excavation work turned out to be less complicated than expected: the further the two Fyros went into the fault, the wider it became. After an hour of lumbering, Garius no longer needed to cut through the bark to move inside the wall. Only the roots of the tree they were trying to reach climbing sometimes turned out difficult to move. Often, they had to contort themselves. And even though the lanterns Belenor had crafted allowed them to see where they were going, it was not uncommon for them to hit their heads or get their hands stuck. And then finally, after a long hour of crawling, with Garius in the lead, the colossus let out a cry.

"Belenor, I see light! There, there's light! Right there! Ah, fucking root, get out! There, Belenor, do you see?"
"I can only see you, Garius!" answered Belenor curtly, exasperated. "Then move on!"
"Wow, it's too beautiful Belenor! Rrrah, I'm stuck…"
Some rotoai in the Prime Roots

Garius struggled, involuntarily kicked his friend in the nose, screamed a good deal, and finally managed to extricate himself from the fault, thanks to the pulling out of a few fine roots. Too fast, surely, since Belenor saw him lose his balance and hurtle down a short slope. If the Fyros welcomed without surprise the swearword that his friend uttered, his heart raced when the thud of a large eddy reached his ears. Water? Hastily, and with much more ease than Garius, Belenor escaped from the fault. The beauty of the panorama that was offered to his gaze petrified him with amazement. He had just entered an immense cavern whose bark walls and ceiling, located at about fifty meters from the ground, were studded with amber blocks. Sometimes diaphanous, sometimes reflecting the light produced by the numerous fireflies and bioluminescent plants which populated the depths, the iridescent partitions of this marvelous decoration reminded Belenor of certain sites of excavations which he had been able to visit at the time of his passage to Coriolis. On the other hand, he had never seen plants as beautiful as the gigantic rotoa that stood in the center of the lake into which Garius had fallen. This endemic plant of the Prime Roots, so much celebrated for its beauty, had to measure in the fifteen meters. An impressive specimen, which would have delighted the Matis botanists, whose attraction for the rotoai was well known. Indeed, the rotoa was a plant born from the fusion of roots of different plants, one of which had specialized in the reproduction of the chimeric species, via the conception of flowers with pink, mauve and white tints. Flowers that, seen from here, had to measure in the six meters of circumference. A magnificent plant therefore, but also a precious object of study for the scientists of Atys, for whom the rotoa represented the incarnation of the symbiotic being.

"Belenor, the water is so fresh! It's crazy to think that it's so nice, when only a few kilometers to the east, the caverns are real furnaces! Come on, let's go for a swim!"
A lumper in the Prime Roots

The Fyros closed his mouth and walked towards his friend. It was while he was walking that he noticed the fine rain of multicolored pollen that filled the space and contributed to the overall hypnotizing kaleidoscopic effect. So that was the ecosystem of the Prime Roots? When he reached the edge of the pool, he began to unfasten his suit. Then, noticing that a group of four lumpers were cautiously quenching their thirst not far away, he hesitated. These emerald-coated, spine-backed herbivores with four long, powerful, bowed legs posed no threat. On closer inspection, their big, red, fleshy eyes on either side of their heads even hinted at the awe they felt about the two homins. On the other hand, their presence testified to the existence of wild fauna in these caves, some of whose species were probably far more dangerous than the lumpers. Belenor shuddered as he thought of the vorax, lizards endemic to the Prime Roots endowed with spiny backs and gigantic jaws full of razor-sharp teeth. Predators that could, he had been told, grow up to five meters long. He had never met one. And although his curiosity was great, the Fyros wanted to avoid make such a predator's acquaintance as he was taking his bath. So, while filling his gourd, he called out to his friend without delay:

A vorax in the Prime Roots
"Garius! You should come out. We don't know what creatures inhabit these caverns…"
"Oh come on, just a quick swim! We've earned it!"

At the same time, a terrifying roar sounded in the distance, and spread in echo until making the water of the pool lap. Immediately, the spiny backs of the lumpers bristled with with a shudder like that of a wind chime. Belenor watched the animals hurriedly leave the watering place, then set his gaze on Garius again.. The colossus looked far less relaxed.

"Well, okay, it's dangerous, I'm going out."

