Story by Jens Hieber
Illustration by Lee Dawn
Vesk’s world changed again the day he saw the skyships. It had been so long since any creature more cognitively advanced than a boondur had stepped onto his floating sky-island of Asaad. It wasn’t really his island, but as Bridgekeeper for the only passage onto the suspended green drop, it had essentially been his domain for several centuries.
Now the humans had returned. And they didn’t need his bridge anymore.
The large ships disappeared behind the hills on the far side of Asaad, but within a few days, smaller skiffs were darting across the sky, crossing the chasm to the mainland and vanishing into the distance above the green, jungle expanse. An exploration party, complete with walking sticks and a hovering transport came by a few weeks later, appearing to take measurements. They didn’t set foot on the bridge.
Over a year after their arrival, Vesk first saw the girl. Three children, two boys, and a girl crept from the foliage with a little basket and set up in the clearing near his tree. Vesk had considered the tree his home, his refuge for so long, he’d forgotten that it had been here before him. The children stared at it in wonder before settling under the branches, spreading out a blanket, and arraying food on it. They were unaware that the eyes of an ancient being watched their every move.
“I think I’m going to take a look at that bridge,” one of the boys said.
“Daddy told you not to, Gald,” the girl said. She was younger than the other two and much smaller.
“Oh, we won’t cross it,” the other boy said. “Just looking.”
“Don’t be such a worry-wart, Mayse,” the first boy responded They capered off, and Vesk watched with interest. They examined the bridge, the large slab that was its start, and the huge pegs that served as anchors for the seemingly decaying hand-ropes.
Then his attention returned to the girl, Mayse. Her eyes had followed the boys, but then returned to the food before her. She ate daintily, with purpose and precision, focusing her entire being on the task before her. Then, she meticulously picked a flower, examined it, and began to sing. It was a soft, lilting song, almost a lullaby.
Something awakened in Vesk, some memory of a bygone age; it was just beyond his grasp, would come no closer, and retreated. What remained was a renewed appreciation for these humans, for his long sojourn by an unused bridge.
Vesk didn’t sleep, but his mind rested more often than it had in the past. He would start to awareness and realize an indeterminate amount of time had passed in which he had dreamed in nothingness. It was during one such moment that he was roused by shrill screaming.
A small group of boondurs, running on all fours, sprinted across the green to the bridge. They must have crossed onto Asaad while he slumbered. One carried something slung across its shoulders, a squirming, struggling mass wrapped in yellow fabric. Another shrill screech pierced his ears as the boondurs crossed his bridge with their captive.
It was Mayse. He recognized her form, the sound of her, the auburn hair. Vesk scrambled from his tree and raced to the bridge on his emaciated legs. He was fast, but a boondur in full flight was beyond his ability. He sprinted across the bridge, disregarding the gaps between the wooden slats and the vigorous swaying. When he reached the far end, he heard Mayse scream again just as the boondur troop disappeared into the jungle.
No Xorns had come close to Asaad in centuries; they were the purpose of his guardianship. That’s why they sent the boondurs and now, due to age, lack of vigilance, and oversight, he had let another human be captured. And Vesk couldn’t leave his bridge.
The was a lot of activity for the next two days. Groups crashing through the underbrush of Asaad, calling to each other and the missing girl. Eventually, a small group, led by a smartly clad gentleman entered the clearing, led by two boys.
“And you’ve played here?” the gentleman asked. “After I told you to stay away from the bridge?”
“We never touched it, just came to sit under the tree,” the boy, Gald, said.
The man walked forward, touched his foot to the bridge but took it back quickly, as though unsure if it would support his weight. He looked formidable; a belt strapped across his chest held several wooden contraptions.
“Were you ever observed here?” he asked. “Did you ever see anyone here or across the bridge?”
“No,” the other boy said uncertainly. “Though Mayse said that she felt as though we were being watched.”
“Someone must have seen you, come across the bridge, and taken Mayse.” He sounded strong, but Vesk recognized the agony buried deep within. It was this caring, this strength covering vulnerability that he so valued in humans.
