Void-Born: The Grimwood

Void-Born: The Grimwood

A Story by Jorg
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A story of a soulless man who sets out to kill a god.

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The fifth sacrifice of the day gave a terrified squawk as Trey snapped its neck over his knee. He held the corpse as it jerked and flapped for the few moments it took the body to realize that it was dead. Once it had gone limp, he grabbed up a long, straight knife from the nearby table and stabbed it an inch or so into the chicken’s flesh. Instantly an electric surge of essence shot through his body, pooling in his chest before gradually subsiding. Five down, several more to go. He didn’t normally collect this much energy at once, but he would be facing off against a god in only a few hours, and it never hurt to be prepared. He placed the corpse onto the table for the cooks to collect and stood, walking out into the yard where the Lord’s unwitting dinner milled about to seize another bird.


A veritable river of cooks and servants flowed through the cramped kitchen space with practiced ease as they prepared the Lord of Verdant’s breakfast, filling the air with jokes and commands and curses, all of them making a point of avoiding Trey as he passed by.


When he returned with his catch, a large brown hen that he had trouble keeping hold of, a girl was standing in the corner he had occupied. She was a small slip of a thing, thirteen years old at most, with short blond hair and brown eyes. She seemed to be poking the dead chicken. “He won’t be getting up, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Trey said as he settled down onto the stool once again. The girl looked at him, eyes wide, as he positioned the hen over his knee, holding her feet in the air with one hand and keeping a firm grip on her neck with the other.


“Why are you doing that?” she asked just before he brought the bird down. “The cooks never kill their own chickens, and you aren’t one of the cook’s assistants. I know them all.”


“If you must know,” Trey replied, “I’m sacrificing these chickens to the dark god Sanguis so that he can feast upon their souls.”


“Really?” the child asked, leaning forward with interest.


He paused again, holding the thrashing hen without effort as he stared at the girl. “No, not really. I’m doing a job for Lord Gerrin.”


“Oh.” The girl leaned against the table, looking disappointed. Trey turned his attention back to the bird, finally ending it with a single motion. After the flapping had ceased he took up the knife and jabbed it into the bird, once again feeling its essence stream into his being. “What job needs you to kill chickens like that?”


“This isn’t the job. It’s my preparation in case things go badly. An insurance policy, if you will.”


“Who are you?” the girl asked. “I’ve never seen you around the Castle before.”


Trey withdrew the knife. “If you can’t guess based on what you just saw, you probably don’t want to know.”


“So you’re a void-born?” the girl asked excitedly. Trey had been hoping the child would be unnerved and wander off, but apparently the fates were in a sour mood today. “Is it true that you were born without a soul? And that you can freeze a man with a stare? And shoot lightning from your fingertips?”


Trey placed the hen’s carcass beside the previous sacrifice. “To answer your first question, yes, I’m void-born. To answer your second, I’m not quite sure, but everyone assures me that I’m perfectly soulless. I won’t dignify three and four with a response.”


If the girl was put off by his obvious irritation, she didn’t show it. “What do you mean, you’re not quite sure?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you know? Doesn’t it feel weird not to have a soul?”


Trey shrugged. “Does it feel strange not to have wings? I can’t miss something I never had to begin with. Now go away and let me do my work.” He walked off to gather another chicken.


The girl was still there when he returned. “Was there some part of ‘go away’ that you failed to grasp?” he snapped, breaking the chicken’s neck with a single vicious motion. The girl didn’t even flinch.


“I still have questions,” she said.


“Well, you’ll have to find someone else to answer them, because I have neither the time nor the inclination.” He drained the chicken and stood up. The girl hurried to block his path as he began to walk away.


“You’re not ignoring me,” she said, crossing her arms and glaring at him.


“Watch me.”


“I’ll follow you,” she said evenly. “I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me what I want to know. I don’t care where you go. If you want me to stop pestering you, you’ll just have to talk to me right now.”


Trey stared at her. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” She nodded. “I’ll call the guards. I’m sure they’ll find your antics incredibly entertaining.”


“You can try,” the girl replied, seemingly unconcerned. “But that might be more trouble than it’s worth for you.”


