The Silent Woods were everything but that evening. A sudden summer shower had taken the wood's resident and visiting creatures by surprise, causing those that wanted to remain dry to scramble for whatever cover they could find. To most who listened to the water that fell on the rocks and trees, it sounded as a natural static; forgettable or at most an annoying ambiance.
One section of the wood, however, got treated to an unusual performance. Every wet thud of a drop striking a large leaf became a base note, the staccato of smaller drops landing on different parts of a boulder became a bold solo performance among the harmony of the precipitation landing on the forest floor. Perforated throughout the natural performance was its counter-point, the light but strong plucking of guitar strings.
From a cave came the sounds of the civilized world, harmonizing with and enhancing the sounds of the natural. For every leafy base note, a low G. The stony solo became a duet. The choir of the forest floor matched with the hum of lightly brushed cords. The sounds of nature and progress did not counter or compete, rather they were completed by each other. The instrument playing a half finished and oddly paced song without the rain as its guide; the rain playing nothing but static and chaotic noise without the studied and contemplative notes of the song. Separate they were nothing but annoying, together they were a rare concert to the furry creatures of the Silent Woods.
Then a cat meowed.
"BY THE GODS" exclaimed the bard, suddenly ending his improvised song. "Your nearly scared me to death!"
Ignoring his panic, the black and white stray started rubbing against the visitor's leg, seeking warmth in the rain chilled cave.
"I had thought you a bear or something," explained the bard, strapping his guitar to his back and picking up the cat. "So what's your name my new friend?"
Looking at him, the cat meowed again and curled up in his arms.
"A very sophisticated and proud name that is," said the man, not actually understanding the feline but letting his imagination fill in the blanks. "Well, I'm Lyric. No, no last name as is my family's tradition. Yes I am a bard and yes I realize the irony of it."
Lyric continued like this for a while, passing the time holding a one sided conversation with the stray cat. He explained various things about himself, how he ducked into this cave when the rain hit, how although his mother was a Rain Singer he never learned that bit of magic, "So even though I was playing along with the rain, you can't blame me for it!", how he was walking an unbeaten path through the woods hoping to save some time, how he spent most of his fifty years of life wandering the lands trying to learn as much about music and language as possible, how although he is about fifty years of age (he was starting to lose count) that he looked about twenty because of the bit of elven blood running through his veins.
"Well, it doesn't seem like the rain will be letting up anytime soon. What do you say to exploring this cave a little?"
The cat looked up from the bard's arms and meowed for a third time.
"That's the spirit!"
Grabbing the most promising stick from the impromptu fire (which, Lyric admits, isn't very well built and only barely accomplishing its job) he gathered up his backpack and the cat and proceeded into the dark with only the week light of his torch to guide him.
The cave was more simple and strait forward then Lyric had hoped. There weren't any pitfalls, grand caverns, fang-like stalactites (or were they stalagmites? He couldn't remember), not even a single blood-thirsty bat. The cave barely branched off from the main tunnel and all the branches ended after only a few paces. "No wonder this cave is abandoned," Lyric complained to the cat. "It's too simple, too uninteresting, a bear would be ashamed to tell his bear friends that he hibernates here."
After a few more turns, just as Lyric was about to give up all hope of finding anything interesting, he turned one last corner and found it. Tripping over something in the dark, he stumbled into a large chamber. The light from his torch cast hundreds of dancing shadows as it played upon the tree roots that filled this room almost completely. The only empty space left seemed to be a path way through a tunnel of wood leading deeper into the area.
"Now THIS is interesting," the bard commented to the cat. "I wonder what made the roots bend like that? It couldn't possibly have happened all on its own
The cat responded with a long meow.
"Well if something did cause it then there might be a clue, or even the thing itself, at the end of this tree tunnel." He hopped up onto the nearest roots and started down the bark-lined passageway.
The cat tensed and buried itself into Lyric's arm further.
"Oh come now, don't be such a wimpy cat. It's as the old line goes, 'nothing wandered, nothing found!' Besides, if there is anything malevolent down there, it would go for the bigger target first now wouldn't it?"
If the cat took any comfort in that thought, it didn't show it.
Stepping nimbly from root to root, the bard made swift progress down the surprisingly long path. He would stop every now and then to try to make out the shapes outside of the convenient tunnel, but the play of shadows being cast from his weak torch made it near impossible to see further then a few inches into the thick tangle. "If only I had a Mage Lamp
" he thought aloud, picturing the new devices that are all the rage in the cities and prosperous rural regions; a short tube, capped on one end with a bright magic light beaming from the other.