For the next few hours, the two Fyros explored the succession of caverns that were opening up to them. As soon as they were able to, they headed west, and thus towards Fort Kronk. If they passed a few groups of ambushed varinxes, they managed to stay away from the vorax. The only one they saw - a huge specimen - was taking a nap on the central island of a large lake. Arriving at the end of a cavern that didn't seem to open onto any other, they both began to search for a passage hidden by vegetation. After a few minutes of investigation, Garius uttered a curse unlike any he was used to. By its intonation, Belenor knew he had discovered something noticeable.

"What did you find, Garius?"

Standing in front of the wall he had just cleared, the colossus had poked his head into a side fault.

"It's… It's incredible Belenor, come and see!" replied the colossus, his voice muffled by the thickness of the bark.

The Fyros' heart raced as he hurried toward his friend. What had he discovered? When he reached his level, Garius shifted to the right and motioned for his comrade to stick his head through the fault. Then the Fyros stood on tiptoe. And like Garius, he was struck with amazement by the landscape drawn before him. The cavern in which the two Fyros found themselves, yet hundreds of meters wide, was nothing like the one they were now observing from their window. It was only a speck of dust stuck to the ceiling of a cavern of continental dimensions. For it was a true world that the two Fyros were looking at. A buried and secret world of forests, seas and root mountains, stretching for miles beyond the cavernous horizon. At first glance, the sky of this dark world must have been several hundred meters above the ground. A sky covered with amoebai, these strange translucent plants in the shape of a star, whose extremities were sometimes covered with bioluminescent stinging hairs. Plants which were much less luminous than real stars, which did not make it easy to observe the buried continent. Because of this, Belenor did not know if what he saw was a ruined city nestled between two mountainous roots, or a simple illusion fantasized by his imagination…

Amoebai in the Prime Roots
"So this is the real Prime Roots, Belenor? It's nuts! You imagine how much there is to discover in the depths of the Bark? It's beyond me… You know, Belenor…"

Garius stammered something and then fell silent. His friend, fascinated by the view, did not notice that he had broken off. A few silent seconds passed, then the colossus resumed:

"Even though I'm worried about our friends, I'm really happy to have this adventure with you... I'd also like to apologize, again, for all those times Varran and I bullied you. I..."
"Garius, we've been over this many times. It's in the past, you are both forgiven. And I, too, am happy to be on this adventure with you. Sincerely."

Over the years, Belenor had almost forgotten the days when the Deco twins bullied him. That all was belonging to the past now. A bygone past he did not want to remember. Yet, some memories came back to him, much against his will. In particular, the day when he had met Melkiar for the first time. The day when this mysterious child with supernatural charisma had warned him of the loneliness which would be destined to him if he did not modify his behavior quickly. Patting the massive shoulder of his friend, the Fyros continued.

"We'll have plenty to report back to the others, won't we? They're fine, I'm sure. In fact, maybe they'll have some stories to tell us too! You know, Garius, when I observe this panorama, I understand how the thirst for discovery can drive our people to dig so deep. How it can drive us to take so many risks. I also understand better why the Karavan asks us so ardently not to explore the Prime Roots. Maybe they don't want us to discover certain things... I thought I saw some ruins, over there between the two mountains. You see them?"

Belenor, again lost in thought, stared intently at the hallucinated ruins. Ten long seconds passed before he realized that Garius had not answered his question.

"Garius?"

Without taking his eyes off the landscape, the Fyros put his hand on his friend's shoulder again. Unfortunately, it was already too late. Even before he could react, the colossus' body fell backwards. By reflex, Belenor plunged his hands into the magic-amplifying gloves attached to his belt. He soon realized that this would be of no use to him: the moment he pulled his head out of the fault, he saw nine homins facing him. All of them wore the motley mix of ochre-painted armor the Dune Riders wore usually, and one of them clutched a long blowpipe in his hands. Belenor swallowed and raised his hands in submission. Everything was fine. Garius had been merely put to sleep. And he, well aware, was smarter than all those Riders combined. He would easily succeed in negotiating. Everything was fine. His eyes searching for the chief, he swallowed a second time.

"Well… Hello, I'm Be…"

Unfortunately, the club that came striking his skull did not let him the opportunity to introduce himself any further. All the more so as it struck him at the exact spot where his head had hit the bark wall a few hours earlier. And even before he could infuse Sap at the site of the injury, he collapsed onto his friend's body.

