Swiff rolled onto his side and opened his eyes. For several moments he couldn't understand why he was curled up in the damp of a mossy clearing, beneath the most enormous branches he had ever witnessed. For a second or two he wondered why his wrists and neck felt as if they had just been clamped down upon by searing iron. He sat up and grimaced as his muscles seemed to scream against the action. He knew this feeling, this was a bad feeling. It was the kind of feeling a mage got when he had used the wrong kinds of magic and too much of it at that.
With that thought the memories of what had to have been mere minutes past came flooding back to him. He looked around and found the bird standing a few yards away, feathers ruffling slightly with a small, inconsequential wind. A sword lay between them, dark with fresh blood on its edge. It had belonged to one of the dead guards still littering the clearing. The blood on it was Swiff's own. He looked down at his hand and saw the gash, still fresh. His gaze traveled to his wrist and he winced. Blistering from their creation were dark markings, lines that wrapped around his wrist as if they had been painted onto the skin. His other wrist bore the same simple, binding marks.. and he knew that his neck would be the same. He could feel the cords of magic that manacled him, unseen, to the bird. They were stronger than anything he had ever suspected.
The bird's voice was hollow and callous.
Swiff had no choice but to obey. He got to his feet because it was ordered, not because he wanted to. A weakness had over taken him, it made his stumble halfway like a dizzy drunk. But the consequences of not doing as the bird said would be bad. He could see that object of reverence still cradled in the bird's wing. The stone emanated a soft light, faint as it was- however- it had an unmistakable power in it. A strength so great Swiff near believed he could prod the air and watch it ripple with it.
It seemed to be a fascination to the bird as well. The creature held it up- using its longest wing feathers like black, iridescent fingers- and let the light of the fading day play on its glossy surface.
"Do you know what this is?" asked the bird.
Swiff swallowed a hard lump in his throat and nodded faintly. "If... well if I'm not mistaken that's... that's a stone-"
"A shiny stone," the bird corrected. It tilted its head at the object and spoke with a fond quality to his voice. Swiff was not surprised to see that a few crow characteristics never truly left a bird and their unabashed adoration of all things that sparkled still held true with this one.
"Yes," Swiff agreed. "Where.. how? Is it actually... the stone?"
"Of lightness... of darkness.."
"Of terror beyond belief.." Swiff murmered the often recited title to a finish. "I thought it was hidden away- that new mage- the true great great grandson of Parsimum the Great.. he was supposed to have hidden it."
"He did the hiding.." the bird agreed. "But the talking he could not stop. Talk, talk, talk- humans talk so much. It was easy to find once I knew what to look for."
Again Swiff found his gaze wandering into the depths of the stone. None were meant to know the capabilities of such a thing, those who did made sure of it. Still, every mage seemed to have a theory. Some said it was magic in its purest and most tangible form. Others claimed it was the product of a curse from a very powerful sorcerer or that it was its own entity- quiet and still, but always working towards destructive ends.
"What will you do with it?" he asked. "Can you do anything with it?"
"No.." the bird admitted. "Not yet.. but now they can't either.. and it will be all the easier to destroy them."
"Them?" asked Swiff, reluctant as he was.
"Them," the bird repeated. "Them.. you- all of you! Humans- pathetic and destructive."
It turned away with a shudder as if the mere mention had a bad taste.
"I understand," Swiff attempted to sound calm but he had never been much for hiding his nerves. Even now his legs were bent as if bracing himself for an attack. He straightened himself a little more and said, "Graves was a bad man. He treated you badly-"
"He tricked us!" the bird screeched suddenly. It puffed into a thick cloud of black and Swiff felt the earth tremble slightly beneath him. The bird clotted back into form, shoulder's heaving as it panted in a heavy rage. "..he tricked us and for it my brothers and sisters died... and the world has been shaken... and the forests are sick and do you know why it had to happen? Why Graves had to do what he did?"
"I.. I'm afraid I've only gotten the roughest idea," said Swiff, who's knowledge of the event only extended so far as overheard whispers of the castle corridors where he had been prisoner.
"For a human..." the bird told him, spite rank in every word. "One... just one... it puts our losses in a mighty perspective, doesn't it?"
The star reader could only nod numbly and shake a little in his gray ragged clothes. He had to squint now to see the bird. Night was coming on quickly and the visibility beneath the span of the tree's canopy had already been straining. By now the bird, even in its whole form, looked gradually like little more than a shadow.