Vesk quietly lowered himself to the ground and stepped out of the shadow of the tree. He wanted to be fully visible before they saw him so that they might not view him as a threat. He towered over humans, and while he appeared unarmed, his glowing eyes were intimidating. He remembered enough experiences with them not to show himself at the wrong moments. But this had been his fault.
“I know where they have taken her,” he finally said, adapting his speech slightly so they could better understand him.
Their shock, anger, and confusion were mingled with fear, but they did not flee. A large man beside the gentleman shouted, “What have you done with her?”
“Quiet, Baran,” the smartly dressed man said. “I don’t think this creature took her.”
“What makes you so sure, brother? Look at it. It’s a beast.”
Ignoring his brother, the man turned to Vesk. “I am Hensal Mecollian. Please, if you know anything about where my Mayse has been taken, tell me.”
Yes, the concern of a father for his child; that is what Vesk had felt from the man. “She was taken by boondurs. They carried her across the bridge to the Xorn temple.”
“And you did nothing,” Baran shouted, taking a step forward. “You just let them take her?”
“No,” Vesk admitted. “I did nothing.”
“Baran!” Hensal exclaimed, holding the larger man back. “Let me talk to it – him. What – who are you?”
“Vesk is my name. I am the Bridgekeeper of Asaad. I am tasked with watching this bridge and have done so dutifully. No Xorn has crossed it and lived.”
“You’re the Bridgekeeper?” Hensal asked incredulously. “Our stories speak of a Bridgekeeper, a radiant being, large and imposing with a huge wingspan. You are nothing like the Bridgekeeper of our stories.”
“Then you are descendants of those that fled so long ago? I cannot speak to my appearance, only that I have faithfully guarded this bridge, even in your absence.”
“But you still let Mayse be taken,” Baran growled.
“You were watching us,” Gald said. “Mayse was right.”
“Yes, I watched you. And I watched Mayse be taken. The boondurs had gotten too far before my failing attention came upon them. Allow me to make up for my lapse and tell you how to get to the Xorn temple.”
“Why don’t you come with us and show us the way?” Hensal asked.
“I cannot leave my bridge. I am tied to this place; I must watch over and protect it.
“But who directed you to watch over the bridge?” Hensal asked. “Please, show us the way to this temple.”
“I cannot,” Vesk said. “If I leave this bridge, my purpose here is for naught. I will cease to be, and the bridge will stand defenseless.”
“But –“Baran interjected.
“Thank you, Vesk. Please direct us to the temple. We will get her back.” Hensal was resigned and Vesk could tell that he was suppressing both anxiety and irritation so as not to infect those around him and arouse them to panic.
Vesk described their course once they entered the jungle, keeping to the north until they’d crossed the stream, then following it a ways before turning left before entering the mangrove swamp. Hensal listened carefully to the intricate directions, but Vesk new that past the mangrove swamp, they would not be able to find their way.
“Can’t we use an airship?” Baran asked.
“You will not see beneath the brush,” Vesk answered.
“Then we will go and do our best. Who are these Xorns?”
“The reason your ancestors fled. They are large, muscular, covered with fur and with long curling horns protruding from their heads. They live in caverns under the jungle and have ruled here since before your people left.”
“It is as I thought,” Hensal said. “We called them the Orax, but they are the same. We had hoped they would have left or died out. We had seen no traces of them here. We thank you for your help.”
One man was sent back with the children, while Vesk watched the brothers and the rest of the group gingerly cross his bridge. Even as the rain began to pour, Vesk wished them luck, knowing they would not find the temple.
He cast out his vision, as he had not done in many a year, and followed their expedition. He looked far enough ahead to see that the girl was indeed at the temple. Caged, frightened, and anxiously hoping. And dreading the coming of the Angkaral.
It was almost dark when the expedition returned, crossing the bridge, sodden with rain and weariness. They collapsed beneath the tree, looking around for him. Vesk dropped from his branch, knowing what they would ask.