-–—o§O§o—–-

It's hobbled and gagged that Belenor regained consciousness. Facing him, eyes wide open and mouth muzzled, Garius grunted. He was probably trying to tell him something. Scanning the space quickly, the Fyros analyzed the situation: they were both tied to a makeshift chair and sitting in front of a large tree stump that seemed to have been placed there for the occasion. For the place they were in was strangely empty. It was a kind of circular duct of about twenty meters in diameter, whose ends were lost in the darkness. Nothing to do, therefore, with the caverns teeming with life that they had traversed earlier in the night. Inspecting the walls more carefully, Belenor had a click: this strange conduit was a vein of dried-up sap. A vein of sap that had been emptied, cleaned and transformed into a corridor of displacement. A corridor that undoubtedly belonged to the network of artificial galleries that Melkiar had told them about. Did this mean that the Riders were still haunting the underground of valley of Fort Kronk, despite the victory of the Dragon's Tears? It probably did. But it also meant that they were close to the surface, and thus to their allies. For a few minutes, Belenor tried to loosen his bonds, to no avail. Then the sound of boots echoed through the impenetrable shaft. Some homins were approaching. Worried, the Fyros sought comfort in the eyes of Garius, who winked at him. At the same time, a large axe emerged from the darkness and stuck into the tree stump. Garius' axe.

"Pretty axe. How many of our people did you kill with that weapon?"

A helmeted Rider had just leaned on the makeshift table, lantern in hand. His accent was very strong. Garius, still muzzled, stammered a reply. The man tore off his gag without mercy.

"You were saying?"
"Ah, fuck… Thus yes, I was saying: not enough!"

Passing his hand behind the neck of the colossus again, the Rider grabbed his smooth skull and crushed his head against the stump. Raucous, muffled laughter echoed around the prisoners in the darkness. Well determined not to show any sign of weakness, Garius laughed in turn. On his side, Belenor was gesticulating like a demented as gibbering incomprehensible words. It was quite obvious that he wanted to speak. Falsely compassionate, the Rider freed him in turn from his muzzle. It is without wasting a second that Belenor hammered with his speech.

"Greetings, proud representatives of the Dune Riders tribe! I introduce myself, Belenor Nebius, ambassador of the Fyros Empire sent to your country to mediate negotiations between your tribe and this of the Dragon Tears!"

The lie was big. Witness the taken aback look Garius gave him. In the same way the various squads of Captain Apokillo's squadron had been sent to different strategic locations in the far-western desert, the squad led by Melkiar was a mere reinforcement sent by the Empire to bolster the defenses of Fort Kronk. The Empire had never planned to negotiate. But if this lie were to pass, the hope of negotiations, coupled with the diplomatic immunity that every ambassador enjoyed in principle, could save their bacon. Instantly, murmurs were heard in the darkness. His introduction had made its small effect.

"An ambassador, eh?" replied the Rider dryly. "I well so recognize the Empire. Destroy then negotiate. I was told that Thesop was a tyrant without honor, and that with his assassination, everything would become easier for us. Lies. Nothing has changed since Krospas rules your decadent empire. Living behind these walls has definitely turned you into servile cowards. I am ashamed to share your blood!"

More patriotic than anyone else, Garius sought to rise, ready to unhinge the jaw of the one who had just insulted his people and his Emperor. Unfortunately, the bonds that held him to the chair were too many and tight. Even for him. So the Fyros spat on the Rider's armor. Immediately, fists sprang up from the darkness and beat him up. The makeshift chair toppled to the side and the beating up went on. On the ground.

"We've tied you up tight, so you won't be able to get free. And then we filled your suits with vials of oil. If you try to ignite your bonds, your whole body will go up in flames."

At these words, the Savage sat astride the stump, facing Belenor, in front of the axe.

"Well, let's talk among civilized Fyros. I am Aekoros, one of the leaders of the Savage tribe. I have a first question for you, Belenor Nebius: are you from the squad commanded by the son of the tribal leader Tigriron?"

Baffled, Belenor gave Garius a quick glance. So, the Riders were looking for Melkiar? He should have known better. Ideally, he had to make sure the latter was safe and sound without revealing their membership in the squad. An impossible lie to defend. Especially now that he had posed as an ambassador to conduct negotiations between the Dune Riders and the tribe led by Melkiar's father… While, however, he didn't despair of finding a solution quickly, Garius didn't give him the opportunity to rack his brains long enough.

