29: In the Shadow of Giants

He saw the dirt move under the mist. Out burst a worm thick as a man and snapped in the air in the direction of the Devourer. He threw himself onto the ground. It pulled back as Its mouthparts moved in the eyeless head that turned toward him in a jerking motion. The blood pulsed through the vessels in its liquid innards visible through the stretched translucent skin. It rippled and moved despite the animal being still as it searched for him and smelled his scent in the air between them. He rose and took a slow step to the side, and its head followed like they were locked in motion. The mouthparts clattered against each other as drops of venom formed on them before dripping onto the ground. He took another step as the eyeless head followed. They stood frozen. Still but for the worm’s pulsating body and the Devourer’s heaving chest. He threw himself backward and rolled away as the worm jutted toward him, and its mouthparts snapped shut where he had been a moment before.

A bolt shot through the worm and lodged itself into the tree trunk behind. The worm tossed and turned in agony as the bright yellow blood spewed over the Devourer and everything else in its vicinity. A second bolt came and penetrated the head of the worm that fell limp to the ground. The blotches of blood on his clothes were almost luminescent in the dim light. He turned his gaze toward the trees in search of his savior but found none. Instead, he turned to the warm yellow glow of the fires surrounding the Glade as torrents of mist danced around them like some lingering ghosts. He zigzagged between the trunks of the giants millennia old but had been only seedlings when he had lived his first lifetimes.

Halt! A voice called out. The Devourer spun around in search of the source of the sound. A something shuffled above him, and he turned his gaze there. He saw a man standing in an opening excavated in the tree holding a crossbow aimed at him. The man’s face was hidden in the shadows under the hood from where only a long brown beard protruded.

I come in peace, The Devourer said. Just traveling, passing through.

You sure don’t look like a wildman, Said the man in the tree.

I’m no wildman. And haven’t seen any around here.

Then you’re lucky, The man in the tree said as he let down a rope ladder. Come up here. Can’t be walking around on the ground like that.

How come? The Devourer said as he climbed the ladder.

Don’t want the wildmen to flay you alive, would you?

I think I remember those hairy fuckers.

No, no, The man said. That’s the beastmen. They’re covered in hair everywhere but the bottom of their feet, palms, faces, and assholes. Those are abominations of nature. The wildmen are the abomination of men even worse in some ways. While the beastmen do what all beasts do, eat, shit, sleep, repeat, the wildmen are some fucking evil bastards. They’d eat your legs while you’re alive and make you watch it. They did that to my uncle, you know. We think.

Well, well. Aren’t I lucky that found you?

I found you. But yes, the rest you said is true, The man continued as he helped the Devourer through the opening before pulling up the ladder. He turned to him and patted himself on the chest as a gesture of respect and said, I’m Uro, nice meeting you.

I’m Nihil. Nice meeting you too. What’s that, bow, thing, you’ve got?

Uro leaned over the ledge and looked at the ground below and said, It’s a crossbow, And continued, So you’re going to the Glade. It’s none of my business, but what brings you here? You’re not a trader wanting to buy pelts or plants by the looks of it. There isn’t much else to be found in the Glade I’m afraid.

I’m just traveling.

Just happen to stumble upon the Mistwood Glade, huh? Uro laughed. There’s nothing else to be found in the vicinity and then some. Your dialect, what is it? Sounds a bit like the Kingdom but it’s something queer about it.

I’m from the Kingdom, yes.

I see. Well, Uro said and turned around. I might as well show you how to get there.

Isn’t it just over there by the fires?

No, that’s only the outer perimeter. The things here don’t like going far into the light. There are three perimeters before you see the palisade. I’ll show you.

The Devourer followed Uro to the other side of the room. They went over a rope bridge that led to another. Multiple bridges were leading from every room and created a web of paths and vantage points above the ground. They came upon the barrier around the village after passing numerous rooms and two perimeters of fires encased in wisps of fog. The final bridge led into a tower in the middle of the town where they went down a spiral staircase made from thick logs merely small branches from the giants outside the barrier. Most had intricate patterns carved into them. There were scenes from legendary hunts of generations long gone while others depicted monsters of every description. Mythological and otherwise.

Here, this is the Glade, Uro said. It was nice meeting you. Farewell.

Wait, The Devourer said. Do you have any recommendations for where I should go?

Uro turned toward him again and said, There’s a stairway that goes to the top of the trees, where you can feel the sunlight. And there’s a museum that might interest you. I won’t bother you by giving you any directions. For in this city’s dwindling depths and labyrinths of wood and mud, you’ll get lost anyway. You’re best to ask for directions from the people you meet. Most of them are pleasant. A bit reserved, maybe, but nice. Oh, I almost forgot, He said. There’s a tavern. Shadow’s Lair, it’s called. Go there if you want gossip or a tankard of ale. Or both. Farewell.