In 2013 I wrote a submission for The Dark Crystal Author Quest Open Call. Because of my love for The Dark Crystal, I decided to share my entry with you, the people. It clocks in at just under 10,000 words. Or if you rather, here is a PDF version.
I hope you enjoy it and it gives a fun new perspective on this wonderful, imaginative world called Thra.
What does Dark Crystal mean to me?
In the 90's, at age 12 I attended the Jim Henson exhibit at Vancouver Science World, standing in front of skekZok, entranced for hours. I was born with several physical defects; a small, round body and long limbs so my family called me Kermit. Throughout my life I've had health issues, but the works of Jim Henson are a silver lining. The Dark Crystal is one of the most visually amazing and inspirational films for me and that day at Science World is one of the reasons I began to write, draw and continue to battle my physical limitations.
Submission Plot Summary
Feve, a gelfling servant of skekOk, is sent on a quest to find a lost dagger of power. She comes across a village of Woodland gelfling who teach her of true gelfling nature.
When a gelfling named Rian visits, he brings dark warnings, that Skeksis are draining gelfling of their essence, and that the clans must gather.
Feve joins their journey, unaware the Skeksis have sent someone to bring her back, dagger or no dagger.
Submission Character Profiles
The Scroll-Keeper and historian of the Skeksis. Even though he looks as frail, brittle and dusty as his countless scrolls, he is secretly very clever. An expert liar, skekOk has revised the histories of his kind and of Thra more times than he can count.
The Chamberlain and next in line for the Skeksis throne, he is cunning and quite vicious. Always smiling, but never to be trusted. Along with skekOk, he concocts a plan to acquire a special dagger of power.
The Ritual-Master. He is told by skekOk of a special blade that will help him overthrow the emporor.
A low-level custodian of the library, she is a Spriton gelfling who works for skekOk. She spends her hours cataloging, re-writing, copying, note-taking, filing and sucking blood from her endless paper cuts. She was born into castle life and accepts Skeksis rule. Unlike most gelfling, she can read. SkekOk and skekZok send her off on a perilous journey to locate the dagger.
A nervous, timid Vapra gelfling who worked under skekSil's eye. He is Feve's first friend and the first gelfing she ever dreamfasts with, thus, the first being she actually forms a connection with. While searching for the dagger, he is lost and Feve fears him dead.
A gelfling guard of the castle, he discovers that the horrifying truth: that Skeksis are draining essence from the gelfling. He escapes from the castle and begins to wander from clan to clan, warning all those who will listen.
The matriarch of the Cadmirae clan, a branch of Woodland gelfling who takes in Feve and a wounded Daarik. She is blind, missing both her eyes. She is lovely and calm, always ready to listen. She knows she is waiting for a figure to bring change to gelfling-kind, but is unsure who that being will be.
A handsome but dangerous Vapra male sent by the Slave-Master to track down Feve after she vanishes without a trace. He is cool, aloof and manipulative.
The Gathering Storm: A Dark Crystal Prequel
A thin, brittle-looking creature stalked through the seemingly endless labyrinth of his library. He was muttering to himself and wringing his arthritic hands as he moved. On occasion he would pluck out a scroll or book from one shelf, hold it for a while as he wandered, then place it on another shelf with no apparent reason. Other times, he would open a book, read as he walked, tear out a page and crumple it into his talon-like hand. He opened a scroll, scanned its scribbles with his eyes, and shoved it up his sleeve, then resumed wringing his hands and muttering. Then he heard a muttering not his own.
The high-pitched keen echoed against the library walls and the Scroll-Keeper craned his head. He looked up and watched as skekSil came around a shelf and stepped into view.
"skekOk," skekSil said with a slight bow, his cunning smirk curving his beak. "I have been thinking. You are the great Scroll-Keeper of the castle. You retain our history in these books and pages, yes?"
skekOk adjusted one of the three pair of spectacles that perched on his long beak. "I do," he answered with pride in his voice. Still, he was wary of the Chamberlain and his deceptive nature. "Why are you asking? You've never had interest in the written word before." SkekOk narrowed his pale eyes, nudging his head forward as he eyed the other Skeksis. "Why should I waste my time with a crying crawlie such as yourself?" The words came out of skekOk as a hiss.
skekSil gave a slow nod and another hum. "That's true," he agreed. He raised his hand and placed it on skekOk's shoulder, pulling him closer. SkekSil whispered, "But the Scientist has discovered a new trick. He can not only steal essence from Podlings but now Gelfling as well."
SkekOk eyes blinked slowly, waiting for skekSil to make his point.
"Only the Emperor can drink essence," skekSil reminded the skinny Skeksis. "And I have seen with my own eyes, how well the essence of Gelfling rejuvenates the body. Now, if we were to overthrow the Emperor, I would give you half of all the Gelfling essence extracted. I know your eyes are growing dim and faded, Scroll-Keeper."
Though he was cautious of the Chamberlain, the prospect of youth made his mouth salivate. SkekOk nodded with little speed, and skekSil mimicked the movement.
"There may be something," skekOk finally said, running his hand through the wiry wisps of his pale hair as his dusty brain started working. He pulled away from skekSil and turned, venturing deeper into the never-ending lines of shelves. "I seem to recall a spear or a sword or...ah, yes, it was a knife. Hum."
With skekSil following eagerly behind, skekOk made his way to his desk. It was amassed with all manner of papers just thrown mindlessly about its surface, stacked into towers or tossed about and resting like rolling hills. He pulled open a drawer and fetched a key. Abandoning his desk, he went down another hall of books, skekSil ever his shadow, and walked until he came to a cupboard. He fit the key into the cupboard's large, ornate lock, turned it, and swung the doors open.
The books inside were dusty, their spines standing stiff like soldiers. SkekOk pulled out one and began turning pages. He mumbled as he leafed through the book.
"Ah, yes. Here. A blade, lost soon after the first conjunction," skekOk adjusted his spectacles. "Or shortly before the second conjunction. The parchment is old, words are faded. It seems that, whoever wields it will change the world, but suffer a terrible fate. Those who step forward to reclaim the blade will rise above all."
"Hmmm..." skekSil ran the words around in his mind. "I think I have an idea."