"If you ever have touched a single hair from Melkiar, I will..."

The kicking resumed at once. Belenor, who was beginning to panic, could not contain her emotion.

"Stop it! And, Garius, let me do the talking! Yes, we are part of Tigriron's son's squad. Our mission was to reach Fort Kronk in order to start negotiations with the Dune Riders tribe. But we were attacked by some of you on a root bridge and…"
"I know what happened. You were lucky that only part of the bridge collapsed. I, what I want to know is where is the son of Tigirion located. We saw you all come down into our galleries."

At these words, Belenor's heart heaved. Had only one part of the bridge collapsed? So, Melkiar and the others had survived! Better yet: they had gone looking for them through the network of dried veins. They could land any minute to free them. In the meantime, he had to buy time.

"You're wrong, we got separated from our squad during the explosion! We fell into the crevasse and miraculously found a passage to the caverns. We don't know where others are. But as an ambassador, I am a valuable prisoner! If you find them, you'll be in an advantageous position to negotiate!"

Yes, that was the only viable strategy. By the time the Riders got them back to Melkiar and the others, he would find a way to negotiate. Or even to trap them. He had to spend whatever time he had left imagining all the possible solutions.

"You want me to believe that you survived a fall of several hundred meters? What do you take me for? I know this part of the desert better than anyone."
"Then you probably know that the walls of the crevasses are often covered with roots! We fell into a kind of net, and only then did we climb back to the source of the roots, through the fault of the wall. You must believe us. We don't know where they are!"
"And if knew where they were… Kof kof… we wouldn't tell you." said Garius, coughing up blood. "We'd rather wait for them to find us… and kill you all."
"Garius, keep your mouth shut!"

The beating up resumed immediately. But at a hand signal from their superior, the goons stopped. A heavy silence settled in the darkened duct, where only Garius' wheezing breath could be heard. And then the Rider stood up, put down the lantern he was holding on ground, grabbed the edges of his helmet, and slowly removed it. He was a Fyros of about forty years of age, whose weathered, wood-colored hair blended in with his burnished, scarred face. Daintily, he placed one of his gloved hands on the handle of Garius' axe, whose blade was still stuck in the stump. Belenor couldn't decipher the look he gave her.

"Is this a trap? You think you're smarter than me, don't you?" he said, stroking the pommel of the weapon.
"No, no, absolutely not! Don't listen to him, there is no trap! We don't know where our comrades are!"
"You Imperials are all the same. You take us for morons. Degenerates, primitives... Yes, we are savage Riders. But not because we are not civilized, no. Because we cherish our freedom, and we are ready to do anything to preserve it! My comrades, on the bridge, who blew themselves up: they were sick. That's what happens when you breathe the torrents of air in the Desert of Fire for too long. This is what happens when you don't live behind walls. Of course, they would have preferred to live a few more years. But surrounded as they were, they decided to go for it. They had nothing left to lose, they had already accomplished everything. And you know what? I've already accomplished a lot too."
"Please, listen to me!"

With one hand, the Rider grabbed Garius by the collar of his suit and slammed his swollen head against the stump. The colossus' chipped mouth let out a mocking hiss as Belenor's eyes were filling with tears.

"You have yet anything to say?" the Rider asked, leaning into his ear.
"Yes… I... I piss on your ancestors."
"But… Garius, shut up! Aekoros, listen to me. Why would I lie to you, why?! We are both precious hostages, you... you have everything to gain by keeping us prisoner and negotiating our release with Melkiar! You have everything to gain, and we have a lot to offer!"
"Both? I thought you alone were the precious hostage… Lies. More lies. You definitely don't take me seriously. Hold him steady!" he threw in a firm tone to his goons, slapping Garius' skull.
"Please, what are you planning to do?!"

For all answer, the Savage tore the axe from its base and started pacing, obviously immersed in his reflections. Several tens of seconds passed thus. And then, in a whisper, Garius tried to reassure Belenor.

"Don't worry, Belenor. Everything… Everything is fine… Kof kof… Everything will work out fine."
"Kee… Keep silent Garius, I... I beg you, the Fyros stammered, his eyes misty with tears. U… Use the Sap and heal your wounds. I'll… I'll handle the situation, okay?"

