Chapter 16: Madness
Almonihah had a vague idea of what he wanted to do, but he needed to do some research first. He started by asking around the fire at night for more stories about Falloen Surebow. As the half-dragon had expected, he didn’t get a whole lot of information he could trust, but it did further awaken his curiosity.
What he really wanted was something that Falloen had written. He asked Imlloen about it, and was rather surprised to find that he’d actually written a journal which was still in existence. He was a bit less surprised when he learned that some magic had been involved in its preservation. Imlloen seemed a bit reluctant when Almonihah asked to look at it, but he allowed the half-dragon to read it after some strong warnings about what not to do with it.
Almonihah spent as much time over the next week with the journal as he could. He had to get some paper and writing materials for himself for taking notes. If the other Rangers guessed what he was up to, they said nothing, though they did give some odd looks at times.
It was only when he started trying to requisition supplies that Imlloen called him in.
“Almonihah,” Imlloen said when the half-dragon entered his office, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“Planning t’ cross th’ Madlands,” Almonihah responded, meeting the Commander’s stern gaze unflinchingly.
The elf sighed. “You know I can’t support that, and that means the Rangers won’t supply you.”
Almonihah just shrugged.
Imlloen stood up explosively and spat out an Elvish oath. “Almonihah, I lose enough Rangers just holding the Line. I can’t afford to lose another one to crossing it.” He wasn’t quite shouting, but his sudden anger was startling.
“’m done with the Line for a while, ‘nd I’m not going t’ get myself killed,” Almonihah growled back.
Imlloen slammed his palm on his desk. “That’s right, you’re not, because you’re not going to cross the Madlands. You’re not even going to cross the Line! If you’re so tired of the Line, you can go north, but I am not going to let a Ranger go kill himself just because he thinks he’s Falloen.”
Almonihah’s response was as much a growl as speech. “’m not Falloen. I know what t’ watch for, thanks t’ him, so I’ll have a better chance at ‘t.”
“Do you have any idea how long it’s been since Falloen crossed the Madlands? Centuries! Thinking that Falloen’s journal gives you some kind of edge is exactly the sort of thing that will get you killed!”
“’nd that’s another reason I need t’ go. We don’t have a clue what’s going on. ‘nd something is.”
“And you’re the one to do the job, huh?”
Almonihah shrugged. “Got any other volunteers?”
The office was silent for a long moment. Finally, the elf slid back into his chair with a sigh.
“I’ll have to think about it, Almonihah,” he said. “I still think you’ve got a good chance of getting yourself killed, but from what I’ve seen of you, you’d go off and do this without Ranger support. And Naishia knows, we need to know what’s going on in the Madlands that’s making so many Madness-Touched come across the Line.” Imlloen sighed, then waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll give you a decision next morning. Just… let me think about this.”
Imlloen called Almonihah in again the next morning. The Ranger Commander looked like he’d hardly slept.
“Your first priority will be coming back alive,” he said without preamble as the half-dragon walked in.
Almonihah snorted in amused agreement.
“Your other priority will be seeing what’s changed since Falloen’s time, especially anything that might hint at why the Madness-Touched are coming across the Line in such numbers.” Imlloen paused for Almonihah to nod in acknowledgement, then continued, “But I don’t care what you think, if you get the slightest hint that you won’t be able to complete the crossing, you come back here as fast as you can. You do this, and you can have whatever supplies you need.”
Almonihah nodded again. Imlloen looked the half-dragon in the eye and said, “Do I have your word?”
“You have my word,” Almonihah responded, evenly.
The elf held his gaze for a long moment, then sighed and said, “I still have deep reservations about this, but… you’re right about one thing. We’ve gotten too complacent about just holding the Line. We need to know more about what we’re up against, see if there isn’t something more we can do. I still feel like you’re going to get yourself killed, but someone needs to take a look on the other side of the line, and you’ve got about as good a chance as coming back as anyone else I can think of.” He was silent for another moment, then said, “Go talk the the quartermaster and get what you need. See me again before you leave, though.”
The half-dragon nodded one last time, then turned and walked out the door. Just before he closed the door behind him, Imlloen said, “Just… come back alive, Almonihah.”
It took Almonihah the rest of the day to prepare. He would need a lot of food and water—Falloen’s writings suggested that even the water in the Madlands was tainted, and was to be drunk only when heavily diluted, and even then only at the edges of the Madlands. Eating anything from the Madlands was out of the question.
The next day dawned bright and clear, a beautiful spring morning. By now, the everyone at the Headquarters knew exactly what he was doing, and while some of them still tried to dissuade him, most
responded to his farewells with their own well-wishes. Imlloen settled for a few last admonitions, and he even walked outside to watch the half-dragon walk from camp.