# # #
"And so you see, skekZok, why I thought that this would be a great artifact for you to have in your possession. You are the Ritual-Master, and--"
"To do my rituals with such a dagger..." skekZok tented his fingers as he thought. He looked at the thin Skeksis. "It is said that whoever wields this dagger will change the course of the world?"
"Yes, great Ritual-Master," skekOk nodded, deliberately forgetting to mention the detail about the horrible downfall that the wielder would suffer.
"Such an artifact is mine by right," skekZok realized, rising to his feet. "I must possess it!"
SkekOk was pleased with The Ritual-Master's sudden uptick in energy. He smirked and reached into his sleeve. He pulled out a rolled up parchment and handed it over. SkekZok unrolled it and studied the lines. It was topographical map of a portion of the land.
"I believe the dagger lies somewhere not far from the castle, skekOk said. "Possibly here." He pointed to a spot where a river cut through the wilds and the grasslands, and swirled like a spiral among cliffs. It did not appear to be more than a day's walk from the castle. "But I refuse to go." He looked away from the map and up at skekZok. "Far too dangerous. I am not strong and commanding such as yourself. I am small, frail. Good for bookkeeping. Bad for fighting. I can, however, send some of my Gelfling to assist you."
SkekZok scoffed. "Gelfling? What good could they ever do?"
"Read. Some of mine can read. And write. And if that is not enough, send them ahead of you to fall pray to any traps or treacheries along the way."
SkekZok took this information into consideration. "Very well. I will take one of yours. No more. I have my own who can do things that need doing."
SkekOk nodded. "So shall it be, skekZok. You will be a wise Emperor indeed."
skekZok eyed the smaller Skeksis. "Why are you telling me this? What do you want in return?"
SkekOk had anticipated such a question. "You know you can trust me. All I ask in return is that when you are Emperor, we form a solid alliance. Ritual and word are closely intertwined."
A mutter from skekZok, and a slow nod. "Indeed. I shall leave for this dagger tomorrow. At the rise of the first sun. Prepare your Gelfling."
"Yes," skekOk bowed and smirked. "My Emperor."
# # #
It was sweltering inside the chamber where Feve and four other Gelfling were collected. The five of them were shrouded in cloaks, but three of them seemed more hidden behind the shadows of their hoods, their heads low, nose and mouth just partially visible. Their lips were slightly agape. Feve was second in line and could feel the eyes of the fourth Gelfling on her. Number Four was trembling a little. It must have been nerves, it was far too hot under these hoods to be shivering, Feve thought as she felt a bead of sweat trickle down her temple. The heat made errant strands of her braided hair stick to her cheeks as well as the back of her neck. She watched the tall Skeksis rummage around his shelves, looking for what, Feve did not know, nor did she particularly care.
"The five of you will accompany me," he said, walking to an ornate chest that stood in the corner of the chamber as if like a predator. It creaked when he pulled open the hinges and Feve felt her ears twitch in discomfort at the noise. Number Four winced visibly and the other three made no movement at all. Their complacency would have been eerie to an outsider, but Feve thought they were just especially well-trained. Or perhaps they belonged to the Servant-Master with the missing hand, she thought. He was far more cruel than the other Skeksis of the castle. If they did indeed belong to skekNa the Servant-Master, it was self-evident why they were so disciplined.
"You will be my retinue, assisting me where I need assisting. We must venture beyond the castle in order to harvest some ...ingredients. And you!" He pointed a strong, leathery talon at Feve, then tossed her a rolled up parchment. SkekZok knew that her being an assistant to The Scroll-Keeper provided Feve with the knowledge of reading and writing, a skill few Gelfling of the castle possessed. "You will mind the map. Read it, guide us, mark down our path and...such things. I will not have time for such busywork.” He tossed her another parchment. "And you will also follow the words on this scroll your master copied for me lead us to the ...items.” He peered at her with obvious scepticism. "I trust you have your record keeping equipment with you?"
"Yes, Master Skeksis." With the exception of Emperor skekSo and skekOk, to whom she was a personal servant, Feve was too low in class to call the Skeksis by name and was required to call them all simply 'Skeksis'. "Master skekOk says we must always have our tools with us; a scroll, an ink and a pen, for we may never know when something must be noted down.” She adjusted the ratty, patchwork-leather satchel slung across her chest. It was crammed with paper scrolls, inks and quills and made the cloak tight on her shoulders and neck. She held great dislike for her bag, but skekOk insisted she wear it nearly every moment of every day, true to his word that one must always be prepared. Because of the way it rested on her body, it had long ago crushed her wings, leaving them numb and useless.
"Follow!" SkekZok demanded of them all. The three began to walk then the nervous one, whom Feve decided to call Trembles, followed quick. She sighed and took up the end of the parade.
Their many footfalls were a soft, menacing chorus of shuffles and clatters. It was a strange din combining the rustle of the Skeksis' robes, the pads of their shoes, and the many buckles on Feve's satchel as well as the clinking inkwells therein. All the sounds floated around the massive cavern-like hallways of the castle and bounced off the walls in a symphony of banality heralding their presence. The footsteps they left in the dust were swept away by the brushing of their cloaks along the ground. Feve had never been in this part of the castle, so close to the entrance. She watched the critters roll and skitter along the ground, squeaking their greetings. Were there always so many up here?
They passed lines of Gelfling guards who each stood at the mouth of branching off corridors. Feve focused on the back of Trembles' cloak-covered head as they walked. The guards were forbidden from interacting with others unless it was to uphold the laws and safety of the castle.
To walk through the tunnel that served as both entrance and exist to the castle was to see the world in a putrid, dry yellow glow. It ran in a long, slow decline, suspended above the horrible gulch that surrounded the castle. It seemed to tether the castle to the world around it like an umbilical cord. As they passed through the tunnel that hung lifelessly out like an expired, petrified snake-skin, Feve felt excitement for one of the few times in her life. The first few miles outside of the Castle of the Crystal passed in a blur.
There was a heavy chill to the air. Above them, the black clouds swirled with anger. They looked heavy and seemed ready to break apart, dousing them all with their froth and spittle. Yet in the distance the clouds turned from churning and black to lazy and multi-coloured. Light from the three suns streamed through the clouds, creating ribbons of gold that seemed to connect the sky to the earth. Was that where they were going?