"We aren't all like that," Swiff pointed out. "I must say- very few humans are!"
"The night hours have begun.." the bird continued, in a dark hiss, as if it hadn't heard. It moved its body, silhouette against ink, through the shadows. Swiff stayed where he was, bemused. As the bird began to circle the tree he felt a fresh surge of panic.
"I swear myself to you, master!" he declared, frantically. "Surely you don't mean to send me into the tree! I couldn't betray you if I tried!"
The bird might have stopped moving, though it was difficult for Swiff to tell. After a moment it sounded as if it might be laughing, some hollow and utterly cheerless mockery of the act.
"Send you into the... the tree?" it asked. Swiff believed he could hear the subtle tones of incredulity. "Is that what the dead men wanted? Is that why they dragged you like meat to this tree? Is that why they chained you and taunted you?"
"Yes..but for a mistake!" Swiff hurried. "A misunderstanding-"
The bird was quiet for a moment, it let out a sigh at last and said, scathingly, "..humans are wretched..."
Suddenly the creature lifted itself into the air and began to circle the broad trunk of the tree. Swiff could hear the heavy beating of the bird's wings get further and then closer with every loop it made. Meanwhile, in a similar fashion, its voice carried on in a dark murmer: "Round and round and round it goes, ten times in the nightly hours.."
Once, twice- and yes soon the bird had gone around it nine times. Swiff was counting. He understood that this tree was one of magic. Somehow it would open as the circling of the tree was completed. The bird made its final journey around the tree and landed nearby. Swiff watched, expectantly, but in this light it was difficult to tell if the bird had made any difference at all. He was just about to ask the bird when a hot light burst through the bark of the tree. Markings scorched spirals around the trunk, old rune symbols lit as if the trunk behind them were full of flames! With an enormous, brittle crack the base of tt he trunk seemed to unfurl and a red light shot forth. Hell Fire. Flames licked through the new doorway, framed by enormous, black roots. Swiff stared on in horror as a screech cut through it, agonized. Other screams echoed it and sounded as if they carried from many distances and deepnesses. He tripped on his own feet as he stepped back. The bird was visible once again, red sparks reflected off of its glossy, dark feathers.
"What do you mean to do?" asked Swiff, hesitantly.
The bird tilted its head and put a foot forward. Then, with its loudest hiss, it yelled, "TREE OF LORE! I WILL SUMMON A BEAST! ONE STRONG ENOUGH TO BRING DOWN ALL OF THE HUMANS!"
Swiff winced as powered coursed between the bird and tree. It was amazing and terrifying. The bird was requesting something of the tree... and for all Swiff could tell, the tree was listening. The hell fire seemed to raise to a roar, as if new fuel had been added, and then there was a snap- something clanged as it tumbled out of the doorway- and the trunk wrapped tightly in on itself once again.
The ruins on the tree were still lit- but fading- as dying embers would. Both Swiff and the bird gathered around the object the tree had granted. Swiff swallowed a cry as he realized what it was. A crown- golden and bejeweled in rubys. It was an item of magnificent craftmanship. The gold was designed with branches and leafs.. the likes of which he had never known before.
"...this?" the bird's voice was incredulous as it prodded the crown with a feather. "This is not a beast! What is this thing? Do you know it?"
"It's a crown," Swiff explained. Of course the bird would not recognize a crown. It had never before met a king or had need to know of one. "...our kings.. our leaders wear these on their heads.. it is a symbol of power."
The bird leaned down closer to inspect it.
"So... the tree of lore has granted me... a hat? What good is it to me?"
"A hat!" Swiff exclaimed. "This is no hat! Anybody can wear a hat! The crown is meant for a king! A man of royal blood who presides over our kingdom! The power it represents alone is enough to make people follow him and if this one was put into the tree of lore... it must be capeable of terrible things... of magic!"
There was a silence as the bird seemed to think his words through. It probably hadn't understood half of what he had just said. Then it said, "...but... what does it do?"
They both found themselves studying it again. Neither with an answer or the courage to test it.
a/n: Thanks for reading! I know its taking me a while to get to the fun stuff but I wanted to make sure that the crown got an appearance early on (being the title of the book and all). The next chapter will return to more familiar characters.