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Rabbit Heart - Part II



Rabbit Heart

Part II The sun hadn’t risen very far in the sky as Muirne began her journey, and it clung to her back as she headed west. After giving a brief prayer to Sukimaki, the goddess of the roads, Muirne set off briskly down the road. She had no horse; she had no idea what sort of terrain she would be facing, and a horse could potentially slow her down. All she had was a pack with a bedroll and provisions. From what little she’d heard of the expeditions before her, the journey to the center of the continent would probably take a little more than two weeks. Lemuria was a vast continent, with much wilderness and danger between its few cities. Muirne had been outside Atlantis a few times, on hunting trips and the like, but she had never gone this far or this long before. Vainly, she tried to keep her nerves calm. For the first while, she followed the road that was painted up and down the fields surrounding the city. Here, animals grazed and wheat blew in the wind. Was it counting sheep that was supposed to calm nerves? No, that was for sleeping. Oh well, it seemed to help a little anyway. Around lunch time, Muirne found a solitary log besides the road and unrolled her map to examine as she munched on hard-tack and one of two of Eimheer’s nuts. Around the edge of the continent the map was pretty filled in, but the closer you got towards the center the more hazy things became. Towns and roads became menacingly named landmarks and warnings of “here be dragons”. Thusly, it was a little hard for her to plot out an effective route—which didn’t do anything for her nerves. From the looks of her map, the most direct route would probably be the most dangerous. She’d have to navigate the Dragon’s Teeth—a fairly well-known entrance point into the central part of the continent—cut through a huge swamp, and finally brave the “Forest of Whispers”, whatever the hells that meant. But any other route would take her far too out of the way, and she certainly didn’t have the time—or rations—to play it safe. So, dangerous and by the seat of her pants it was. She hoped she wouldn’t regret it. As she made to continue walking, Murine pulled out her father’s compass to orient herself, only to look up at the sun and realize that it didn’t point north at all. She frowned, and shook it, that’s how you fixed things, right? But still it pointed resolutely to the west, oddly enough in the direction she needed to go. It must have been a coincidence. She’d never heard of anyone inventing a compass that pointed to your destination, as talented as Atlantis’ artificers were. Far too quickly for Muirne’s liking, the day began to wear on, and her mind found itself absently going over the storyteller’s words. One thing had begun to bother her: the storyteller had said that two people would seal the evil away, and that she was only one of them. Did that mean that this was someone she was destined to meet on the journey, or did she have freewill to choose someone to assist her? The thought swam through her head even as she was trying to fall asleep that night. Again, she didn’t sleep very well. Her bedroll was right on top of a rock. Forget peas, this was ridiculous. She kept rolling in and out of consciousness, half-dreams flickering behind her eyelids. Finally the sky turned from pitch-black to blue, to grey, and then the sun began to peak shyly over the horizon. Muirne was sore, and tired, and already aching for a warm bath, but she had to keep going. She ate a light breakfast and set off as soon as she could. She wanted to reach the Dragon’s Teeth by sundown. Gradually, the rolling hills and meadows flattened into dry plains, and the road shrunk until it was barely more than a dusty, dirt track. Clearly, not many people bothered to venture this way. Around lunchtime she caught sight of a few jagged shapes on the horizon, and by mid-afternoon they had grown into huge, towering cliffs, laced by spiky outcroppings which gave the crevice its name. There would be no scaling these walls and climbing over. The only way through was in, through the spidery maze of cracks that laced the cliffs’ surface. But there was a way through. People had made it across alive, if rarely. It was high time Muirne added her name to the list. That would be something real that Ser Jowan could put on her list of accomplishments. Soon, she stood at the gaping maw of the beast, trying to keep from trembling. Though it was broken—it was now pointed directly into the Dragon’s Teeth—Muirne still clutched the compass tightly, hoping for some source of comfort as she took her first steps forward. The tan, bleached stone closed in around her as she followed the rocky trail. Many paths opened in front of her, like trails of a spider’s web. Soon she was so hopelessly lost that she couldn’t tell which direction was which. Her whole body was sore from scrambling over rocks for the past several hours and she felt as if she were going in circles. But just as she came to another five-way split in the road, Muirne happened to look down at her father’s compass again, and blinked. That was odd, about ten minutes ago it was pointed in the complete opposite direction, but now the needle was firmly positioned towards the left-most path. Muirne moved to the left, and the right, and the needle moved with her, always pointing to the same path. Frowning, Muirne took the left road. There wasn’t any harm in it, she supposed, and a short while later when she came to the next fork, the compass needle turned suddenly and without warning towards a specific path. She didn’t know why she trusted the round hunk of metal, but it was better than her far-less-than-accurate map anyway.