Though her eyes were wide and she was eager to visit the place where the sky and earth connected, Feve never questioned her master. She followed the Skeksis and the Gelfling without a word as they made their way across the land known as Skarith.
They walked for what seemed like hours, all the while the wind from the angry clouds tugged at their cloaks and hoods. Eventually they came out from under the shadow of the stormclouds and into the sunlight that punished the strained desert ground.
Immediately as she stepped foot on the burning sand, Feve felt a sensation that was difficult to place. It was almost as if she was being watched, but whoever was watching her felt benevolent. The deeper within the dunes they ventured, the more she felt the presence. It was nagging, unwelcome, but not intrusive.
"Map!" skekZok turned and glowered at Feve. He watched as she retrieved the map from her satchel and unrolled it. "Lead us to where the sands knot with the wild and the grass."
Feve went from the rear to the head of the line, passing even skekZok. She gasped as his hand grasped her shoulder and pulled her back. His beak came close to her head, its chitinous hook prodding at the shell of her pointed ear.
"Tread carefully, little reader. Let no valley or forest come under our feet."
The air caught in her throat and even after he released her, she could not breathe nor swallow. She forced her feet to move, one step after another. She felt as if she were shivering worse than Trembles.
Clutching the map in her hands, Feve lead the group along the pained, cracked earth which was slowly decaying from lack of energy. On either side, in the great distance was greenery, flora, but Feve danced a careful path and the urge to explore was crushed by the fear of punishment, should she stray.
Gradually life did indeed intrude on the rotted ground, blades of grass in shocking greens and rich wheaty colours. Sometimes the smell of sweet pollen would be carried on the wind, faint, far away, but making itself known. As the weeds poked between their toes, Feve's fear began to ebb. She walked faster, striding with confidence as she read the map. She could almost forget that she was walking under the shadow of a Skeksis.
Yet still, more hours passed and they continued their trek without food or water. The sun's heat beat down upon them, and under their cloaks they were all drenched in sweat. The land was no longer wondrous, just hot and bright. This journey was no longer an adventure, but torture.
Feve stifled a groan as she realized they would have to ascend some rocky landscapes. The natural world was starting to close in, shaping the black earth like an arrowhead. They began to climb up rough stones, unhappy hills, and idle cliffs, an odd geography naturally cut by the unyielding Black River. The river took eons to create such an unruly structure, and eons from the day of Feve's journey, the river would still be worrying away at its masterpiece.
They slid back down the other side of the hills and cliffs, gradually making their way down a chasm to solid ground. The chasm wall was a honeycomb of cave-mouths. Half-a-hundred unseeing, endless caverns served as hollow eye sockets to the cliff wall, unblinking, staring without sight. It was unnerving. But only one cave actually touched the ground and was accessible from where they stood. While it didn't look welcoming, it was the only true way to go without having to turn back. Feve looked at the map, confirming her suspicion. She rolled up the parchment, tucked it away and continued on.
"That looks like a good home for a pack of arduffs.” Trembles said.
The point caused skekOk's words regarding traps and tangles to once again hiss through skekZok's mind. While he doubted the possibility of traps, it was prudent to be cautious. It would not do to come this far and fail now due to hubris. He considered the thought as they trundled forward and shook it out of his head, his beak clacking.
But hubris was it's own demon, and skekZok walked after Feve. The parade continued on, wilfully marching into the mouth of the wall. They walked for several paces, and skekZok began to eye the Gelfling all around him. Traps indeed. This was not right. Perhaps skekOk instructed these Gelfling to steal the dagger from him. Yes, they were foul little thieves just waiting for the chance to pluck the dagger from his hand and slit his throat. SkekOk should have known better.
He felt the ground move under his footstep, and there was a small clicking sound that was scarcely audible. Loose dirt rained down on him and his troupe a moment. Then, all at once a huge stone fell from the cave's ceiling, crushing the last Gelfling in line. They all turned and stared at the spot where a moment before a Gelfling stood, breathing, and now there was a rock awash in a splatter of red and flesh.
"Stop, Gelfling," skekZok boomed, though all the Gelfling had already halted. Trembles and Feve looked back at him. "I need you, map-reader. You," he pointed to one of the two remaining stoic Gelfling. "Take the lead."
The hooded Gelfling shifted and without a word, wandered to the front of the line. They walked, and the darkness began to close in on them. Feve tried to see the map, but the darkness was too thick. She wanted to say something, explain she could not make out the markings, but she feared the Skeksis at her back, and so she bit her tongue.
There was a rustling sound, then a scrape, then the darkness was chased away by the weak light of a sudden flame. Trembles held a burning lantern in his hand.
"That's better." He said in a shy voice.
Feve tilted her head and then gave a small, wordless nod of appreciation. Perhaps she misjudged Trembles.
"Read, Gelfling." SkekZok shoved Trembles toward Feve so she could take advantage of the light. "Read from the second scroll."
Feve unfurled the second scroll, there were swirls and jagged ink strokes scribbled haphazardly all over the parchment. At first glance the meaning of it all confused Feve. She walked slowly as she studied the map, Trembles at her back with the lantern, and the other bodies trailing behind. Eventually they reached a small, cramped chamber with several cavern openings before them, branching in many directions.
"Which way?" demanded skekZok.
"Just a moment," Feve snapped, before she added in haste, "My great lord...I must concentrate.” She could feel Trembles staring at her in shock. She glanced back at him, and in the lamp-light she noticed his hair seemed to shine. She set her jaw and grabbed his wrist, adjusting the lantern for better light. She traced the ink scratches with a finger, trying to eke out a pattern, some sort of logic in the scattered symbols.
"...Wait...” Feve lifted her head and looked towards the wall. She grabbed the scroll in one hand and Trembles' wrist in the other. She forced him to walk to the wall. "Here."
As she had with the ink patterns, she traced the wall. Soon she noticed that under a thin crust of dirt, the stone walls seemed to display the same sort of markings. Her finger followed the twirling circle path on the wall, dragging her finger down to the floor as the marking seemed to dribble downward as well. She checked the scroll again, then looked at Trembles. "What's your name?"
Trembles blinked. "My name? Oh, um. It's been so long...Daarik."
"Daarik," Feve repeated.