“We couldn’t find it,” Baran said. “Your directions were bogus.”
“We made it as far as the mangrove swamp, but couldn’t get past it,” Hensal said. “We need your help.”
“I’ve given you my help,” Vesk said. “I gave you directions. More, I cannot do.”
“You could come with us and show us the way to the Temple.”
“That, I cannot do. I must remain here.”
“But why?” Hensal asked. “You say you were tasked by our ancestors with guarding this bridge.”
“And you’ve done so faithfully. But now, we’re asking for your help. Why is it that you could obey them and not us?”
Vesk took a deep breath. How to explain this so they would understand. “It is not a matter of obeying. I am tied, bound to this bridge.”
“Then how do you know about the temple?” Baran asked.
“I see further. I have seen Mayse there, caged but otherwise unharmed.”
“You can see her?” Hensal asked, his outer calm slipping for a moment. “What do they want with her?”
“To appease the Angkaral. They fear it, they feed it, and now they have a sacrifice that will keep it at bay for a long time.”
“Angkaral? What is it? Some type of spirit?”
“No, nothing like that. I have not seen it myself, though its smell is familiar; it is large yet surprisingly agile and able to keep itself from view. It eats only rarely, but then only intelligent beings. The Xorns sacrifice those among themselves that are condemned, but a human will hold off the Angkaral far longer.”
“And that is what’s in store for Mayse?” Baran yelled. “And you still won’t come and help us free her.”
“As I’ve said,” Vesk answered. “I cannot leave.”
“What would happen if you did?” Hensal asked.
“My oath would cause my being to wither, to decay, and I would cease to be.”
“But is that not already happening?” Hensal asked carefully. “I mean no disrespect, but already you do not seem to embody the characteristics of the Bridgekeeper in our stories. You were said to be radiant, shining. Yet now your skin is the color of dark ash and rain clouds. Your eyes still glow, but you have no wings left. Your frame is gaunt, haggard, emaciated. Could it be that your purpose here as Bridgekeeper has long since passed and you are holding on to a past that no longer exists?”
Vesk seated himself, crossing his spindly legs, and closed his eyes. He had not considered this. Could that be the reason for his physical deterioration? It was true that not one human had used his bridge in years. And these new humans had no need for the bridge. Was he truly free to help them return the girl?
“Vesk, are you okay?”
“Maybe we should kick him and see if he’s still awake.”
“Don’t you dare,” Hensal said. “Vesk, do my questions trouble you?”
Leaving the bridge had never occurred to him. When he had been bound, when he had accepted his role and said his oath, he had imagined he would be here forever. His physical decaying, his mental aging, had not been connected to his task here, as he had not left.
“What if you come with us, show us where the Xorn temple is. If what you fear is already happening, what more can you lose by helping us?”
Vesk opened his eyes. “I could deteriorate faster.”
“But if your purpose is to guard the bridge, was that not to guard us against the Xorns? Would accompanying us to rescue Mayse not be a stronger action in fulfilling your purpose than standing guard over a disused bridge?”
Vesk stood and came to a decision, the hardest he could remember making.
“I will take you to the Xorn temple.”
“Then we leave now,” Hensal said.
“But we just got back,” one of the men behind him complained.
“Aye, but we don’t know how long Mayse has. Vesk, can you guide us in the dark?”
They crossed the bridge, Vesk in the lead. He stopped at the far end, contemplating his decision. There would be no turning back once he headed into the jungle.
But the man was right; his purpose in guarding the bridge had passed. The years had been long.
They plunged into the dark jungle, the men following Vesk carefully. He could see clearly but moved more slowly so they could follow.
They marched for hours, crossed the stream and followed it to the mangrove swamp. Here, the men crowded closer for fear of a misstep. Several times, Vesk paused to let a dangerous creature pass, and once to avoid detection by a company of boon
For a time, they halted in a small clearing. Even Vesk had need of rest; he could feel an aching in his bones that increased with each hour. He was unused to this exertion but would push on. The men would need rest more frequently, as they had spent all day in these jungles and were now expected to march through them again.