Not letting the lack of the newest magical invention deter his curiosity he continued on.
After a few more paces, his sorry excuse for a torch finally illuminated the end of the tunnel. It was mostly blocked by sand.
How did sand get down here?" Lyric wedged the torch between two roots and inspected the exit closer. "I must be near a river or somethi-AGH!" With a screech the cat clawed at the bard's hand and upon being dropped, and streaked into the dark like a feline arrow, away from the mostly plugged exit. "Coward Cat!" Lyric yelled after him before turning back to the obstacle in the way of his curiosity.
The sand fell away easily under his hands, sliding down the sloping mound before disappearing into the tangle of roots that served as a floor, tumbling through the cracks and landing on the unknown. After only a few handfuls the top edge began to reveal a larger room beyond.
"Curiouser and curiouser," the bard pondered aloud. "It almost seems like this pile of sand was deliberately put here, but I can't think of any beast that would do it
or for that matter anything at all that could make a tunnel of tree roots without breaking them. Or for THAT matter I can't think of any reason any of this would be made at all."
Putting aside his questions, guessing that whatever is in the chamber would help with finding the answers, Lyric continued with his digging until finally there was enough space for him to slip over the sandy mound. The mound lost its integrity when he was starting to crawl down the other side, causing him to tumble through a small avalanche.
When everything was settled, Lyric found himself in the dark, mostly buried and feeling very scratched up. He stood up, sand falling off of him like grave dirt would a newly reborn undead emerging from its grave. Brushing himself off he turned back to the now diminished mound, barely visible in the outline of light his torch was giving off. From this side, it was about as tall as a man and a half, less than it had been before the mini land slide. With the mound moved by his (thankfully un-witnessed) antics, he was able to reach back into the tree tunnel and retrieve his torch without too much struggle.
With his weak light he could finally make out the room. The root tunnel didn't so much end as it coned outward, wider and wider until it met the back wall. The floor was covered in sand, sloping only slightly from its farthest point until it took a sharp turn upward in front of the tunnel, pointing towards its point of origin.
One of the roots penetrating the rocky ceiling seemed to have widened a crack so that the barest trickle of sand was plowing down. Looking from that to the rest of the room, Lyric couldn't help but wonder aloud, "How long did it take for that small stream to fill this whole room?"
Taking a better look around the room, wondering just how deep the sand went beneath his feet, he spotted four breaks in the slightly angled plane of sand. Upon closer inspection the oddities revealed themselves to be the tops of standing torches, their polls buried almost completely.
"Lucky day," Lyric muttered under his breath as the proper torches ignited against all odds from the weak flame of the stick he took from his fire place. With the chamber flooded in this old light, the bard's eye landed firmly on the revealed carvings on the exposed back wall.
Carved on top of four horizontal, parallel lines were the notes to a song unknown to Lyric. Written as if hastily struck by an unskilled sculptor, the notes had a jagged and primal look, giving the short song something of a feral personality to Lyric's trained eyes.
"Lucky day indeed!" the bard joyously exclaimed. "What a find! And I was beginning to think that exploring this cave was going to be a waste of time. Only about fifty-ish notes long, but a new song is a new song and this one has the benefit of being an ancient religious hymn of a lost barbaric civilization
or at least that's what I'm going to tell everyone."
Laughing, he dropped the torch that until now had acted as is guide. It fell to the ground with an unceremonious thud, the weak flame snuffed by the old sand. Pulling his old, travel worn companion from his back and giving it a quick and practiced tuning, he prepared himself to memorize the soon to be newest addition to his considerable repertoire of song collected over his extended life.
The guitar fit perfectly in his hands, just as it always had. He rolled his head and shoulders, loosening up in his old ritual to become more receptive to a new piece of music. Finishing the short ritual with one deep breath, entering a sort of half trance, his last thought before he began to memorize through playing was that it felt like his excitement was palpable in the air. It was almost as if the song wanted to be played.
When his hand struck the first note, his body was no longer his.
The air swirled around the possessed bard, the sand spinning through the air, snuffing the torches and flaying the tree roots that tried so desperately to bury The Song. As splinters joined sand, the skulls of the sacrificed dead were revealed in the ancient red light being thrown off by the carved notes, alive once more. The curious bard was lifted by this power, hovering at the center of the tornado as his hands struck each cord of The Song, tearing it from the wall and burning it into his soul. Pain was all he could perceive, pain and the fact that he couldn't stop his body from inviting The Song into his being with its insistent playing. The one time he ever wanted to stop playing his guitar, he could not.