Almonihah glanced back, a bit surprised at the response to his departure, then focused his gaze on the south. A good day’s travel would put him at the Line, and after that… the Madlands.
Almonihah camped just short of the Line that night, and then crossed it in the morning. It was quiet on the other side of the line, but he could feel the wrongness in the air. Ignoring the feeling, he pressed forward, moving quickly. Falloen’s writings had made clear that making the journey quickly was essential, in order to complete it before running out of supplies.
The first two days of travel were uneventful. The half-dragon traveled warily, ate sparingly, and made sure to use water that was flowing in from the other side of the line. This close to the Line, it was still safe to drink water if it was coming from outside the Madlands. Later that wouldn’t be the case, so he needed to conserve his supplies as well as he could.
It was partway through the third day when Almonihah finally became aware that something was stalking him. He’d been expecting this, so much so that he was somewhat surprised it had taken this long. Regardless, he had to figure out what he’d do with the thing now.
Almonihah had turned hunter into prey many times before when facing Javni’Tolkhrah, so he easily fell into his usual tactics. Doubling back to get throw off pursuit and try to get a glimpse at the beast, going around a large tree and then climbing the other side of it and keeping watch for a while, and so forth. This Javni’Tolkhrah seemed pretty clever, as it took him a while to finally catch sight of it, but he eventually did.
It was a rather bizarre monstrosity, even for a Javni’Tolkhrah. It had probably been a deer, once—a big buck, though certainly not as big as it was now. It was covered from head to tail in antlers, that stuck out in every direction and seemed tangled with one another. And most disturbingly, sharp teeth jutted out from its oversized jaw. Overall, it looked like the kind of thing Almonihah wouldn’t want close to him.
Instead, he looked for a good spot to hide in ambush for it. It didn’t take long to find a little rock outcropping that was just high enough that it wouldn’t be able to reach him. Quickly, he climbed up, then lay flat to wait for its approach.
It wasn’t long before the Javni’Tolkhrah came into view. Carefully, Almonihah rose to a crouch, nocked and drew and arrow, and then loosed. The arrow sizzled through the air, straight to its mark, but when it struck, it somehow became tangled in the antlers around the beast’s body, though it did shear bits of them off.
The half-dragon grunted as he drew another arrow, but just then the ground underneath him gave way. Quickly, he rolled with it and jumped off, landing on his feet, but now in a vulnerable position. Sensing this, the Javni’Tolkhrah charged at him, making some strange, gargling noise as it did. Almonihah recognized an opportunity and fired at its open mouth, but the monster swerved aside. The arrow did manage to penetrate its tangle of antlers to graze its flank, but the beast just seemed to be angered by the injury.
Drawing another arrow, the Ranger waited for his quarry. At the last possible moment, he dove aside, then rose and fired another arrow. This one found its mark, driving into the Javni’Tolkhrah’s rear thigh. It screamed in pain, stumbled a bit, but then turned to renew its attack. The stumble had given Almonihah time to draw another arrow, and this time the monster didn’t turn aside as the arrow plunged into the roof of its mouth.
Still it refused to fall, but rather stood there and shook its head, foul smoke trickling from its mouth as the magic on the arrow burned its flesh. Calmly, Almonihah drew and fired again. This time, it dropped, an arrow in its eye. Almonihah considered his kill for a moment, but decided to just travel on. If it got to its feet and chased after him again, he’d just kill it more thoroughly next time, and if it went the other way, well, the Ranger on the Line would kill it more thoroughly. And if it really was dead, he was saving himself some time by not making more certain it wasn’t going to get back up.
Almonihah traveled for about a week without anything unexpected happening. He fought several more Javni’Tolkhrah, and every time, it seemed the land itself was fighting against him. He quickly learned to not trust tree branches, overhangs, rocky outcroppings… all betrayed him at critical moments. Other things seemed more… wrong about the land as he went further south, as well. Trees bent in unnatural ways, lush jungle areas bordered on dessicated deserts, until it seemed the terrain could do anything but what it was supposed to. The Javni’Tolkhrah he saw were more bizarre, as well, some frighteningly lethal, some clearly dying of their own impossibility.
Another thing he slowly became aware of was the incessant sound of the wind. Except, it wasn’t the wind—it didn’t move the trees, and breezes would come through that did. Even when the air was completely still, the ceaseless sound still murmured. At times, he almost imagined it sounded like some unintelligible language, like Jivenesh was muttering insanely across the Madlands. Almonihah quickly dismissed that thought. For some reason, it chilled him.
