The lands beneath the Burning River suffer from a particular kind of evil fortune. The wind most often blows east, but once a season the mephitic exhalations of the man-made calamity turn southwards, and spread their deadly materials over a wide area.
This has devastated any villages that used to be there before Anthilians decided to play that desperate move, and the populations have therefore being driven to extinction, one failed crop after another, one acidic rain after another.
The raven does not know this, but it is clear as day to Runo. She has strung the bird back under her control after a few days of absence, allowing it to regain his strength. The tips of its primary feathers are now stained with grey soot, or perhaps it’s the beginning of the teratoma borne inside it due to the exposure to the Hearthwomb.
Her arts cannot do anything to change it. At least, now that she knows its body a little better, she can allow milder commands and her rule over its body is a tad gentler. It is a new feeling being able to share this kind of control with something else. Ever since she was brought to Tuonela, she has only known the rule of steel and the bite of the leash.
Pain and fear are like a river to her, one that can only flow in one direction, and the only way to resists the current is to reach the point that’s closest to its tenebrous spring – that way, she can be the one to dish out punishment, and not suffer it. She can the one holding the leash, and not the one hit by its barbs.
That is the truth of the world: there is no peace under the Iron Crown.
And yet… now that she has tried to let the chain a little looser with her bird thrall, she feels it has grown used to her presence. It is not scratching against her mind anymore, like the first few days when she had taken possession of it, and pushed it to fly towards the sea, trying to find a passage to Carthaza.
On the northern way towards the Ocean Sea, though, all she found was impassable terrain and harsh mountains. She can’t get past the Burning River by the northern path.
And she has just proven she can’t get through it – her body would last only a little longer than the raven’s in that tortured land.
But the south passage…
It’s hardly better.
The raven reaches an abandoned tower, its masonry still somehow standing after all those years. It has not been made by Anthilians: it’s just made out of simple bricks and it shows nothing of the incredible expertise of the washed-over people. But it is enough for the raven to get a bit of respite.
She would have been against it only a few days ago. But something has definitely changed.
Runo comes from a long week spent in the slave-mills. Part of her role as a Marrower is supervise production and quotas.
And when those are not met, it is her turn to step into the river of pain and fear and guide its cruel current towards those beneath her.
She used to find solace in it – maybe the same feeling her superiors used to feel when they beat her, back when she was still in training. All the way up to the Gloom Lords.
She can kick back and let the raven relax. They are not friends.
But she is not pushing it the way she did.
The bird walks about, studying the tower. There could be a seed or two hidden in a corner, or maybe…
There – it dashes towards a mouse, either too curious or too slow, and it devours it in one gulp.
The raven feels a lot better, and Runo allows herself a smile.
She then guides it towards the parapet, regarding their surroundings. This area of the southern passage is empty plains, with the occasional discoloured patch from when the acid rains have left their mark. The rest is a series of old roads and abandoned towns, still peeking over the bushes. Trees still have a hard time growing here. Who knows if one day, when Tuonela is just a bad memory and the world has mended itself, licking its wounds, they will be able to grow here again?
Some of the scars from the Capsizing still have to heal.
The raven lifts its eyes to regard the Crumblemoon. The satellite is a jumbled-up mess of fragments, surrounded by a ring of dust. It might not be the worst consequence of the Capsizing, but it surely is the most visible.
She moves its eyes once more to the plain, and there she spots certain areas of vegetation growing thicker and denser over the desolation of the poisoned land.
That’s the spot.
The raven picks up flight, and it raises and raises, picking up a warm current as the wind carries it upwards. It has to become a barely-visible dot against the dark sky as it flies towards the colony.
Runo may extend her sympathies to the people of Anthilia, and she has seen a group of Iskalnari going merrily to their business, but there is no love lost between Tuonela and Elves.
Or Anthilia and Elves.
Or Elves and every other colony of Elves.
She can’t see them from here, of course. Even a steelbeak raven has its limits, and its eyes, while keen, cannot pierce through the weird ceramid-like lattice that covers the area. It’s like a forest of brambles sprouting out of the terrain, growing thicker and thicker as they stretch out, like layers of overgrown skin covering a wound.
There is movement beneath.
The din and tin of battle as small human-like figures, their features seemingly stretched and somehow misshapen, like seen through frosted glass, fight against each other.
The raven flies just a little bit higher. Just to be safe.
She does not seem to find any difference between the two hosts, though. And she has heard of actual wars between colonies, when Elves fight against each other to the last amniote.
Elves are never as unkind as with a foreign colony, after all.
Which is good news for everyone else.
She doubts even the Gloom Lords would be able to withstand a league between colonies, if they were to march over Tuonela. They can barely deal with them the way they are, scattered and murderous.
No, this does seem like a germination.
Curiosity rears its ugly head, and she plunges the raven a little lower, trying to get aa better sight. She has only ever heard of this: when a colony grows over a certain number of individuals, those in excess start to change and mutate and are no longer recognized as members.
And as they are now invaders, they get chased away from their once-nest. If they are lucky.
Most of the time they get simply murdered.
The group of Elves running away from the others seem to be of the lucky kind.
They are heading north as quick as their ceramid-plated legs and carry them.
They cannot cross the Burning River – not even their biology, so quick to adapting, can withstand that blasted land, but she suppose they can grow into a more suited form as soon as they get out of reach of the ones giving chase.
Something wheezes past the raven.
Looking below, a few of the Elves have spotted the bird even if it is flying twice the height it used to do over the shore, when the Anthilians elected it as their target practice.
No time to show off its abilities now. The second arrow nicks its bleached primaries. Runo takes over, and it pushes it east in a flurry of wings.
Next time she finds some Elves, she will steer clear of them.
Author’s Notes: It’s ben a while since I wanted to introduce Elves into this post-apocalyptic world, and make them look quite different as well. I hope you liked them – we will have means to meet them again in the future. In the meantime, thanks for reading.