"When the ill wind blows, the tree that bends will break."
Zhota could not silence Akyev's parting words. They had dogged his every step for the past weeks. By day, the memory of his master's voice was only a whisper, but when night came, it reached a fever pitch.
Tonight was the same... Tonight he knew he would be tested again.
The winds had picked up, howling through the Gorgorra like the last icy breath of a dying god. The cold gnawed through his green, white, and blue sashes, biting bone deep. In years past he had endured slashing mountain gales outside the Floating Sky Monastery without so much as flinching, but this wind was different. There was an urgency to it that filled him with disquiet, as if the forest gods were roiling in fear.
Zhota paced at the edge of the campsite, tapping his bo staff on the lichen-covered ground. Mossy pine and birch trees towered around the clearing where he had settled for the night, along with a supremely ancient oak. Its great gnarled boughs arched over the breadth of the camp almost protectively.
The two men near his fire were still asleep, wrapped tight in tattered woolen blankets. He had hoped for a night of solitude, but the refugees had spoiled that by finding him just after sunset. The desire to refuse them a place at his camp had been strong, but Zhota's master had explicitly forbidden him from turning away travelers.
"Welcome them with open arms, but keep your heart guarded," Akyev had ordered. "Observe them with care, for if they are tainted by a god of chaos, it will do all it can to evade your gaze."
And so Zhota had obeyed, examining the strangers closely. It had not taken long for him to judge that they were free of corruption. The gaunt and weary-eyed men were a graying father and his twenty-year-old son, the sole survivors of an attack by a band of savage khazra. The filthy goatmen had taken the refugees' village unawares and reduced it to a smoldering graveyard.
The men hailed from an area of the Gorgorra that held religious and cultural ties to Ivgorod, and they were fleeing north to the safety of the city. Despite the horrors they had faced, the father and son were full of hope, and they believed that finding Zhota was a sign that the god of fate was looking kindly on them. He had felt almost cruel listening to them prattle about the life they would lead once within Ivgorod's walls, knowing in his heart that they would likely die before they reached the city.
As they prepared to sleep, the two had offered the last of their meager provisions in exchange for sharing Zhota's camp. He had politely feigned the urge to accept before he turned the gift away. In truth, he wanted nothing to do with the refugees. He had learned not to grow close to those he met in the Gorgorra for fear that they might become obstacles.
"Then we will give tribute twice over to the gods instead," the father had said, not unkindly. "They were gracious to have guided us to you, holy one. Nothing in the Gorgorra is as it seems."
No, Zhota had wanted to reply. Not even me.
The other man's words were true enough about the forest. Zhota had been raised on tales of the old-growth Gorgorra south of Ivgorod. Even the youngest trees had been ancient at the time of the monk order's founding. Here, he had always been taught, the balance among the thousand and one gods of order and chaos was immutable. He wondered what the elder monks would say if they could witness the shadowy crucible the forest had become.
Zhota continued his rounds of the campsite, repeating a mantra that opened his mind to the nearby woods, where his eyes could not see. He sensed something stirring out there in the darkness, a presence he had discovered earlier in the night. Slowly, almost methodically, it had grown stronger with each passing hour as if it was moving closer to the camp. Zhota's skin prickled at the sensation of being watched from every direction by a hundred eyes, the observers' true forms hidden from him. Even worse, none of the forest gods of order had answered his prayers to reveal the presence's source. The deities were indifferent... untrustworthy
The gods had been this way for weeks, ever since the heavenly fire had burned over Ivgorod and landed somewhere south of the kingdom. In its wake, the chaotic gods and their demonspawn had begun prowling the forest while brigands pillaged the Gorgorra's isolated hamlets with impunity. There were dozens of different names and explanations for the comet, but what all of them shared in common were tidings of ill times ahead. Nowhere was the shadow as pervasive as it was in the leagues of dense mountain woodlands that surrounded him. Discovering what the phenomenon truly meant was not Zhota's responsibility. Another member of his order, a peerless monk whom he had always held in high regard, had been sent out to learn more concerning the heavenly fire.
As the night deepened, Zhota grew restless. It seemed as if whatever unholy force was lurking in the woods was toying with him. His hand traced along the hundreds of glyphs and proverbs that he had carved into his staff. They snaked around the weapon from end to end in intricate patterns, every one a reminder of his training lessons. Zhota repeated the inscriptions, hoping for some kind of clarity or resolve. Instead, they dredged up memories of his failures under Akyev's tutelage.
He was reciting the lessons under his breath when the winds died to a whisper.
In the distance, a sharp pop akin to dry timber crackling in a fire echoed through the Gorgorra, followed by another and another. The strange noises were few and faint initially, but they quickly increased in frequency and volume, issuing from all directions around the camp. Zhota strained his eyes and peered into the darkness as the sounds rose to a deafening tumult of rattling boughs and splintering wood. He saw rows of trees just beyond the clearing shake and then spontaneously burst into kindling in successive waves that advanced closer to him and the refugees with each explosion.
The movement stopped at the edge of the camp. A dead stillness settled on the forest.