She met his gaze evenly until he relented. “Gods above and below, what did I ever do to have you inflicted upon me?” He sat back down, and the girl followed suit, looking smug as a cat lying in the sun.  “Ask your questions and let’s be done with it.”


 “Alright. How does…that…work?” she asked, gesturing vaguely towards the dead chicken.


Trey placed the drained bird on the table, ignoring the servant who scurried up to collect it. “Collecting essence, you mean?” he asked, and she nodded. “It’s simple, really. Any void-born can channel the life energu of other living things"what we call essence--into their bodies, pooling it within themselves. All you need is a long, straight piece of metal to conduct the energy out of its original shell and into your own. It lets us live for a long time, among other things.”

The girl nodded slowly. “I’ve heard people from the Church talk about that. They say…” she hesitated.


“They say what? That the reason we can store essence is because we have an empty space in our being where a soul should be? That we steal the souls of others? Trust me, girl, there’s nothing you can say that I haven’t heard before.”


The girl flinched at his tone. “You don’t like the Church, do you?” she asked quietly.


“I have no idea why that would be,” Trey said dryly. “They’ve only been persecuting me my entire life, calling me an abomination, a monster, an amoral sociopath.”


 “But if that’s true, then why are you here?” she asked. “Why not go south to the Republics, somewhere the Church doesn’t have power?”


Trey looked at the girl sharply. She was a smart one, alright. “Because I want to be here,” he said. “I was born in this country, and I’ll be damned if I die anywhere else because of some old men in robes.” He could see the question forming on the girl’s lips, and he knew instinctively what she would ask.


“What happens when you die?”


Trey shrugged. “As the Church says. ‘Cursed void-born, soulless malformity, fall now into the eternal abyss from whence ye came.’ That’s how the line goes, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t that scare you?” the girl asked, eyes wide. “I mean, if it’s true, then you won’t go anywhere when you die. You’ll just stop existing.” She shivered at the very thought.


Trey thought for a moment, struggling to form his thoughts into words. “I’m not afraid,” he said finally. “I do believe that I will cease to be when I die"on that the Church and I agree"but I won’t spend this life in terror of death. I want to live this life to the fullest, experience everything I can before the end.”


“Is that why you’re here? To experience something new?”


The void-born suppressed a sigh. “I’m here because I need money, and Lord Gerrin needs a problem taken care of. Rent doesn’t pay itself.”


“Well, that doesn’t seem like living life to the fullest. Wouldn’t you rather be off adventuring or something?”


This time he did sigh, rubbing at his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “You are the single most infuriating individual I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with for some time.” He stood, sheathing his blade. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a job to do. Unless you have any more questions?” He walked away, hoping the girl wouldn’t realize that he hadn’t answered her question.


***


He left Verdant through the main gate and followed the cobblestone road north until it branched off in the direction of Grimwood forest. The path that led to the Grimwood was nothing but a narrow strip of foot-trodden dirt winding its way down the valley. It took Trey past several large fields, ripe with golden wheat and being tended to by a swarm of serfs. Verdant had more than earned its name; the wheat produced in those fields fed a dozen cities to the south. The wheat trade brought the city a tidy profit, but also left it vulnerable. One bad harvest could mean famine and destitution, not just for Verdant but for all the cities that depended upon it. That was why the local lord had hired Trey on.


The Grimwood was moving.


He could see it as he crested the top of a hill, a quarter mile into the distance. It had already consumed half of the nearest fields. According to the people he had spoken to, thorn bushes and bracken had sprung up in the fields overnight, and saplings had been quick to follow. The plants had spread and grown at preternatural speed. No matter how many the serfs cut, uprooted, or burned, more arrived to fill their place, and the growth showed no signs of slowing.


Trey stood on the hill for a moment, contemplating. The vanguard of the Grimwood had already reached the base of the hill. If the relentless forward march was not stopped, Verdant would be overrun within a month. In order to prevent that, the god of the Grimwood had to die. He could end it right now, without having to risk himself, but to do so would require an enormous amount of energy, not to mention level the entire forest, and there was no guarantee that the damage would stop there. Instead, he steeled himself and strode down the hill.