Garius, his head still pressed against the stump, improvised a toothless smile. At the same time, the Rider stopped his thoughtful walk.

"Well, I've decided to believe you, Mister Ambassador. We're going to hold you hostage and try to… 'negotiate' with the one called Melkiar."

Belenor's heart raced again.

"Thank you! You... You just made the best decision of your life! You won't regret it!"
"I hope not. Anyway, if you tried to fool us, you'll end up like your friend."
"Wha… What do you mean?"

And, with a precise blow of his axe, the Rider decapitated Garius. The Fyros' head, with a final smile, fell to the ground and bounced back to Belenor. And with each bounce, the blow reverberated through the Fyros a hundredfold. From his heart to his skull. Then he screamed. He screamed as he had never screamed before. His soul shattered; his mind burst into flames; the mountain of his memories fell into ruin, taking with it his last affects. Without wanting it, he vomited himself, expelling all that could still attach him to reality. That is to say, of his very existence. He vanished in a corner of his head, leaving his uninhabited envelope at the mercy of the world. Hoping to forget. To forget the image of Garius' grimacing head, which he could not bring himself to take his eyes off. To forget this pain. To forget everything... But nothing remains empty forever. Nothing. Then, no sooner had he thought himself forever extinguished, than a secular shadow crept into him, and a liturgical chant emerged from the depths of his heart. In rhythm, the shadow began to dance.

"I want to die…"
"You can't, I need you Belenor.
"Make him shut up! Let him stop screaming!" bellowed the Savage over the screams of the unfortunate Fyros.
"This… this world is so cruel…"
"Think of the Happy Days, Belenor."
"Gag him, or cut out his tongue!"
"I... I can't accept this..."
"You must accept it, Belenor. You have to move on."
"But make sure he stays conscious!"
"I… I don't want to lose them…"
"I am always at your side, Belenor. Never forget."
"I want him to understand how we suffer…"
"I… I don't want… I don't want to lose them," sobbed the Fyros, whose screaming had stopped.
"Lose them? Your comrades? If the trap I plan to set for them using you as bait works, that's what will happen." the Rider answered coldly.
"No… I don't want to lose them…"
"Nothing is fair in war, Belenor Nebius. Nothing. You will join them soon, don't worry."
"No… No… No…"
"Come on, muzzle him."

Two of the goons advanced toward the Fyros, who no longer even tried to struggle. And as the one on the left was about to gag the prisoner, he stopped short. Something seemed to have caught his attention, behind Belenor, in the shadows. Not understanding what he saw, the goon glanced at his comrade. This one had just begun a slow movement of retreat, palms turned towards the ground.

"What are you two waiting for? Gag him."
"Chief... There's something there. Can't you see them? Two spheres…"

The goon didn't have time to finish his sentence when a tentacle of darkness came out of nowhere and pierced his chest at the level of his heart. A wave of panic swept through the group of Riders, who drew their axes and guns. But nothing could stop the storm they had raised… For, from the darkness, a multitude of other black appendages descended upon the unfortunate men, unable to defend themselves. Hearing the distant echo of the cries of horror, Belenor partly emerged from his catatonic state. Where was he? Who was making these cries? And what was that hot, thick liquid that was pouring down his face and seeping through the gaps in his armor? Then the Fyros looked up. In spite of the faint glow of the lantern, he could easily recognize a jungle Kami: the depth of that black, the whiteness of those eyes. But this one was different from the usual Kamis. For his small body was suspended from six long black and hairy legs, seeming to spring from his spine... Still elsewhere, Belenor watched the strange Kami pass over him, slowly. He should have been terrified by the sinister appearance of the divine creature, he knew it. Yet he felt no fear. He didn't feel anything anymore.

"The... The Dune Riders have always worshipped the Kamis… So… So why?"

Belenor looked down. A Fyros with wood-colored hair and a face full of scars, the same one who had just spoken those words, was lying in a mass grave of homins. His legs were missing. So that's what the liquid that was staining his face was: blood.

"You… You were hiding your game well… Belenor Nebius…"

Did they know each other? When the Kami stopped above the amputee, the latter pointed the dagger he was holding against his throat. He seemed determined to end it all. And just as he was about to cut it, his movement stopped short. The Fyros' arm was quivering. As if an invisible force prevented him from continuing. He stammered:

"You… You are not gods… You are… demons!"