At dawn, finally, they approached the temple. Vesk signaled another halt and called Hensal close.
“I will cast out my vision and determine what is nearby. We cannot get into a pitched battle with the Xorns and should avoid the Angkaral at all costs.”
Closing his eyes, the ancient temple looked as it had always appeared in his visions. Tower, stairs, crumbling walls, and a ruined structure. It was entirely overgrown by the jungle, except in those regions traversed by the Xorns. And there, at the back, gaped the large hole that led down into their subterranean domain.
A cage, suspended from an intricately carved arch, held Mayse. She either slept or huddled in silent terror, unmoving. There were no Xorns visible, and no disturbance that would indicate the passage of the Angkaral.
“We creep in quietly, free the girl from the cage, and make our retreat,” Vesk said.
“She is in a cage?” Baran asked.
“Yes, they suspend their victim from the sacrificial arch, then retreat until the Angkaral claims its prize.”
“So, if we can get in and out before the creature comes,” Hensal mused, “Perhaps we will not see any Xorns at all.”
They crept forward and paused at the bottom of the large steps that let up into the main temple courtyard. The sun had risen just high enough to peek through the foliage and cast a pale green glow from the east down onto the gloomy place. It served as a reminder that all was not as dark as the under-canopy suggested.
“Keep a look-out,” Vesk said. “Watch particularly the cavern entrance back there and make certain we are not approached. And be alert for the Angkaral; you will not hear it, but it cannot mask its smell.”
“What does it smell like?” one of the men asked.
“Imagine a heavy musk, sweet – sickly so. Very earthy. It will be unlike any smell you have encountered before,” Vesk explained.
“How do you know so much?” Baran asked. “I thought you’d been stuck at that bridge?”
How did he know all this? He knew it with certainty but had not known it for quite some time. It was as though he had begun to forget many details from his past and was only now beginning to remember them.
“I’ve lived a long life and I have forgotten many memories. Sometimes, I remember, even from a very long time ago.”
With that, he strode forward, finding extra strength in his wiry legs to climb the steps. A small pillar rose to about his shoulder right at the front of the steps; it held a glowing light, not so much visible as audible, sending out its rays in pulses.
The steps were slick with moisture, but he reached the base of the sacrificial arch, glancing back to ascertain that the humans were still where he had left them.
Looking carefully, he found the handholds the Xorns must have used to climb the arch and suspend their sacrifice. Vesk began the climb, reaching through vines and leaves to get a firm grasp. He marveled briefly at the unusual strength in his arms, but then continued to follow the bruised leaves and scrapped vine-limbs until he found himself standing at eye level with a very frightened Mayse.
“Are you here to eat me?” she asked with a tremble in her voice.
Vesk could not conceal his smile and even let out the first genuine laugh in centuries. “No, dear one. I’m here to bring you back to your people. See, your father is down there.”
She turned and then regarded him seriously. Not with suspicion, but evidently wanting to ask a few questions before trusting her life to such an unknown creature as himself.
“Then who are you?” she whispered
“Call me Vesk. I’m tasked with your care and will make certain you are returned home safely, Mayse.”
The lock snapped under his strong fingers and a moment later the girl was clinging to his shoulders as he retraced the holds of the arch to the top of the steps. He was about to set her down when a loud bellow echoed from out of the cave mouth. A quick glance showed a rushing swarm of Xorns, fully armored, horns glistening, and rage on their furry faces. Many brandished axes, cudgels, or maces and were making frighteningly fast progress.
He spun and bounded down the slippery steps, expertly keeping his balance as he yelled, “Run!” The men dashed into the jungle, Hensal casting numerous concerned looks over his shoulder, but seemingly satisfied that Vesk would not leave Mayse behind.
Once they’d plunged back into the undergrowth, Vesk was able to make up the distance between them and loped past the slower humans. Between breaths, he managed to say “I’ll lead, stay right behind me. Shout if you fall too far behind.” He took the lead and crashed nimbly through the greenery, retracing as best he could, the path, they had made in coming.
