"In Sickness and in Stealth"
Prodigal Daughter, Part 7
By Mike Christopher
Read Part 6 "Barlbridge"

Iyori woke with the dawn and her shelter unwove itself around her, the individual grass blades stretching their green tips toward the light of the new day. Iyori shouldered her pack and trudged onward into the deepening grass. At last she reached a point where the blades stretched more than three times her height and she stopped. It would not be much farther, she knew, before the mud began. The bottom of the deep Weave was coated in a thick morass of sticky muck and slime, making travel on foot an impossibility. The Weavers had other, better, ways to travel however.
Digging through her pack, Iyori withdrew a tattered and frayed sigil—the first she had ever made. She saw Gia’s sure hands over her own tiny ones as she learned the patterns of the complicated weaving which would form the sigil for "home". In this case, home was Gia’s dwelling—Iyori’s childhood sanctuary. Her fingers traced the delicate whorls and knots of the pattern as she held the fragile sigil in her palm. Lifting the sigil above her head, she sent a tiny surge of energy outward and upward, through the sigil and into the surrounding forest of grass.
The Weave reacted—somewhat sluggishly, she thought—by bending all of the nearest blades down and weaving them together into a tight mesh that formed a solid surface for walking upon. Iyori stepped onto the woven surface and followed it up and then deeper into the grass. She hung the sigil about her neck, making sure to keep it in plain sight. The grass before her continued to dip and weave itself into a suspended walkway, while behind it unwove itself and returned to its natural state.
This method of travel was unique to the Weavers. It was part of the symbiotic relationship with the semi-sentient Weave itself that was a part of their regional heritage. Outsiders could only travel in this manner if they had been given a sigil by someone native to the Weave—and then they could only travel to the specific destination that the sigil they possessed was keyed to. In this manner, the Weave and its inhabitants had long held tight control over the comings and goings of outsiders within their homeland. It had been no small surprise when the band of renegade Shadow Magi had invaded the depths of the Weave and begun wreaking havoc therein. The invasion of the Calders had been even more of an outrage—as they cared little for the ways of the Weave and had no problem simply burning their way through the deep grass in pursuit of the elusive Shadow Magi.
These recent events had brought Weaver society into turmoil. The Elder Zaya, had maintained a staunch position of keeping the peace, while Gia had opposed her and roused the angry Weavers into a rebellious mob to meet the invasion of their home with violence. This had been the culmination of the changes which had recently manifested themselves in the usually calm and collected Gia. She had become angry and bitter—and her usual words of wisdom had been lost to a tongue filled with hate and a lust for violence. Iyori had tried to reason with her—but Gia turned on her adopted daughter next, wounding her with hateful words and casting her aside as if she were meaningless. Iyori had fled, then, running to the jungles of Paradwyn in search of answers, healing and possibly even a new life. Finding her father within the jungle depths had been an unexpected and wonderful surprise—although it was his words which had sent her back home in search of her answers.
The grass had become enormous around her, rising so far into the sky above that she could no longer see the tops. Just below, the grass sprang from huge root bulbs, which were themselves suspended high and dry above the muddy muck below by strong aerial roots. Below the mud, Iyori had been taught, the roots connected; a fine network of living fibers which formed the entirety of the Weave into a single collective organism. Through this network, the Weave was able to instruct its various individual parts to react to certain stimuli—such as the patterned sigils of the Weavers—and also to communicate with its co-habitants in a limited fashion. The Weave itself was not exactly sentient—its intelligence was limited primarily to functions concerning its own safety and the safety of the Weavers who cared for it from within.
Iyori had lived within this strangely reactive environment for most of her life. The ways of the Weave were as much a part of her as were her own heart and soul. And yet, as she walked along, she began to feel strange. As if something were slightly different. Try as she might, however, she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
The grass began to change in color, deepening from the standard greens into vibrant reds, violets and aquamarines. Here and there rose shimmering sprays of purest gold. Iyori knew by these signs that she was approaching the village of Qui-Yeteh—her village. Soon the grass parted into a wide sprawling canyon. The tops of the grass swayed together far far above, still blocking the sky from view. Below, a long and winding lake twisted its way between the walls of multi-hued grasses. The canyon was lit by intermittent shafts of sunlight, flickering down through the shifting ceiling of grass blades high above. The grasses themselves gave off a thin misty light, and the root bulbs rising above the lake’s still surface sparkled with the luminescent flower buds of scavenger plants. To further enhance the magical view, the fresh cool air of the canyon was alive with the lazy glitter of floating glowpuffs and twinkle yups. Before her, the grasses stretched across the water and meshed with lowering blades from the far wall, forming an arching bridge across the canyon.