She continued on thus for another day or so, once having to pull her sword on a pack of wild dogs that had either wandered or lived in the Teeth. Then, finally, the path ahead of her appeared to begin opening back out into the wide plains, and Muirne grinned with delight. Quite unable to stop herself, she began running towards the end of the cliffs. Her joy, however, didn’t last long, for suddenly, her head turned instinctively as a large rock tumbled down the side of the cliff to her right. For her whole journey through the Teeth there had been nary a pin drop, save for her own scrapings against the rocks, so when she looked up towards the noise she was surprised to see a dark figure perched between the sharp rocks. Seeing it had grabbed her attention, the figure jumped from the rocks and glided gracefully down towards her, light as a feather through the air. Magic, it must be. This man, for she saw now under the thick, dark cloak that the figure was a man, had to be a magician or a sorcerer of some kind. He paused in the air a few feet over her head, and stared down at her with heterochromic eyes, one a dull, muted green and the other an unnatural gold. “Hello, good Ser wizard,” Muirne bowed a little and began speaking after the man remained silent. “I am Muirne D’Irn, a princess of Atlantis, and I am on a quest to seal—“ “I know of your quest,” the man interrupted with a deep, booming voice. “You will address me as Gilveidan the All-Knowing, and I am not a wizard but a warlock. I know who you are, and what you intend to do, and I cannot allow you to continue.” Slowly, Muirne began to draw Brandubh. “You would rather see the world destroyed?” “Of course not,” the warlock shook his head. “I would not see you fail and bring its end all the faster. I have experienced the Truth of this evil first-hand, and I do not believe you have the strength necessary to end its rise.” “I think you underestimate me. I am prophesized to seal the evil,” Muirne frowned. “Do you doubt the wisdom of the storytellers?” “Just because a man sees a shape in a pile of bird shit, that doesn’t make him wise.” Muirne’s hand tightened on her sword. “It was a cloud.” “Oh forgive me that makes all the difference in the world,” Gilveidan rolled his eyes and Muirne bristled. “Fine then,” he continued, “prove to me that you are indeed this ‘chosen one’.” He rose several inches into the air as electricity crackled at his fingertips. “Face me, and live.” With a flash, the forked, purple-tinged lightning streaked towards Muirne, and glanced off her shoulder as she dived behind a rock. She screamed as the flesh burned. But she wasn’t one to let pain stop her. As soon as the onslaught stopped she emerged from her cover and blindly slashed through the air, but the warlock was gone.

Muirne glanced rapidly in every direction, but he was nowhere to be found. “You don’t fight fair,” she growled. “If you can’t defeat me, how do you expect to face the ultimate evil?” His voice came from the air all around her. With a small pop, the warlock appeared to the side, and once again Muirne dashed away to avoid a large burst of blue flame. But despite her second narrow escape, Muirne was suddenly smiling. For ease of travel, Muirne had previously tied the compass to her belt, and now she could finally, finally see what it was pointing at. Her father’s compass didn’t track direction at all, but magic. The blasted thing had been leading her to the warlock Gilveidan this whole time. “What are you smiling for?” the warlock paused, unnerved. “Something to even the playing field.” Her grin widened even more as she swung again. The warlock—of course—disappeared, but as soon as the needle on her compass spun in a different direction she followed through with her swing, and a few drops of blood hit the ground with a small patter. There was a moment of silence, and then the warlock reappeared, his cheek cut open and Muirne’s sword at his throat. He sank to the ground, and then onto his knees in shock. “I...” he began, and Muirne pressed the sword closer. “You have bested me,” he admitted, sticking up his hands in surrender. “By the law of Okin, god of order, your life is now forfeit,” Muirne frowned. Gulping, the warlock nodded. “That is correct. Do what you will with me.” Muirne hesitated. With one flick of her blade she could kill him. The realistic side of her thought that this would probably be the best option. If she let him go, odds were that he would just follow her and make her quest all the more difficult. But... she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Arsehole or not, he was a person. Wolves, or deer, or even world-ending evils were one thing, but a thinking, feeling person was a whole different story. Sheathing her sword, Muirne held out her hand. “Since you’re just going to follow me anyway, you may as well come along. That fire could come in handy.” Gilveidan looked stunned. “Come... come with you?” his voice nearly trembled. “Ai,” she nodded. “If you don’t think I’m capable of beating this thing then you may as well help out. Even the odds a little.” “I don’t think you understand,” he stood as she turned and started walking. “I’ve faced this evil before and it nearly cost me my life.” “But there was only one of you then,” Muirne turned back. “And you weren’t the ‘chosen one’ now were you? So, are you coming, or do I need to chain you to me?” The warlock took a deep breath, then started walking. “I shall accompany you, princess, on your quest, but I will not claim to enjoy it.” Then, under his breath as she turned away, he added. “Royalty...”

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