“You’re starting to glow,” a soft voice whispered into his ear. He looked down at himself, but saw no such thing, only perhaps fewer ribs and joints. Glancing over his shoulder, his view was obstructed by something on his back, but he finally caught a glimpse of the men behind him.
And behind them, the ever closing Xorn pack. He could outrun them, but it seemed that the humans could not. Should he turn and give a fight? He remembered, eons ago, fighting formidably with his sword against a large host of Xorns, but they’d only been able to cross the bridge a few at a time. Here, they might overwhelm him.
He ran on and then heard the first scream behind him. One of the men had been hacked down from behind. If he stopped to fight, they might all be killed. If he kept running, at least he would be able to save the girl.
“What is that smell?” someone shouted.
Xorn grunts turned to shrieks and fell further back, turning to one side and crashing off into the brush.
And then Vesk’s ancient nose caught the smell he had described earlier. Dark, earthy, musky, and so very sickly sweet. The Angkaral approached.
“Keep running,” he shouted behind him. “If we can get into the daylight, it won’t follow us.” Where had that memory come from?
“Why? How does that save us,” Hensal puffed behind him.
“It’s a creature of the dark jungle, it will not come into the light. If only we can get to the bridge before it reaches us, we may stand a chance.” But Vesk had no hope. They had far too much ground to cover.
“The sticks on your shoulders are growing,” the soft voice said.
They ran on, no longer pushed on by their Xorn pursuers, but instead by a more ominous dread, a presence that threatened to crush them with its odorous approach. They ran for hours, the smell abating at times, yet still clinging in their nostrils, then growing stronger again, unmistakably nearby.
And then the Angkaral stood before them. How it moved without disturbing the jungle about it, without emitting sound, was a mystery. But there it was, silent, looming, and threatening, the cloying smell permeating the world around it.
Lounging, unmoving yet rippling, its sinuous body supported on its four legs. The jagged edges of its scales protruded, presenting an unholy arrangement of death. The scales undulated slowly, dipping in and out in rhythm with the creature’s breathing. Its head was easily the height of a human, yet looked down on them from above, the gold-rimmed slits staring and emitting all its menace.
They skidded to a halt, and Vesk flung the girl from his back, standing tall before the Angkaral. It did not flinch or move, just regarded him with interest before flicking its tongue in the directions of the humans behind him.
Then, he remembered what the soft voice had said. He was beginning to glow. Vesk dared to take his eyes from the creature and look down at himself. He was surprised at the change that had come over him, the muscles that encased his limbs and torso. His graying skin had changed in hue, lightening and giving of faint pulses of its own. And he remembered the beast’s aversion to light.
Vesk stepped forward.
“Leave us alone, Angkaral. We will not be your meal today. Go back to your den in the depths of the jungle and trouble us no more.”
The beast blinked.
Vesk stepped forward.
“You feed on intelligence, on thought, on beings of intellect. But you will not have us.”
The beast lowered its head, crouching, staring right at him. Its tongue flicked.
Vesk stepped forward. And exploded in light. A radiance he had long forgotten oozed from every pore, bathing the dark under-jungle with incandescent warmth.
The Angkaral twitched, its long tail moving slowly behind it. Then it took a step back. Vesk stepped forward, one pace after another, and the monster retreated quietly back into the dark.
“Wow,” Mayse said. Vesk turned to the stunned humans behind him, the glow already fading somewhat.
“Now you’re the Bridgekeeper from our stories,” Hensal said.
“We must keep moving,” Vesk responded. “Assuming the Angkaral will not return, that makes it all the more likely that the Xorns will pick up our trail again.” He spoke formally, but inwardly, a growing glow matched his previous radiance. He hadn’t felt this in lifetimes.
“Can’t you just light up again and scare them off too?” Baran asked.
“Unlikely. They’re not afraid of light, and their baser instinct to attack will keep them coming. No, we must reach the bridge before they resume their hunt.”