Feve ignored his question. "Daarik, can you follow me and look on the walls and floor for more symbols that look like this?" She pointed to the swirling symbols on the page. "And if you see these," she pointed to the sketchy, jagged marks. "Tell me right away. Don't touch it."
Daarik nodded and followed as Feve began to scrutinize the walls.
SkekZok narrowed his eyes. "What are you doing, Gelfling?"
"I think the swirls are markers, telling us where to go," she explained, "and the scratches are a warning."
"What if the swirls are the warning?" Daarik pointed out as Feve and he studied the entrance to one of the caverns. "There are a lot more swirls than scratches. Wouldn't you want as many warnings as possible?"
"I can't really say," Feve admitted. "We have to pick a theory and stick with it until proven otherwise."
"You sound a lot like the Scientist."
Feve thought she saw him smile just slightly, in good humour. "Is he your master?” she asked.
"N-no...Master skekSil is my m-master..." Daarik admitted as Feve picked up a rock and walked toward one of the caves that was etched with the scratched marks.
Feve tossed the rock into the mouth of the cave and they heard it thud against the dirt floor. She waited, ears twitching to listen. She heard the faint creak of old wood, then felt a slight breeze that should not have been possible. Then a large segment of a tree-trunk swung through the air, coming at the Gelfling. Feve just barely managed to throw herself from it's path before she was pulverized. Her breath was heavy and her heart felt as if it was nesting in her throat. She looked at Daarik.
"S-see?" She stammered. "The swirls are safe.” She pushed herself to her feet and dusted off her clothes.
The group went into a catacomb that was marked with swirls. Feve and Daarik lead the way while the two other hooded Gelfling took the rear, with skekZok in the centre. They walked through the dusty caves, the walls covered with webs from insects, shining, slimy cracks in the walls carved by worms, nests from wild screechrats, and other creepy things.
Guided by Feve and the map, they ended up in a den with six identical chests. SkekZok inhaled and hissed out "yeeesss..." It was then that Feve knew there were not here for ingredients. This was what they had come for.
Together, Daarik and Feve pored over each one, looking for clues as to what might be inside. Upon inspection, all the boxes seemed quite plain, with not a swirl, scribble or glyph among them. The sides were smooth, despite centuries passing. But in the relative isolation of the caves, away from weather and light, their pristine condition was unsurprising.
"Well, Gelfling?” SkekZok asked with little patience.
Feve looked to the Skeksis. "I don't know which is the one you're looking for. It could be any one of them."
SkekZok growled and shoved one of the taciturn Gelfling towards a box. "Open it," he ordered.
The Gelfling walked to the second chest and pulled out a chisel and hammer he had cloistered away within the depths of his cloak. The sight of the tools gave Feve a feeling of unease. The Ritual-Master was prepared. This was most certainly what they had come for. Whatever could be in these chests, she wondered as she watched the Gelfling begin to chisel away. Daarik was holding the light that the Gelfling could work by and Feve could see his nervous trembling.
When the seal was broken, the Gelfling put down the tools and began to shove the lid open. It made the sound of stones rubbing against one another. There was a click, and from the upturned lid shot several small metal darts. The nameless Gelfling was speared through the throat and chest then fell. Daarik managed to duck away, as did Feve. SkekZok's thick, layered robes absorbed the impact of the few darts that touched him and while his robes were torn, no harm came to him worse than shredded pockets. In a rage, he began ripping the darts from the folds of his clothing. He was a hurricane of anger and he stomped around the den. He grabbed the open chest and flung it into another. It exploded on contact, sending flaming shrapnel into the walls. The three Gelfling managed to avoid any serious injury but the wrath just grew from within skekZok and he continued to destroy the ancient chests.
The next one he smashed only seemed to hold sand, which cracked open and leaked the crystalline granules as if it were bleeding. Yet it didn't explode, or prick him, or poison. Feve and Daarik looked at each other and began digging through the spilled sand. Taking one side each, they pulled the cracked chest apart and continued their digging. SkekZok stopped and watched.
Hidden deep within the shining sand was an object bound in fabric. Feve pulled it from the shimmering sand and brushed it clean of excess dust. SkekZok's eyes widened as she unfurled the cloth and the lantern light caught on a shining blade.
SkekZok cried out in triumph. He shoved Feve and Daarik away and snatched the blade up for himself. He looked it over, checking it for damage. It was flawless.
Feve picked herself up off the ground, brushing sand from her palms and knees. SkekZok wrapped the blade back up in it's cloth and moved to tuck it into one of the pockets hidden in the folds of his robes. The blade slipped against the fabric of his cloak, through air. He looked down to see the pockets were useless tatters. With a frustrated snarl, he shoved the dagger into Feve's hands. "Keep it in your bag, safe, Gelfling." He told her. Then his hard, sinewy hand gripped her auburn braid. He pulled and she felt her feet leave the ground. "If anything happens to this blade, you will be given to The Scientist. Or worse."
Feve swallowed the hot saliva that terror caused to well on her tongue. Her toes stretched and dangled, trying to find ground. "Yes, Master Skeksis."
Mercifully he lowered her down so her feet could touch the solid surface before letting go of her hair. He looked at the other two remaining Gelfling. "Now, back to the castle."
# # #
Returning to the castle was slow going. Thunder rolled with fury and lightning cracked around them. Brilliant forks stabbed their way through the sky as if the clouds were a meal to be feasted upon. The rain poured down in an angry rush and turned the ground into swirled, slippery mud that sucked at their shoes. They slipped, got stuck, or fell repeatedly. It was hard to see, black, with the violent streaks of water before their vision. The rain had long ago caused the flame in Daarik's lantern to gut out and there was no light breaking through the stormclouds save for the occasional flash of lightning. Their cloaks were heavy and waterlogged, their hoods constantly sagging down and covering their eyes. The slower they went, the angrier skekZok became.
An arc of lightning stretched across the black sky and crashed into the chasm walls, causing stones to tumble down into the Black River. The River was swollen with rainwater, its banks broken and overflowing. Even as they stood many paces away from the bank, the water was already up to their ankles.
Daarik looked nervously at the rushing black water, the current capped with angry grey foam. "We don't have to cross, do we?"
"No," answered Feve. "We just keep the river to our right."