As the notes were ripped from the wall, flying swiftly through the air before striking the bard and being buried in his being, the light being cast from them dimmed with every string plucked. Darker and darker, the light in the chamber faded, until with the final note played and the song come to an abrupt end, the light died entirely. The sand, wood and flesh being held aloft by its power were suddenly dropped.
Gasping and twitching, Lyric laid half buried in the sand for what seemed like hours, feeling the pain slowly fade from his soul. Replacing the pain was The Song, constantly playing over and over in the back of his mind. As the music slowly grew in strength and volume, so too did its urges.
He clawed his way out of the sand and splinters, crawling and stumbling through the impenetrable dark.
The quill broke for a third time.
Wet from the rain he ran through and caked in sand, Lyric swore loudly yet again in the sparsely populated tavern, ignoring the stares that this act brought him.
In a rage he crumpled the sheet he was working on and added it to the halo of paper balls around his bar stool. Downing the last half of his pint in one go, trying to calm down through alcohol, he demanded more ale and another quill from the bar tender, tossing a few more coins in his general direction.
Lyric didn't mean to be rude, but all sense of civility was over whelmed by the urge. The Song wanted to be given physical form again and like a child throwing a tantrum, it would not, COULD not listen to reason. So, like a Gray Weed addict being offered another chew, Lyric could not say no.
The bard reached over to his old guitar lying on the bar next to him. With one hand he absent mindedly started plucking the strings lightly, trying to play a simple song to calm him down as he waited for the supplies.
He was forced to stop when The Song realized what he was doing. Feelings of intense and alien jealousy and anger coursed through him. His body couldn't interpret this as anything but pain.
Grunting, he suddenly hunched forward, slamming his head against the bar. Thankfully he hit the stack of papers, cushioning the blow at least a little.
The bar tender came over with the mug and the quill. Lyric practically snatched the writing utensil out of his hand and started once more his impossible task.
The notes of The Song didn't want to be written. At least, that's what it seemed like. If he tried to write a D his hand would try to slip into an E, the ink would splotch suddenly or stop running all together, notes he was sure he got right would swim at the edge of his vision and be different then he remembered writing when he looked back at them.
Frustration and rage started to build again, partially The Song's and partially his own. Sheet after sheet joined the pile on the floor and just before he broke another quill from pressing too hard out of anger, a hand landed on his shoulder.
"Ha-ay buddy," the immensely inebriated man slurred. "Yous really need ta calm down."
His head snapping around to see who would dare, Lyric fought the urge to punch the man, wondering if it came from The Song or his own frustration. The man looked like nothing more than a stereotypical farmer, as was expected from these parts of the province, with only the medallion hanging around his neck indicating that he was anything more.
"Yous know wha?" he stumbled through his words, his eyes falling onto Lyric's instrument. "Yous should try pla-aying along wit a song I learned a ta mage shool. It alway help me calm down and foc-focus."
Wondering how the man was still standing, Lyric watched him as he stepped back, placed a hand to his chest, striking a pose that he probably thought was dramatic, and began to drunkenly sing.
Before Lyric could even feel astounded, a different feeling flooded his being.
A savage excitement at the prospect of a challenge, a competition! Lyric's body moved on its own. As if a puppet on strings he felt himself grab his old guitar and be lifted off the ground, just like he was in the cave.
The red light of The Song started pouring from his mouth and eyes, his hands glowing just beneath the skin with the same.
The innocent mage had the same happen to him. He was lifted by power not his own and the light of his soul started pouring out of his mouth and eyes. His sky blue light fought and competed with the red.
The mage sang, not the song that he started with, but with a simple, wordless song. It had earthy tones, speaking of the old knowledge of working the land mixed and harmonizing with the faint sounds of power over small aspects of the universe. A pleasant song of reassurance and the validity and comfort brought by a simple life spent well.
It was quickly drowned out.
A chorus of songs, each a song of its own and yet but a single note in the symphony being formed by Lyric's possessed hands, enveloped the sounds of the mage's singular voice. Enveloped and consumed. Just as The Song wrapped around the mages simple tune, so too did the red light twist around the blue, pulling it out of the mage and weaving it into its own. With one last sharp tug, the light and the song were disconnected from the mage, dropping him to the floor and quickly retreating back into the bard. As the last note of The Song played, those with a fine ear could hear the traces of the mage's soul, singing out with the rest of the chorus.