With Mayse returned to her former perch, they continued their march, somewhat slower this time, considering how little energy they had. The jungle grew warm as the day progressed, the life that was so abundant here making itself known in all its glory. The smell of the Angkaral dissipated and finally remained only in memory.
They rested occasionally, but only for short times with ample eyes watching the thick brush behind them for Xorns.
Subtle, the horned creatures were not. The party heard the Xorn grunting and growling from quite a distance and picked up the pace. Already they had gotten past the mangrove swamp. Vesk took Mayse from her father’s arms and dropped to the rear of the group. They did not need his guidance at the front any longer, and at least back here, he would be better able to defend the humans when the Xorns finally caught up with them.
The Xorns and the bridge broke into sight at the same time. The beast-like creatures had split into two troops, approaching from separate sides to cut them off. But the humans, at Vesk’s urging, had made good time. They all broke from the jungle canopy at the same moment and races across the flat open area.
“Cross the bridge,” Vesk yelled. “I’ll hold them back.” He flung Mayse at her father, who staggered briefly before pushing.
Vesk took a few more steps, turned, and remembered his sword. Somewhere, in the back of his ancient mind, he’d never really forgotten the blade given him to fulfill his duties. But he hadn’t needed to summon it in such a long time that it might as well have been forgotten.
He summoned it now and felt the familiar weight drop into his waiting palm.
He faced the oncoming horde of metal, fur, and curling horns. He remembered this; he’d done this before. Their history and stories were not as long as those of humans. For many years an expedition would come at various intervals and forget that he held this bridge. They would be beaten back and not return for a lifetime or more of Xorn generations. But they had not come in many a decade. Perhaps their lore had finally made mention of him, and so they sent only the boondurs.
Yet this group, enraged and on the hunt, would not back off.
He swung his sword at the first creature, sheering through an arm and then faced the next Xorn. He met the onslaught readily, dispatching each new opponent, parrying their clumsy attacks, and striking incisively before stepping back towards the bridge.
They fell before him, creating obstacles for the next group to jump over before they could attack him. When he felt his foot touch the large stone platform of the bridge, he spared a moment to glance behind him. The bridge was clear, and the humans were all across. The Xorns continued their assault, first rushing all at once, then trying their luck a few at a time.
Vesk felt none of the weariness that should have suffused his being. He felt strength, courage, and determination where there had been none in centuries. And he felt wings. They had grown back; somehow the stumps on his back had grown, unfolded, and unfurled.
He could defeat these opponents; they could only attack a few at a time. But he didn’t need to fight them here. There was no longer a need to protect this bridge; it was no longer necessary. He stepped back onto the bridge, beckoning for the Xorns to follow. In their rage, they allowed themselves to be lured onward.
Halfway across the span, still parrying and thrusting, he began to methodically snick at the ropes of the bridge itself. The swaying increased, the hand ropes dropped away, and now he sawed through the stuff at his feet. It dawned on the Xorns that they were no longer safe and backed up, running into those further behind.
When the bridge snapped, most of the remaining Xorns plunged into the chasm below. And Vesk rose, a mighty thump issuing from his wings. The Xorn screams diminished as he flew to Asaad, landing by his tree.
“How can we ever thank you enough?” Hensal asked.
“You have no need,” Vesk answered. “It was my duty.”
“What will you do now? Why did you destroy the bridge?” Mayse asked.
“Because you no longer have need of it. Asaad will be your haven; none will bother you here. There is no bridge for them to cross, and should they find a way, they will find me, watching over you.”
And he rose into the sky again, smiling down at the girl who had restored so much to him. He was no longer a Bridge keeper; the title Guardian of Asaad appealed to him.
— ♦♦♦ —
His lab was crude but impressive, with a small chemistry station, sink, microscope, and tables with odd instruments I knew not the purpose of. Shelved walls were lined with all sorts of specimens: avian, insectoid, botanical, mammalian. Three shelves had been devoted to jars of eyes—many of which were suffering malformation by various chemical treatments he had given them.