According to Falloen’s journal, it took about a week and a half to reach the half-way point through the Madlands, a vast desert he had called the “Desolation of the Dragonfall”. What forgotten lore lent it that name, Almonihah did not know, but he started looking for it, knowing it would mean he was half done with his journey.
More than a week passed, however, and he saw no sign of it. The half-dragon was a bit busy not being eaten or killed by mobile trees or whatever other madness these lands could create. Things kept getting worse as he got farther into the Madlands. There were times he could swear he could watch grass turn to sand and solid land to lake. The wind-like sound grew louder and more persistent, as well. It made sleeping… difficult. Not that he slept much if he could help it—only enough to keep himself alive.
Eventually, Almonihah decided he must have passed the Desolation. He’d been traveling almost twice as long as it had taken Falloen to reach it, and he’d seen no sign of it. Perhaps in the intervening centuries, the Madlands had swallowed even the mighty wastes Falloen had described. Regardless, he was sure he must be more than halfway by now. A good thing, too—he was starting to run low on supplies.
The land had been trending upwards for the last day, and today he was climbing mountainsides. Fortunately, it seemed that few Javni’Tolkhrah haunted the slopes, and the terrain seemed more stable than it had for the past few days. The climb was arduous, but at least he wasn’t fighting for his life the whole way.
He reached the top, but his spirits sunk as he did. On the other side of the mountains, he could see for a long distance. A barren, blasted wasteland, vaguely bowl-shaped, though far too large for even his eyes to see to the other side. And in the middle, a dimly-seen dark smudge that even from here looked chaotic. That would be the Maelstrom, and it was at the heart of the Desolation of the Dragonfall.
Almonihah had thought he had been traveling as fast as possible before. Now, as he went back north, he knew he’d only been traveling as fast as was safe. But safety now lay in getting out of the Madlands as fast as possible, for if he ran out of supplies before getting out…
It seemed the Madlands themselves recognized his peril, and fought to keep him trapped within them. Everything—land, vegetation, and animal life, conspired to slow his progress, but somehow the Ranger pressed on, driven on by urgency. He rationed his supplies as much as he dared, but he knew that he needed his strength to survive the journey, so he dared not ration too much.
His water was the first thing to run out. He hated to drink straight from the streams in the Madlands, but he had no choice. At least he had gotten far enough that they flowed in from outside the Madlands… or so he hoped. He wasn’t eating very much, but he could survive for longer on little food than no water.
The worst part was, he had no idea how far he had to go. The land itself was different from when he’d come this way—the landmarks were different, even the terrain was different. It made it hard to feel like he was making progress. He knew how many days he’d been traveling in each direction, but there were times he almost wondered if the stars themselves were different in this place, and if that was so, how was he sure he was even headed north…?
The worst part, though, is that he knew the Madlands were starting to affect him. He could swear sometimes that he could almost understand voices in the wind, and he was starting to feel like something was always watching him. Sometimes a Javni’Tolkhrah was, of course, but even when there wasn’t anything else moving around him, Almonihah could swear something was watching.
His food ran out. He kept going, hoping that he was near the edge of the Madlands, but he could feel himself getting weaker. Eventually, he knew he would have to eat something. He killed an animal that seemed to not be too badly changed by the Madlands, and ate.
That night, as he slept, he dreamed. It was a fitful, uneasy dream at first, but then it resolved into something… more. It was the sound of the wind… except this time he could understand a voice in it.
It was calling his name.
“I will give you what you have always wanted, Almonihah…” The voice chilled him to the bone.
Before he could respond, the half-dragon felt an agonizing pain shoot through him. He cried out, unsure if he was awake or asleep. He wasn’t sure how long it lasted, but when at last it subsided, he felt an odd… weight on his back. Stumbling to his feet, sure now he was awake, he looked in a nearby pond… and saw a pair of draconic wings on his back.
“This is just the beginning…” Even awake, he could understand the voice in the wind. And he knew whose it was.
Roaring out his defiance, Almonihah starting running to the north. But that was too slow. He spread his wings and took to the air, flapping furiously to try to get more speed.
“You cannot escape me, Almonihah…”
Almonihah didn’t know how long he flew. He only knew that he had to get away, get far, far away from the Voice, to where he couldn’t hear it any more. He was conscious of nothing else, not his fading strength, nor how the tops of the trees below were getting closer. Not until he clipped a branch with a wing and went crashing down through the canopy to the ground below did he notice how low he had gotten, and by then, it was too late.
The last thing he could remember before he drifted into unconsciousness was hearing mad laughter on the wind.