Intrigued, Belenor turned his gaze again to the spirit creature. Above the amputee, the Kami was changing its appearance. His body, naturally plump, was swelling visibly. Its head was expanding so that its livid eyes gradually migrated to its temples. His little legs curled up, until they disappeared completely. But the worst was yet to come… For with a foul gurgling sound, the black and swollen mass tore itself apart. From bottom to top. It is only when Belenor saw the ignoble slit barded with teeth that regained consciousness of himself: his body, still tied to his chair, was now seized by a visceral fear. Yes, he was paralyzed with terror. And as the nightmarish maw came closer to the Rider, who was also paralyzed, he sank. He sank and dreamed. Of Garius' head, Varran's howls of despair, Tisse's given grooming, Xynala's caresses, and Melkiar's faded stare.

-–—o§O§o—–-

For the third time in a few hours, Belenor regained consciousness. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was Xynala's face, eyes closed, located a few centimeters from his own. The Fyrossa, lying against him, seemed to be sleeping. So, he had not dreamed: his friends had found him. Everything was real, even Garius' death… Looking around, he noticed that they were both in a small alcove carved in the bark, lit by the glow of a lantern hanging from the ceiling. Then Belenor looked again at her friend's sleeping face. She seemed so serene. Relieved to know she was safe and sound, he kissed her on the forehead. Although drowsy, Xynala reacted by passing an arm under his armpit and by tightening herself against him. The touch of his warm skin was so soothing.

"Xynala, can you hear me? I need to see Garius' body. Where is it?"

With a start, the Fyrossa woke up. And hardly did she cross the glance of Belenor that her eyes were loaded with tears. At once, she buried her face in the neck of her friend. The Fyros felt the powerful muscles of her arm contracting, against his back.

"Belenor, I was so afraid for you… But… Garius… I am so sad…"
"Xynala, I need to see his body. Please, where is it?"

Loosening her embrace, the hominin lifted the sheet that covered them and stood up. She was naked.

"We put him in a separate room, she said, picking up her leather suit. Melkiar watches over Varran, and Tisse and the others stand guard. We've taken refuge in a buried lair belonging to the Dragon's Tears."
"And Brandille?" asked Belenor, trying to ignore Varran's distant cries.
"Brandille has gone to Fort Kronk for reinforcements. They should be here soon. Only he could travel the last few miles without risk."

Reassured, Belenor got up and dressed in turn. Then he followed Xynala to the improvised burial chamber. Strangely enough, the sight of the sheet covering Garius' body, whose head had been skilfully placed back on the neck, did not trigger any rise of tears in him. As if the immense sadness he felt was impossible to express. The survivor sat down and rested his forehead on the immense draped torso of his deceased friend.

"I'm sorry, Garius. I panicked. Things could have ended differently, I'm sure. I will never forgive myself."
"Belenor, we… we need to know what happened." Xynala stammered as she leaned towards him.

Then, Belenor explained everything to her, in great detail. Xynala waited for him to finish before speaking again.

"Okay, thanks. You can't imagine how scared we were, when we saw you fall… Luckily, Brandille told us you were alive. You Belenor, specifically. He felt it. He was adamant. Varran was very worried about Garius… So, we scared off the pack of Riders, and without waiting, Melkiar led us to the galleries. We wandered for a long time, trying to get closer to the crevasse. Then, after several hours of searching, Brandille felt that you Belenor were in danger. So we sped up, and finally we came upon a mass grave in the middle of a shaft. And on you…"

Brandille had sensed that he was in danger? Like the Kami who had come to save him. At least, that was the assumption he was making.

"I don't understand Xynala." Belenor breathed, her forehead still resting on Garius' chest. "If the Kami had intervened earlier, he would have survived. So why? Why me?"
"Be… Belenor. I think you can ask him directly." Xynala replied before bowing face down to the bark.

Then, still seated, the Fyros turned around. A few feet away, a black Kami was staring at him with big, white, empty eyes. With a clumsy gait, the divine creature advanced to Belenor, who, remembering the monstrous mouth that had devoured the chief of the Riders, started to move backwards. However, the homin did not get discouraged.