The vegetation grew thicker the further he went. Weeds gave way to new, young trees that grew steadily by the minute, and finally the tall, solid oak and pine that marked the Grimwood’s natural boundary. The old trees towered menacingly over him as he went, their branches shutting out the sunlight and leaving him in near total darkness. This was no trouble to him, though. He was void-born, and when he closed his eyes the essence of the trees was laid bare before him, pillars of luminescence springing from a bright carpet of vibrant life. Undaunted, he pressed on.


There was an unnatural silence in these woods; no birdsong in the trees, no growls or barks from animals. The Grimwood tolerated no trespassers to live, human or otherwise. Trey fancied that he could feel the trunks around him radiating hatred as he moved ever closer to the Grimwood’s heart. He had little time to locate the objective of his journey, but his essence-attuned senses tugged him in the right direction.


Seconds stretched into their own eternities as he approached the pulsing heart of violence at the center of the Grimwood. The ancient trees groaned in anger as the intruder emerged from their tightly packed ranks and into a small clearing. A thick pillar of sickly green light towered before him, supremely ancient and arrogant. Trey opened his eyes and beheld the god of the Grimwood.


A grand oak tree loomed before him. Its trunk was as wide as one of the Gray Castle’s guard towers and twice as tall. Thick branches projected from it about a quarter of the way up, creating a canopy that blocked out all but a few weak rays of sunlight. Its thick, gnarled bark was plastered with grey mold. Its leaves were as broad as both of Trey’s hands together. And it moved. Even as he watched, the grand oak’s roots slithered forward like snakes, sluggishly dragging the tree along with them. As it advanced, the trees behind Trey inched out of its way, while the ones behind the oak closed their ranks. The army was making a path to the front lines for its general.


“Found you,” Trey murmured. He drew his knife and approached the grand oak. Gods were slow to notice the presence of skittering flesh-things, but it was gradually becoming aware of him. He had to be cautious. The grand oak itself was little more than a vessel that housed the malevolent entity. Gods were beings of pure essence, without a true mortal form. When Trey plunged his knife into its trunk, he would be able to draw the god out and consume it as he had the essence of the chickens earlier. With the god’s death, the Grimwood would subside. Now he prepared to do just that. Halting before the tree, he clasped the knife in both hands and silently stabbed forward, into the god’s skin.


The tough bark deflected the blade with ease.


The god’s retaliation was instant. One of the tree’s massive roots lashed out, striking Trey across the chest and sending him flying. He landed on his back, gasping as the air was driven from his lungs. The forest came alive with the sound of groaning and cracking wood as the trees around the clearing began to close in, roots lashing, branches reaching for the intruder.


Trey forced himself to his feet and stumbled back towards the god, away from the slowly approaching guards. Another root lashed out, and he ducked, narrowly avoiding the attack as the appendage whistled over his head. The surrounding trees pressed ever closer. He had to finish this soon or he would be torn apart. Sidestepping another strike, he rushed the grand oak until he was pressed against its trunk. Its roots writhed about confusedly, attempting to reach back for him, but he moved along the trunk out of their reach. As he shimmied along, his hands searched for a break in the bark, a gap in the armor where he could plunge his knife.


There was nothing. No gap, no imperfection. And now it was too late. While he probed the grand oak’s flawless defenses, the surrounding trees had closed the circle. A root struck his face, bringing a sharp pain to his head and the taste of blood to his mouth. Another struck his back and sent him sprawling, the knife flying from his hands. A slender branch wound around his throat, lifting him off his feet. The void-born thrashed wildly as his air was suddenly cut off. He clawed desperately at the vise around his neck, to no avail. Something grabbed hold of his right ankle, then his left, and began to pull. The branch about his neck tightened its grip, and Trey realized that the forest was going to literally tear him apart.  His head was swimming, his limbs losing their strength. He was going to die.


There was no helping it, then. He had no choice left to him except to escape or die. With an effort of will he focused on the grand oak, which seemed to radiate sadistic glee as it beheld his torment. Raising one hand, he pointed at the god of the Grimwood with his middle and forefinger. Essence, freshly collected that morning, pooled in his breast and surged out along the length of his arm, collecting in those two fingertips. An eerie blue light filled the air. He felt the god’s mood shift from elation to uncertainty as it sensed the incredible surge of power. Just before he passed out, Trey unleashed his attack.