They continued to trek through the water, their feet numb from the cold. The third remaining Gelfling trailed behind for a time, before he miss-stepped and was sucked down under the waves, too exhausted to fight for air or earth. None of the others seemed to notice.
The unrelenting rain pelted them, and the water rose from ankle deep to waist deep. Feve removed her satchel and held it above her head in a vain effort to keep it dry, and to keep the dagger from floating away.
"W-wait!" Daarik froze, but his ears were twitching. "Do you hear that?"
Feve and skekZok paused to listen. They felt it before they heard it, a shiver in the ground, a strange cry of animals somewhere deep in the distant forest.
SkekZok watched as fliers streaked across the sky in terror, their voices screaming in warning. He held out his hand. "Give me the dagger, Gelfling. Gelfling!"
Feve looked away from the flying animals to the Skeksis. "Huh?"
He strode toward her and grabbed at the satchel, curling his claw around it and giving a sharp yank. "GIVE ME THE DAGGER!"
Then there was a rumble, a gurgling roar that quickly filled their ears, and they felt the ground get pushed out from under them.
The torrent was upon the three of them before they had any hope of bracing themselves. The rush of water tackled them, and tossed them about as if they were leaves in a gusty day. Feve felt herself being thrown in every direction, spun, her ribs compressed painfully by the weight of the water. Still, she held her breath, dizzy from the tumbling and jostling, the water shooting it's way up her nose. She coughed out an explosion of bubbles. She clawed through the liquid chaos, trying to find something to cling to. Though an amazing amount of luck, her hand broke the surface, and her face soon after. She gasped, her head buzzing from the lack of air and the disorienting ride she took among the currents. She coughed again, tried to look around, but the current was tugging at her again.
She grabbed on to something and felt it curl around her hand. She blinked water from her eyes and saw Daarik's face. Beyond that, she saw a entirely different history. Her mind was flooded with memories not her own. They were of a life that was dull, uninteresting, not unlike the one she had known. Serving The Chamberlain, being dealt painful blows when not seeing his wishes through correctly, but being given sumptuous scraps off the smiling Skeksis' plate. Hearing skekSil's schemes and plots, the desire for power. Having a small warmth in the chest when looking upon a certain female Gelfling: herself.
In turn, she shared with Daarik her own memories of learning words and writing, how skekOk mostly ignored her, her days and nights of cataloguing, filing. Of weaving and scratching inky lies into the truths of historic scrolls, the endless stinging paper-cuts. The loneliness, the isolation, the days, weeks of not speaking to another being, Skeksis or otherwise. Having only the paper and pen to converse with. But now, something had been awakened within Feve. She had formed a fragile, tenuous connection with someone, and suddenly she was not so alone.
The figure of skekZok erupted out of the waves behind her and crashed down upon her small body. Daarik's hand had left her grasp and the connection was severed, killed. Feve kicked, her soft-soled shoes slipping from her feet. She was pulled under again as the Skeksis yanked her heavy, smothering cloak. She struggled with the clasp, ripping at it with both hands frantically, determined to lose the cumbersome garment. At last she felt the clasp burst apart and the cloth unfold from around her neck. Feve still felt the Skeksis drag her down as he groped for her bag, not being fully free of his selfish embrace. She shrugged away and as she fought against the monster Feve realized he would kill her to get the artifact. In a panic, she threw open the satchel and her desperate hand searched around. Her palm found the dagger and she pulled it out. She started to saw at her shoulder strap.
As ancient as the blade was, it was still as sharp as the day it was forged. It only took a few slices before the strap was carved apart and the Gelfling's satchel and cloak fluttered away from her and tangled around skekZok. Full of determination, Feve began to fight her way back to the surface.
Feve managed to break the surface and once again swallowed down a huge gulp of air, coughing to unlock her lungs. She struggled to grab onto a passing branch, a rock, anything that could keep her from treading water, steady, grounded.
As if listening and acknowledging her wishes, the waves pushed her towards the shore, where she was caught by a net of tangled vines. She gripped them tight and, with burning muscles, began to pull herself to shore. When she climbed onto the slimy, sucking mud, she retched out the water that managed to fall down her throat.
"Daarik?!" She called out between heaves and hacks. "DAARIK?!" But there was no sign of him. She coughed several times, spittle and floodwater spraying from her lips. Finally, she collapsed onto her side, and closed her eyes.
# # #
Feve had no idea for how long she had slept, but when she awoke it was still raining and she was freezing cold. She pushed up to her feet and looked around. She could see the castle in the distance, a black sentinel against a bruised and weeping sky. Her legs and arms still felt as if they were made of stones, heavy and clumsy. Nevertheless, Feve began to walk, pulling globs of grass and clots of weeds from her hair and spitting muck off her lips. She wiped mud from her eyes as the rain made it slide down her face. She allowed her feet to carry her a few paces before her conscience told her to turn back. She knew she should at least try to look for Daarik.
She turned and faced the river, which was still overflowing and wild, but not nearly as much as it had been. She cupped her hands around her mouth and called out his name. Her eyes scanned the shore, the current, looking for any sign of the Gelfling, but saw only logs, smashed by the storm's fury. She called for him again, her voice growing broken and ragged, her ears sagging with concern. She had never known such a kind and forthcoming Gelfling.
As she continued to search the shore for her friend, her foot caught something buried in the mud and she fell front-first in the muck, still too tired to react with speed. The mud was stinky, but soft enough to make the fall painless. She let out an agitated sigh as she brought herself to her knees and looked to see what she had tripped over. Half-stuck in the mud was a familiar object. She took a firm grab, then pulled. With a squelching sound, she slid the dagger from the ground. She watched as the rain drops spattered on it's blade and chased away the mud to reveal the shining metal surface. Weary, Feve got back on her feet. She continued to trudge along the water, calling Daarik's name, knife in hand.
She began to hear cries of distress coming from near the river. It sounded not unlike a bird or some other sort of animal and so Feve investigated. What she discovered shocked her.
Scrabbling against a large rock was skekZok, a snaggle of vines knotted around his neck and arms. The currents pulled at the vines that choked him and she could see that he was exhausted. She watched as the Skeksis dropped under water as he gave in to the fatigue, only to surface seconds later, coughing and sputtering. If he became too tired to cling to the boulder then he would surely die of drowning or strangulation. Both were better than he deserved.