Iyori hesitated halfway across the bridge. On the other side lay home at last—but also her confrontation with Gia. Am I ready for this? She remembered Bazha’s words of wisdom to her when they had parted, "Let forgiveness clear your mind’s eye…and see through to the truth of the matter."
Am I ready to forgive? Iyori asked herself. Her heart was heavy with the remembered pain of Gia’s cruel words and accusations. Yes, she thought, I do not want to continue to feel this way. Renewing her resolve, Iyori hastened the rest of the way across the bridge. She stepped onto the woven path on the far side and was immediately startled by someone dropping onto the path in front of her.
"Kolte!" Ioyri gasped in surprise. "I…er, you startled me!"
Kolte nodded down at Iyori from his impressive height. His eyes looked weary, and Iyori quickly became concerned.
"What is it, Kolte? Has something happened?"
Kolte shrugged. "I’m not sure. I’m glad you’ve returned though. I’ve found something that I think you should see." The big Weaver turned and tugged on the blade sigils woven into his long pale hair. A single blade of grass, almost an arm span wide, dipped down to place its tip at their feet. Kolte hopped on and held out his hand to assist Iyori.
She looked at his hand with momentary disdain. Ordinarily she would have been offended by his offer of assistance—but this time her annoyance faded quickly. She found herself glad to see her old acquaintance, and found herself—for the first time ever—charmed by his gentlemanly mannerisms. She accepted his warm grip and hopped onto the blade alongside him. He let go of her hand once her footing was steady and then motioned for the blade to lower them down.
Iyori glanced up at Kolte in surprise. "Why are we going down?"
His eyes flicked briefly to hers and then back to the surrounding grasses as they descended. His voice was hushed as he replied, "It is the bulbs. There is something I have never seen. I think you should see it too."
"The bulbs?" Iyori blurted. Another glance from Kolte caused her to lower her voice. "But, Kolte, I have to get to Gia!"
"Bah! Gia!" Kolte spat in a vehement whisper. "She’s connected to this somehow. Just wait ‘till you see? Kolte’s words tapered off as the blade halted just at the level of an enormous root bulb. He once again assisted Iyori as they stepped onto the bulb’s pebbled surface. Iyori glanced around. The bulb was easily a spear throw across, the great shoot of grass thrusting up from its center was as wide around as a string of six magi holding hands in a circle. The surface was textured in the usual manner, its surface a warm brownish-red. Here and there, scavenger plants had attached themselves and their showy sprays of glowing flowers swayed gently in the slowly moving air from the lake. The surface of the water was now just a short distance below.
Iyori turned from her inspection and confronted Kolte. "Alright, we’re here—I don’t see anything out of the ordinary."
Kolte motioned her to silence, and beckoned for her to follow. He crossed the broad expanse of the bulb and then leaped out into space to land roughly on the next bulb in, farther away from the lake. Iyori shrugged and made the leap herself. Kolte repeated the maneuver several more times, leaping from bulb to bulb—continually cautioning Iyori to silence. Their surroundings began to dim as they headed away from the multi-hued light of the canyon. Finally, Kolte caught Iyori as she made a final leap behind him. His fingers briefly touched her lips to caution silence, before he motioned into the darkness ahead. Slowly, Iyori followed Kolte as he tiptoed up to the huge shoot of grass in the center of the bulb they now stood upon and began edging his way around it—as if trying to hide from whatever lay on the far side.
Iyori spared a glance upward. They should almost be below the outskirts of Qui-Yeteh by now. She wondered for the hundredth time what Kolte could possibly have discovered that merited such a stealthy approach, especially down here where no one ever ventured. Her musings were interrupted as she bumped into Kolte’s broad back. He turned and grabbed her shoulders, easing her slowly around to his side. Together, they peered around the huge stalk of grass and gazed into the murky gloom beyond.