Lightning leapt from his fingers with a deafening crack, slamming directly into the trunk of the grand oak. The mold clinging to the tree immediately burst into flame, and within seconds its lowest branches had caught the blaze. The fire surged upwards, consuming more and more of the tree as it went. A piercing wail rose from the grand oak, pain and fury and terror all mixed into a single endless scream.


The trees attacking Trey dropped him immediately, dragging themselves towards the grand oak as the god directed the Grimwood to rescue it from the flames. Trees wrapped themselves root and branch around the grand oak in an attempt to smother the blaze, but all they accomplished was to set themselves on fire as well. The god’s wail rose to a crescendo of panic as Trey picked himself up, still dazed and light-headed from his strangling. For a while, he observed the god’s futile attempts to save itself. The fire grew and grew until he was forced to avert his eyes from the light, until smoke filled the air, until the heat of the inferno baked the moisture from his skin. But only when the wailing had ceased did he turn away.


***


He left the Grimwood still ablaze. The trees that had seemed so menacing before offered him no threat now. Without the god to direct them, they were nothing but mindless plants. He emerged from the forest with the fire hot on his heels, eager to consume every bit of wood, every blade of grass. As he crested the hill from which he had observed the Grimwood mere hours before, he stopped to look once again. A gigantic wall of smoke rose into the air, so high that it blocked out the setting sun. By the time the fire had run its course, nothing would be left of the ancient forest. Lord Gerrin would have his fields back.


As shame and satisfaction warred within him, he made his way along the path back to the city. He passed awestruck serfs who stood staring off into the distance, the harvest forgotten in the wake of the Grimwood’s annihilation. As he walked, the adrenaline that had fueled him during the battle and subsequent escape faded, and each step increased his exhaustion. Finally, he stumbled through the city gates, tired, filthy, smelling of smoke and ash, and went to receive his pay.


Lord Gerrin’s aide met him in the courtyard of the Gray Castle, as had been agreed upon. The scrawny man was flanked by two guards, spears in hand, faces grim. Several other people were moving through the courtyard on their own business, but everyone turned to stare as Trey stumbled through the gate and came to a halt before the aide.


“It’s done,” he said, stifling a cough. “Give me my pay and I’ll go.”


The aide peered at Trey over a tiny pair of spectacles, his expression haughty. “You are the void-born who set fire to the Grimwood, then?” he demanded.


Under normal circumstances, Trey would have felt apprehension at the aide’s tone, but right now he was too exhausted. “You know I am,” he replied. He tried to continue, to say because your lord hired me, but the aide cut him off.


“I thought so,” he said, adjusting his spectacles. “Doubtless you want us to buy into the ridiculous rumors the serfs have been passing around. The forest, moving? Covering our fields? And you would claim to have saved us from this dire threat,” he added, voice dripping with sarcasm. ““By burning the forest and endangering not only the fields, but the lives of countless serfs with your senseless destruction. Well, Lord Hoyle knows how to reward madmen such as yourself.”


Realization dawned on the void-born. With the evidence of the Grimwood’s assault now turned to ash, he was merely a loose end to be tied up. “Don’t do this,” he told the little man quietly. “You don’t want to make an enemy of me.”


The aide snorted. “I doubt that will be a problem.” He pointed at Trey with a thing finger. “Guards! Arrest this man for the destruction of Grimwood forest.” The guards complied immediately, moving past the aide to confront Trey. The onlookers made no move to hinder them, and a few even had the courage to throw a jeer or two in Trey’s direction.


The void-born sighed deeply. He might be able to muster one more lightning bolt, but that was it. He might even drop dead after releasing it. Thankfully, Lord Gerrin’s personal tower was within view. As the armored thugs approached, he gathered the last dregs of his energy and prepared to repay the lord for his hospitality. . He raised his arm and pointed at the tower as if in accusation. He poured all of his energy, all of his will and resentment into this final attack. Just as he was about to release it, however, a small window opened in the side of the tower, and a small figure peered out. At that moment, a ray of dying sunlight managed to break through the cloud of smoke and land on that window, flashing off a head of blonde hair.