As if the planet itself was taunting skekZok, the tree from which the vines grew was on Feve's side of the river. The tree was fallen but it's thick roots reached deep and secure into the bank. It bridged its way from one side of the river to the other, and with ease Feve climbed onto it. She came to a stop halfway across, where she was able to loom over skekZok. She wondered if any Gelfling had ever looked down on a Skeksis before, or if she was the first.
"GELFLING!" He screamed, spitting water and coughing. "Cut the vines!"
It was an order, not a plea. A Skeksis would never ask for help, they just demand, or coerce if they were feeling generous. But now Feve had the higher ground. She also had the knife; her thumb ran along the smooth pommel as she thought about the predicament in which skekZok had found himself.
Feve tilted her head and spoke just loud enough so that skekZok could hear her voice over the sound of the river rushing all around him.
"You tried to drown me."
And the others are gone. She thought, her inner voice shouting the silent words in a rage and sadness that she found uncomfortable. Dead or lost, I don't exactly know. But you tried to drown me.
She held the dagger up a bit. "Just so you could get this."
SkekZok looked up at her, panting. He realized that he was at the mercy of a pitiful Gelfling, but pride made it impossible to ask for help, apologize, or accept the responsibility for the deaths of the others. His lip upturned in a sneer.
"Cut the vines," he said again.
"Maybe." She said. Maybe I'll just let you drown! The thought came to her cruelly, callously, without mercy or sympathy. What would a Skeksis do with sympathy and empathy anyway? Maybe I'll throw this dagger into the water and leave you here. The thought was tempting.
She raised her hand, brandishing the knife.
You took my first and only friend away from me.
SkekZok studied the look on the Gelfling's face and all at once he realized the female held his life in her tiny, weak hands. His intense blue eyes widened as Feve raised the dagger high above her head. He squeezed them shut as he saw the blade come down, bracing himself in anticipation for the edge to pierce his body, and the burning pain that would follow.
Instead he heard a snap and felt some of the vines around his throat ease their strangling hold. He opened his eyes and saw the Gelfling sawing away at the slippery ropes. Another one frayed, pulled apart, then snapped under the shining blade and the serpent-like foliage released its constricting grip on skekZok's neck. His arms were still entangled but he was at least able to move better onto the boulder.
Soon, all of the vines were severed except for two. Feve jammed the blade of the knife into the log and grabbed onto the vines she had not cut. The big Skeksis looked up at the small Gelfling as he rubbed his bruised throat.
"Hold on," she told him. "Then grab the vines and pull. Climb your way up."
"Stupid Gelfling, I can't."
"You can. And you have to.” Feve wrapped a length of the vine around a branch, using it for extra leverage as she tried to help pull the Skeksis up while he hung on. The hard, peeling bark of the tree painfully cut into her tender feet, but she continued to pull. She put all the weight of her little body into helping this creature that was at least four times her size. Her muscles screamed in fury at her and she felt the slickness of her blood under her feet. It was warm, unlike the rainwater. Her ears were deaf save for the sounds of the rushing water, the obscene hissing from The Ritual-Master, and her own pounding pulse.
Somehow, she felt the tree sag and bounce under her, and felt the hot breath of skekZok against her cheek. She knew then, that she could stop pulling. He was safe. Her cramped fingers let go of the vines. She looked at her palms and saw the redness, along with yellowish bubbles of thick, fresh blisters. The prospect of taking notes and handling scrolls now held a sudden horror to her.
Feve had little time to mourn the possible loss of her writing skills. Her self-reflection was cut down as their perch dropped a few inches out from under them. The weight of both their bodies was too much for the dead tree, which was finally relenting to all the blows from time and nature. Bark and chips of wood flew into the air as a wide, yawning crack cut through the trunk. Feve stood and started to run. She saw by the way the shadows moved that skekZok was following her. With a nimbleness that Feve did not know she still had in reserve, she navigated the tree and made it to wet, soft but stable ground. She collapsed onto her side then looked up to the sky. SkekZok was leaning his arms against a tree to brace himself, panting and drooling, but his stance kept the rain off the little Gelfling. He looked down at her with a strange gaze and she looked up at him, through him, and imagined the sky.
Laying here felt nice. The mud was cool and soothed her burning hands and the air was crisp, with the earthy smell of freshly tumbled mulch carried on the wind. It was much more pleasant than the dark, musty library with it's endless scrolls and sour inks. It was so dry in there, that sometimes all moisture would leave her mouth, and her nose would start to bleed. Maybe she was delirious from pain and fatigue, but Feve felt just a little fortunate to be outside of the Castle, in the world, tasting a small idea of what it was to be free. How was it she had come to be here?
"THE DAGGER!” SkekZok screamed and Feve sat up. After all that strife, they could not lose the dagger. Both skekZok and Feve ran to it, but it was too late. The tree had snapped in two and collapsed into the river. The dagger, they saw, was still stabbed deep into the tree trunk as the wood bobbed and floated down through the wild rapids. The river toyed with the log, pulling the dagger hopelessly out of their reach. Neither could look away until the treasure was long out of their sight. One second it was a black and silver twinkle on the very edge of their perception, then the next it was simply gone, as if it had been nothing more than a myth.
# # #
"Faster, Gelfling!" The Scroll-Keeper crowed at Feve in his thin, shrill voice. "This list is taking too long."
Feve had wrapped her palms in some thin scraps of leather that she managed to find, and her feet were bound with the same. The leather provided some degree of comfort for her feet, but it made her hands clumsy and so she unwrapped them. Her knuckles were swollen and they ached horribly. The punishment her body had taken beyond the castle walls made her bone-weary. Every joint and muscle moaned in pain. It hurt to sit, to stand, to walk, to raise her arms, yet skekOk still expected her to work as if nothing was the matter.
Her chin trembled and her vision blurred with tears of pain as she moved the quill along the scroll, slowly and with great care. Old, bitter ink seeped into blistered palms, causing them to sting. Her pain turned her into a feeble cripple, her once perfect penmanship now an incomprehensible cypher of weak scratches and half-formed letters.
She wanted to cry out "I can't!"