"I… I thank you for coming to save me, O mighty Kami. But I… I can't stop thinking about my friend… Why? Why didn't you intervene a few minutes earlier?"

The Kami, who had stopped at Garius' body, looked back at Belenor. The survivor widened his eyes and swallowed. For now the spirit creature's eyes were filled with sadness. Without knowing why, Belenor held out an arm. And then, the Kami reacted in a totally unexpected way: he leaned its head against the hand of the homin and rubbed itself against it, as an animal would have done. Belenor didn't have time to appreciate the fabulous softness of his coat when a vision crossed him. A vision with the appearance of a memory. He was caressing the mask of a Zoraï. A firm mask, warm and black. As if he had just been burned, the Fyros abruptly withdrew his hand, which he then observed for a long time. And then, Xynala tapped on his shoulder, releasing him from the meanders of his mind.

"Belenor, look, the Kami!"

The divine creature, who had been bending over Garius' body, lifted the death sheet with a glance. At the sight of his friend's severed head, Belenor's heart leapt. Suddenly, he stood up, followed by Xynala.

"You… You can bring him back to life? You are a Kami, you have incredible powers! You… You can, I'm sure of it!"

Without reacting to the homin's words, the Kami placed its three large claws on the upper lip of the corpse, two of them at the level of the nostrils. It was only when they saw Garius' head moving and blood flowing that the two Fyros realized that the Kami's claws were extending into their friend's skull. If Xynala took a step forward, Belenor grabbed his arm. He had to know. Was he able to bring him back to life? Long, silent seconds passed. And then, finally, the Kami pulled his paw from Garius' face. His long claws were covered in blood. Turning to Belenor, he held out his palm, in which lay a small ball of flesh. Gently, the homin passed his hand over the strange bloody mass. What was that thing? And where was that imperceptible echo coming from, which he could barely make out? Unfortunately, a familiar voice called out to him and prevented him from concentrating any longer on the strange beat.

"Belenor, you must explain to me what happened."

The Fyros turned around. Melkiar, just entering the room, was staring at him with a dark look. However, as soon as the survivor opened his mouth to answer, the air became charged with energy: behind him, the Kami had risen into the air and was pointing with a sparkling claw at the newcomer. With the same hand that a few seconds before had unveiled the strange bloody booty. At the sight of the spirit creature's angry gaze, Belenor's body froze. Why was she looking at Melkiar like that? What had he done to deserve such treatment? While he longed to understand the scene that was unfolding before his eyes, this was anything but a time for questioning. For as the claw charged with magic, Belenor felt the draconic ashes that composed his being resonate with those of the divine creature. All around him, the whole small room began to vibrate. Then, listening only to his courage, he threw himself between the Kami and Melkiar.

"No! Please! He is my friend, don't hurt him!" he shouted, spreading his arms.

Then, instantly, the claw of the Kami took back its black color and the air discharged of the energy which it had just accumulated. The spirit creature, which had turned its gaze back to Belenor, floated to the ground. It floated to the ground, then sank slowly into it, as if the latter had no consistency. The homin stared at her two large white eyes for a long time. What had just happened? He did not understand. And if there was an answer, it would not come from the Kami. Because inexorably, the creature was melting into the bark… When his little fist disappeared, probably still clenched around the strange globe of flesh, Belenor wondered again about the nature of its contents. He also wondered what the Kami's absence would leave, when his two large white eyes vanished in turn. Would he ever see his savior again? He couldn't be sure. Yet he felt no sorrow. For the first emotion that overwhelmed him was relief. Yes, they had have a close shave.

"Be... Belenor. What was that Kami doing there? You really have to explain everything to me, please."

When the Fyros turned around, as if dazed, Melkiar looked at him with a forbidden air. He had so much to tell him… But again, he had no time to answer him. Because behind his friend, the person who meant the most to him had just appeared.

"Enor!"

Forgetting Melkiar completely, Belenor rushed to Brandille and threw himself into his arms. And then, for the first time since his awakening, he burst into tears. He screamed and cried for a long time. He was able to express his immense sadness, at last. Brandille, who let his despair express itself without intervening, never broke contact. And then, when the howling became a moan, her friend approached her mouth to her ear.

"Don't forget, Enor. This immeasurable pain you feel, it will pass. For everything passes. So goes life. So goes time."

  Belenor Nebius, narrator