And so The Song added the fifty-seventh note to its length.
Silence filled the tavern. Stunned by the display, everyone's eyes shifted randomly from Lyric, feet on the ground and now back in control of his body, to the still form of the mage, lying on the ground.
Before another word could be said, Lyric's horror and panic overcame him. He burst through the front door and fled into the rainy night.
Lyric contemplated, not any were near the first time, why he wasn't insane.
He had plenty of reasons to be for sure. First and foremost is that he has been an accessory to exactly 7304 murders. One each and every day for the past twenty years (he even factored in leap years). Today is something of a grim anniversary in that regard. The twentieth anniversary of the night this spree started.
Secondly is the fact that he has been forced to watch the same day play out every day for the past twenty years. Always with the running through the rain, the insane scribbling, the innocent trying to help and the finale of that same innocent having his or her soul violently ripped out as a penalty for losing a competition they had no hope of even contending in.
And the third quill is about to break in three
The crack of the quill, the loud swearing that the decent, simple folk of this particular tavern politely ignore. Like clockwork.
And yet not. There are always minor differences in his actions, a blink here, a stumble there. The actors, as he has come to think of them, also change every night. The bar tender is always a different man, the innocent about to die, the crowd staring on in shock. Even the bar itself is always a different one. The Stuck Pig, the Drunken Horse, the Scowling Rogue. A legion of names, attached to a legion of buildings all impossibly a day's panicked run from each other.
And there go the thrown coins, this time one copper shy then the norm Lyric noted. "Where did all those coins come from?" he silently contemplated for the thousandth time.
The bard stopped fighting to regain control of his body after about six years of this. After about three more years he stopped asking things like "Why me?" and "How is this possible?" For about four after he stopped questioning it he tried to give himself over to madness, thinking it the only possible form of solace in this living parody of life. Tried to, and failed.
No matter how far he got in his willing plummet to insanity, he would always be forced to resurface at some point during his mad run through the rain. Eventually he realized that the point he came back out of the depths is the point when he stopped running from a tavern and started running to one. It was a subtle switch, a change in intent that he barely felt if he was focusing on it and never noticed if he didn't give it his full attention.
"Who's intent?" he wondered until this day. It wasn't his, that was for certain, but it definitely FELT like it belonged to him. It was as if half of him was doing all the actions he saw and felt himself do, and the other half was forced to just sit and watch. Half got to choose what he was going to do, and always choose the same actions whether knowingly or not, and the other half got an outside perspective on the same day being played out the same way for twenty years.
And the hand slipped over to the guitar and started to play, and The Song reacted jealously.
As Lyric smashed his head onto a bar for the 7305th time he felt The Song sigh. It was slightly depressed again. What was once just a jumble of frantic urges has evolved over the years into a silent sentience. As the notes that comprised it got more complex, going from a few dozen to several thousand so too did The Song's thought process. And with the newfound insights into its being and existence came the realization, about six or seven years back Lyric remembered, that it will never satisfy its most basic urge, to be given physical form one more.
Lyric's hand snatched the offered quill, pantomiming anger and frustration without actually feeling it. The first note he saw and felt himself write on the paper burst into a tiny flame, the blood that the second note turned into put it out before it could consume the entire sheet.
This was another side effect that came with The Song growing in complexity and power. The vessel that was trying to contain it needed to be even more powerful, or so Lyric theorized. It used to be able to be held by ancient, holy stone after it was infused with a blood ritual when it was small, again he theorized thinking about the cave that he found The Song in. But that was when it was small and would only have a hard time holding onto something as simple as paper. Now its very nature fought such simple confines, even against The Song's will.
And because of this, and the endless repetition of the same events on different nights, it will never be written down, and will just grow and grow until Lyric dies of old age. If that will even happen, Lyric wondered.
Next will come the hand on the shoulder, and soon The Song will get its 7361st note. Lyric did the only thing he could do; made a game of guessing which patron he witnessed while walking in would be the innocent victim.
and waited. The hand didn't come, not on the scheduled time it should have. The sounds and movement in the tavern seemed to stop, including his own.
A presence developed to his left, near his guitar. And then he felt it.
Not much, but more than he had possessed for the past twenty years. Control. Control over his own body.
With his limited control and stunned excitement, he slowly and painfully turned his head to see what the presence was.