"Yes, Master skekOk." She was resigned, she had no fight left in her. She bit her tongue and tried to write Daarik's name, including him in the list of the lost servants. She labelled the other three as "Unknown", but learned that their masters were skekZok, and skekLach, The Collector.
"Hmm..." The familiar whine of skekSil made Feve wince as she wrote the final character of Daarik's name. He was suddenly standing over her, reading the list. "I see you abandoned my servant."
She looked up at skekSil and he could see the glitter in her eyes from her tears. The sight made his mouth curl into a discreet smile and he hummed.
She knew it to be true, Daarik did belong to skekSil. She saw it during the brief moment they had shared when dreamfasting. Why had one of The Chamberlain's servants joined them on their travels? It seemed odd to Feve. "I tried to find him, Master Skeksis," Feve's apology was quiet. "With no luck."
SkekSil seemed not to have a mind for her excuses, or her apologies, instead he turned his attention to The Scroll-Keeper. "Once again, things have slipped your mind. Dinner is soon. The Gourmand has created a most delectable stew. I have come to fetch you, you are late."
"Ahh, yes," agreed skekOk, wringing his brittle hands. "Of course."
Feve watched as the two Skeksis made their way out of the library. Once they were in the hall of the Castle, they began exchanging hissed words.
"This is disastrous. How could this plan fail so catastrophically?"
SkekOk shook his head. "This isn't over," he sibilated. "I need only to think."
They turned a corner and the pair came across The Ritual-Master. SkekSil continued walking as to not attract the attention of skekZok. The Ritual-Master fell in-step with The Scroll-Keeper.
"I need to speak with you," he said to skekOk. "I want the Gelfling."
The scribe nodded. "We all want the Gelfling."
"Your Gelfling!" SkekZok clarified. "I want her."
SkekOk's head swivelled on its skinny neck and his beady eye glared in shock at the bigger, more intimating Skeksis. "The one who accompanied you on your quest?” His head ducked down into his collar as he thought. He hemmed and hawed in contemplation before posing a question. "She is one of my best scribes. Would you not prefer the dagger?"
"The dagger is lost."
"Is it?" SkekOk asked. He was met with a steely stare. The Scroll-Keeper could see the curiosity harboured in skekZok and continued. "I've been studying the maps. Someone merely has to follow the river and find where the logs have washed ashore. The dagger has to have ended up somewhere."
"Send her," skekZok said with certainty.
"Her?" SkekOk repeated in surprise. "She barely made it back once. She has already had a taste of freedom. She will run. She cannot be trusted."
The taller Skeksis shook his head. "I can see how you'd think that. I would as well, had she not done what she had done."
SkekOk halted and regarded The Ritual-Master. "What did she do?"
SkekZok turned his head, first left, then right, staring with intent down both lengths of the corridor, making certain the walls had no ears. He looked directly at diminutive, crusty Skeksis before him. "I was trapped in the river. I nearly drowned. She possessed the dagger in her hand--"
"She possessed the dagger in her hand?" SkekOk repeated in a frenzied hiss. "Where-is-it-now?” He asked with great eagerness.
"Enough!” The Ritual-Master commanded. "It was lost, you know this." He took a moment to calm both himself and his companion down. "However, she could have used it to take my life. Instead, she used it to free me from the clutches of a forever blackness. The Gelfling held my life in her hands, and she chose life. We can trust this one. And we can exploit that trust to our advantage."
SkekOk appeared to be in thought. "What will I get in exchange for her? I desire more than a mere alliance."
"You, skekOk, will sit at my side. As I reign, you will be forever at my side. I will heed your words as closely as the great skekSo heeds my own.” It was a lie, of course, but skekOk at least provided a certain insight, a gaze into what had come to pass. But the past was made only of shadows, and skekZok knew himself to be far more intelligent and intuitive than the glorified librarian that stood before him. At any rate, if the Gelfling female was truly loyal, likely she wouldn't mind using the dagger on her soon-to-be former master.
But skekOk was still not completely convinced. "And if she were to come across others of her kind?” That was a distressing and, above all, dangerous notion.
The Ritual-Master lifted his beak and scoffed. "She has not mourned the kin that she has already lost. Why would she start now?"
"Ehhh..." SkekOk wrung his hands, and pulled at his twisted fingers, popping the knuckles in doubt.
"Come now," The Ritual-Master said. "A feast awaits."
# # #
The storm raged for three nights. On the first evening, Feve was brought into skekZok's quarters. The Skeksis had given her a grace period to recuperate as the storm washed the land in its wrath. Several Pod people and a pair of Gelfling came to attend her, their eyes milky, dull and opaque. They didn't speak as they brought in the tub and filled it with boiled water, sweetened with creams and leaves from The Ornamentalist's exclusive stock. The steaming water was a blessing for her aching body, and the numb Gelfling around her scrubbed her skin and combed out the clots of mud from her wild auburn hair before weaving it back into it's customary braid. Her clothes were washed, mended and returned to her.
She was treated to a platter of crawlies stuffed with some sort of pate and a rich, spice laden stew with chunks of greasy meat bigger than her fist - a customary Skeksis appetizer. She nibbled on a hank of meat which dripped with the broth but it was too pungent and too rich, much different than the breads and gruel that Gelfling servants were accustomed to. The thought of even attempting to eat the crawlies turned her stomach.
After her meal the wordless, nameless Gelfling returned and saw to her appendages. They removed the improvised bandages and slathered her palms and the soles of her feet with a green, cooling moss salve, and wrapped her with lengths of silk and soft linen.
In the corner she was given several satin pillows on which to sleep, and there she lay, to rest her pained and queasy stomach. As soon as she lay on the nest of cushions Feve became a slave to her weariness and freely surrendered her consciousness.
# # #
They were walking through the catacombs, where a shallow river ran sluggishly though a chasm in the lower guts of the castle. As they walked together, Feve slurped from a bowl of gruel flavoured with sweetsap and kainz berries and listened while skekZok instructed her of her duty.
"This stream meets with the Black River," skekZok told her, pointing at a thin, long boat which was moored in the shallows. It was made of a discarded carapace of some sort of large insect, water tight and sturdy. Feve finished her breakfast, discarded the bowl and pushed the carapace into the water until she stood knee deep in the black liquid.