Iyori’s eyes widened as she took in the sight before her. There seemed to be something wrong with the air before them, or something wrong with her eyes. The view shimmered and shifted before her, she had trouble focusing on it. Through the rippling distortion, she saw that the next bulb over seemed to be covered in great blisters which oozed a thin greenish-black ichor. The stalk of grass shooting up from its center had a bruised and sickly cast to it as well. In several places, the grass looked as if it had begun to shred and wither. Beyond, for as far as Iyori could see, the bulbs all shared the same sickened, diseased state. A sudden wave of vertigo washed over her and she gasped involuntarily.
The small sound which had escaped her lips had an immediate reaction upon the scene before them. Within the blink of an eye, the sickness disappeared and the bulbs resumed a normal appearance. Iyori blinked. The disturbance in the air had vanished as well, along with her moment of dizziness. Kolte turned to her quickly. "Did you see it? The sickness?"
Iyori gulped, straining her eyes to discover any trace of the horror she had just witnessed but was now nowhere in evidence. "I…I don’t know what I saw."
"It’s an illusion of some kind," Kolte gestured to the apparently healthy bulbs before them. "You can only see the disease if you sneak up on it—and it only seems to show up in the dark places."
Iyori was confused. "But, what does this mean? Is the Weave sick? Wouldn’t it have let us know if it needed help?"
Kolte scratched his head. "I dunno. Maybe. But what if the Weave didn’t know it was sick?"
"How could it not know?"
"Well, maybe it suffers from the same illusion which hides the disease from our eyes."
Iyori furrowed her brows, thinking hard. "So, if it is an illusion—why can we sneak up on it and see through it? Is it intelligent somehow?"
Kolte rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It could be that this weird illusion is tuned in to the Weave’s own perceptions somehow." Iyori cocked her eyebrows questioningly. Kolte continued, "Perhaps the sickness is always visible except when the Weave itself begins to perceive it. So, when we make ourselves known and the Weave becomes aware of our presence, the spell kicks in and covers the sickness."
Iyori nodded. It seemed to make a strange kind of sense. "Do you think this is something those Shadow Magi did while they were here?"
Kolte shook his head. "Nah. It’s gotta be something else—something that is still here. This is big magic…the kind that takes constant replenishment."
"So whatever is causing this is still here, eh?"
Kolte nodded in agreement.
Iyori looked suddenly fearful, "Kolte, you don’t think this has anything to do with Gia do you? You said earlier?
"Yes." Kolte interrupted her.
Iyori’s eyes widened. She thought back to Gia as she had last seen her. Her skin darkened and off-color, her sudden weight gain, her poisonous attitude?
"Oh no…maybe Gia has caught the disease too!" She looked imploringly up at Kolte, who nodded his agreement.
"It would explain her behavior? he began, but Iyori had turned to flee. He pursued her to the lakeshore, always just one jump behind. He caught up with her as she was fumbling through her bag, apparently looking for her own blade sigil to summon the grass to lift her back up to the habitation level. Her eyes were frantic and her breathing was ragged.
Kolte placed a hand on her arm. She gazed up at him and pleaded, "I must go to her at once! I have to find a way to cure her!"
"Allow me," he said, the gentleman once more. He tugged on his braids and a blade obligingly descended to accommodate them. As they ascended, he hazarded one further comment, "Umm…I would be very cautious if I were you. Not everything is as you left it."
Iyori nodded in silence, her gaze distracted and far away. She had her home sigil ready as the blade reached the habitable zone. The grass was already weaving the path that would lead up into the woven village of Qui-Yeteh as the blade gently deposited them upon the woven path. Iyori started off down the path, but stopped and turned back to Kolte. She rushed him and gave him a quick hug, murmuring, "Thank you," in his ear before disappearing up the path ahead. Kolte watched her warily, concern filling his face.
Kolte followed in Iyori’s wake, at a slower and infinitely more cautious pace. Good luck, old friend. I’ll be watching from somewhere nearby. You can count on that.

What happens next? Read Part 8 "The Bond Sigil"

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