His attack was already coming, and he could do nothing to stop it. But with a force of will, he managed to hold it back long enough to raise his arm above his head. The courtyard flashed as lightning leaped into the sky, frying the air and sending the crowd reeling in panic and terror. Cold blue light illuminated the horrified faces of the guards and the aide, and the overwhelming crack of sound shattered every window in the courtyard at once. The lightning went on for two seconds, three, four. Finally, Trey reined in the last dregs of his power, and the unholy eruption faded to nothing.


As the crowd scattered in every direction and glass rained down on all sides, Trey struggled to stay on his feet. He was so tired he could hardly think. Dimly, he realized he was practically helpless now, and he fumbled for the knife at his side. The guards recovered from their surprise quickly, however. Before his knife was halfway from its sheath, a mailed fist slammed into his face. Trey stumbled back, fresh blood filling his mouth as another blow caught him in the belly, stealing his breath away. He fell to the ground, and blows began to rain down on him relentlessly, until he was so wracked with pain he could hardly move. Finally, mercifully, a boot came down on his head and took all sensation from him.


***


When he awoke, he was lying on the floor of a dimly lit cell. He wasn’t quite sure how much time had passed, but judging by the horrific agony he was in it couldn’t have been too long. Voices were speaking somewhere nearby, one male and one female, but he wasn’t able to concentrate enough to hear what they were saying. The female voice half-shouted something, and a moment later he heard footsteps approaching his cell. “Open it,” the female voice commanded. With a jolt, he realized that he recognized that voice. As the cell door swung open, he rolled over onto his back, and a familiar face loomed over him, brow furrowed with concern.


 “I’m sorry this happened,” she said softly. “It’s how my father works. He knew the Church would censure him if he was found working with a void-born, so he tried to make it seem like you were a rogue and a liar.”


“This isn’t"“he broke off into a small coughing fit, tasting fresh blood in his mouth. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me.”


“My friend Gregor is going to smuggle you out of the Castle,” the girl said, looking over her shoulder at the portly guard who stood in the doorway. “There’s a trade cart heading south to Vermillion. You’ll be safe there.”


“I take it I’m not getting my reward, then?” he asked, only half joking.


The girl shook her head, regret written plainly on her face. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, “I got my hands on some coin for you, but there’s no way I can get however much father promised you.”


Trey just stared at her for a moment, unable to find words to express his feelings. Finally, he settled on one. “Why?”


The girl hesitated. “I’m not sure. You just seem like a decent person, and I don’t think what my father did to you was fair. And…I think the Church is wrong about you. You do have a soul, and it’s just as precious as any other.”


The void-born took a deep breath, wincing at the pain that came with even that simple motion. “Well, agree to disagree. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Thank you.” The girl helped him to his feet as gently as she could before handing him off to Gregor. The guard made to lead him away, but something occurred to the void-born, and he turned back to the girl. “What’s your name?” he asked simply.


The child blinked. Clearly, the thought hadn’t occurred to her either. “Aliss,” she replied. “What’s yours?”


“Trey.” Looking at the girl, Trey realized that he was looking at the future of this land, what kind of leader it would have, what it might become. “Well, Lady Aliss, you should know that the Grimwood was stirred up because you were working the land too close to its borders. There are other gods nearby who take even less kindly to intrusion. Don’t expand the city towards the caves to the west, or the river to the south.”


Aliss nodded gravely. “I’ll remember that. And I’ll remember you. Thank you.”


Trey returned her nod. Then he turned and allowed Gregor to lead him down the hall. And although his body was wracked in pain, his soul"if, indeed, he possessed such a thing"soared.


© 2017 Jorg



Author's Note

Jorg
This was a story I had original written as part of a writing workshop a few months ago. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the end result, so went back and tweaked it a bit. I'm still not entirely satisfied, but I simply felt the need to share it and get more feedback.

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All around a pretty good story Jorg. Really like Trey's development and the fact that the exposition wasn't just shoehorned in willy nilly. My only nitpicks are a few grammatical and spelling errors, but like I said, this is all around a pretty good story, and I would definitely be interested in any possible sequels or follow-ups.

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Added on October 28, 2017
Last Updated on October 28, 2017

Author

Jorg
Jorg

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Writing
Chapter 1 Chapter 1

A Chapter by Jorg


Chapter 2 Chapter 2

A Chapter by Jorg


Chapter 3 Chapter 3

A Chapter by Jorg