"You know what you are to do?” The Ritual-Master asked.
Feve looked upon her new master, who was stronger and of greater political stature than the one who she served before. When she saved his life, she thought she was only doing the right thing. The perks had never occurred to her. But after merely a single night, Feve learned she quite enjoyed the benefits of belonging to The Master of Rituals. She licked the sweet tartness of the kainz berries off her lips and nodded dutifully. "Yes, Master skekZok."
"Fetch me that ceremonial dagger." He told her, drilling the demand into her mind.
# # #
It was early in the morning; the first of the three Suns was just beginning to peek over the horizon but behind the castle the twilight was still a deep purple. Since it was still very early, the rays of sunlight were moving along the landscape at a slow crawl, burning away the morning fog and sliding slowly down the walls of gorge that stood on all sides of her. She had begun to pass by the ghastly Teeth of Skreesh as the sunlight was touching its cheek and jaw. The light seemed to set the gargoyle's stony face aflame. She watched its watery drool turn like glittering molten gold and mix with the dark waters of the deepening brook. Soon, the walls of the gorge gave way to the flat dustbowl that was The Realm of Skarith. The stream met with the Black River and the current carried her faster and farther from the Castle. The gentle rocking of the waves was very soothing and the Suns felt warm on her face. She leaned back, draping her ragged hands into the cold water which numbed and soothed them. She felt fish nibble and kiss her palms, playfully tugging at her fingertips. She watched as windsifters skimmed the surface of the water, their wings, camouflaged like burning leaves, hugged the currents of air as they gorged themselves on the morning swarms of crystalline hornets.
No longer was the river a swollen, ruptured vein hemorrhaging all over the earth. It was calm and natural. The trees were fat and slick with all the river their roots drank up, and the water diffused through their rubbery bark, lifting up from the leaves and dripping up into the sky to someday form into clouds.
Gradually, Feve began to feel that sensation once again. The feeling of being watched, of humming, of a distant whisper just outside her realm of perception. She could feel it all around her, but beyond her, separate from her. The feeling began to transfigure itself into an outer form. She could hear the trees as they hummed and whistled, a sweet, sorrowful resonance, a mournful hymn. Her ears perked and she was certain that there was a song being sung, only there were no words, no breath - but there was an unmistakeable thread of life, a pulse. Feve felt as if the world around her was sharing with her an intimate requiem, one that she thought somehow she should have known the words to. Perhaps she had, once, but had forgotten.
The notion to lend her voice to the song slipped across her thoughts, but in the end she decided against it. She had no song in her. Why would she? She was merely a Gelfling. She had never known a Gelfling with a song.
The boat had lodged itself in a garden of amphibious reeds. It was just as well. Feve decided that the call of the river was a distraction from her duty, but the gentle, heavy warmth of porridge in her belly reminded her. She hopped from the boat and waded through the bed of reeds until she was on the yielding ground. She walked, her long braid swaying like a pendulum against her back. She looked about, brushing her hands through tall grasses and roots, but the dagger did not reveal itself. Feve continued to wander, her explorations leading her farther and farther from the water and deeper into the woods. The songs of the trees and wind and water seemed to beckon her, driving her curiosity, escorting her, summoning her, enticing her.
As if on command, the trees around her dropped their branches and vines. Like skekZok before her, Feve found herself bound and helpless, lifted a Skeksis' height off the ground with her arms akimbo, her middle tugged and squeezed, her muzzled wrapped in greenery.
They stepped from the foliage cautious, low and curious. Seven of them, all dressed in clothes that matched the hue and patterns of the forest. They each held long staves ending in a sharp point, some also held tight to knives, though none possessed skekZok's dagger. But it didn't matter, Feve was busy staring at their appearance - their heart-shaped faces, their ears that twitched with hyper-awareness, their tiny noses and chins, their deep round eyes, glimmering like stones in their tanned faces. Their eyes shone with anger. She had seen that look often, worn on the faces of the Skeksis like jewelry.
Feve tried to speak but could not loosen the vines around her jaws and had to settle for gritting her teeth.
One stepped forward and tapped her ankle with the side of his spear. "Spriton." He said the word like a curse. "Why are you here?"
Spriton. It was a word Feve could not recall hearing in her lifetime. She managed to shake her head.
"Let her down," said the male, and the vines obeyed, though they managed to tangle themselves in such a way that her hands were bound and useless behind her back, and her mouth was still rendered mute. Marching on the end of their sharpened staves, Feve was walked deeper into the forest.
They pushed through the brush and it peeled itself away like a curtain, presenting to Feve a sight she had never before seen.
A Gelfling village.
Dozens of eyes looked up at her, Feve looked back. She heard the words "Fetch Sorrena", and one Gelfling ran deeper into the village.
She could not explain the emotions that were running through her, and she shook her head wildly, freeing herself from the gag. Then, she did the next thing that entered her mind.
She threw her head back, took a breath that filled every space in her chest and harshly, hawkishly, screeched out.
To her infinite surprise, the vines obeyed and dropped themselves from her wrists. As soon as her arms were free, Feve lunged and grabbed the knife from the belt of the nearest Gelfling. Her sore hands dug deep into his hair and she pulled his head back, pressing the edge of the knife against his vulnerable throat. A circle of bodies gathered around Feve and her hostage, their weapons at the ready, inches from her skin.
"Stop this!” A voice, halcyon yet all the same not afraid to instill authority, made Feve freeze.
The ring of Gelfling parted and she appeared to Feve in a swirl of silken robes and the chattering sound of beads. Her hair was a thick mane of a red so pure it made the flowers look old and wilted. Her skin was pale, fair, with an ethereal alabaster glow reminiscent of moonlight. Set deep in her face were two endless, almond-shaped black holes where her eyes should have been. Instead they were empty, with bruises dripping down from the corner of her eyes like tears. They did not look like wounds, but rather served to give her a more distinguished appearance than a common Gelfling. She was milk and fire and breeze. She was greater than the Great Sun. She was the most beautiful creature Feve had ever laid eyes upon.
“I am Sorrena Hollow-Eyes.” She said melodically, offering a genial smile. “Matriarch of the Cadmirae Clan. Welcome to our home, traveller.” She held out her hand. "Are you the one we've been waiting for?"