He saw a book leaning against his guitar. It was large, old and leather bound with thick, worn pages. It had a simple and yet elegant design on the cover in place of the name and seemed to be staring at Lyric, waiting.
The bard exerted his new found control and guided his hand, slowly and shakily from lack of use, to what might be his only hope of salvation.
His hand came to rest on the warm leather, warm like the embrace of an old friend. He hooked his thumb awkwardly on the edge of the cover and started to pull upwards, opening it slowly, letting the comforting white light slip out.
A hand, firm, pale and feminine, smashed painfully down on top of his, slamming the book close before Lyric could glance at its pages.
With a turn and a snap of her arm, the tall woman threw the book away from Lyric. With her other hand she produced a small metal object and made a quick, violent movement with it. The air around the book seemed to bend and envelope it, sucking it into unknown depths and removing it from this existence. The metal object rusted and disintegrated out of her hand.
The regal and severe looking lady raised the hand she had used to throw the book to look at it. It was charred and smoking from where she touched the book. If it hurt she didn't show any sign of it and after a moment's contemplation, the quickly healed.
"Another world saved, barely and temporarily," she said to herself, looking around the frozen tavern as it slowly started its parody of life again.
She turned to leave. Panic and desperation, both Lyric's and The Song's forced the dwindling control over the body to snap the hand to lock on her wrist. It was cold, like the gaze of a stern mother.
Surprise crossed her face, the first emotion Lyric witnessed her express, as she looked at the offending hand. Her gaze moved up his arm and to the desperate eyes staring at her from behind a silent face. She watched as Lyric went back to his attempts at writing the song, his body no longer his own, but his hand never lost its grip on her wrist.
"Willpower enough to break through the deepest of The Book's madness, if only is a tiny and short lived way," she contemplated. "No mortal of this world should be able to do that. What is he writing?" She leaned down to get a better look at the mad scribblings on the sheet, watching as they change and violently react with the paper. "I know this story
The Song and it's paradox of an existence, wanting to be made physical where it won't be played and yet wanting to be heard, thus destroying the that which it was written on."
She took better stock of the surrounding environment.
"With The Book's new madness this story is reliving the events of the same page it seems. But with the nature of reality and the extra-dimensional nature of The Song, the world itself has continued on, with time progressing and space reshaping in its attempts to follow the words written on the page again and again. Interesting to say the least."
As the hand landed on Lyric's shoulder and the innocent started the same speech the bard had heard thousands of times before, his and The Song's desperation increased and with it the pressure he exerted on the lady's wrist.
With only a moment's worth of thought, she pieced together what was about to happen and what the tortured man was asking with the tight squeeze. Her free hand shot out and punched the man in the throat just before he could start singing.
The tavern froze again, the only sound filling it being the innocent man gasping for breath, trying and failing to sing, his body rigged in its pose.
A little control came back to Lyric. This time he used it to speak, forcing out words he has been unable to say for nearly two decades.
The lady contemplated Lyric for a time, striking the innocent man's throat again when he was starting to regain his voice.
Finally she spoke. "I will make you a deal. There is nothing in your world now that can contain The Song that is infesting your soul. It has grown too powerful. However, in The Book, the thing that nearly removed you from this world before destroying it, are others that were not so fortunate. They now posses blank pages from The Book. If you were to transcribe The Song onto those, it would be held.
Lyric was filled with elation, both his and The Song's.
"This is not an act of charity, however. Your side of the bargain will be helping my brother Mudd and I with fixing The Book. We cannot do it from the outside, but we have been sending agents into it, where we cannot go. You will also help with fixing The Book from the inside as payment for the chance at exorcizing The Song from your soul. Deal?"
The lady reached into a pocket and produced two more of the metal objects. She removed Lyric's hand from her wrist and placed one into it.
"This is the Construct called Arrow. It will form itself into whatever you want within the frame work of its general concept so long as you will it to. Experiment with it when you get the chance."
She stepped back and held the other metal object, this one door shaped, in front of her, ready to make the same motion as she did with the book.
" Lyric said as hastily as he could. He motioned towards his guitar as best he could.
The lady stopped herself from sending him. She picked up the instrument and strapped it to the bards back.
"Anything else before I send you?" she asked, not unkindly but still a little impatient.
"Ah, yes, it would be prudent for you to know the one you are championing." She stepped back and assumed the same pose as before, moving her hand in the pattern she used to send The Book only this time not as violently quick.
"I am the Lady Ink," she said, as reality warped around the bard, pulling him into nothingness and towards hope.