Spirits of Alaruk

Chapter 5: Darkness

Deep within the Derunerin caves, a gangly forest fuglan sat in solitude on a soft blanket of moss. A small shaft of sunlight, leaking through a hole in the cavern ceiling, was the only available source of warmth to get his blood flowing in the morning. The caves were perpetually devoid of daylight, save for a few caverns near the surface where moss and tubers soaked up strands of sunlight through the cracks. The other residents of the caves detested the light, thus such caverns were rarely occupied during the day to allow the forest fuglan to have some time alone. He was the only one of his kind here, still adjusting to his new environment after living there for many moon cycles. Wind from the outside whistled through the cracks of the ceiling, keeping him grounded and giving him a sense of comfort.

“Avoiding our duties as a ruksala, are we, Karrak?” A voice inside the fuglan's head echoed as the shafts of light from above morphed into the shape of a serpentine figure. "It's not a wonder why your clan banished you. You have such little regard for others," the voice teased.

The forest fuglan clicked his beak in annoyance. He knew this spirit enjoyed playing mind games. It was true that he had been banished from his original clan, but he did not appreciate the jab. "Allow me some time to meditate, Ludaru. The cave fuglans can wait a bit longer."

"You would deliberately delay a funeral? Of a Ralukah child?"

Since arriving at Derunerin, he'd only performed two funerals for the cave fuglans. Unlike forest fuglans, who buried their dead in the ground, the Ralukah clan had a rather different method of disposing their deceased--one he was not particularly fond of witnessing. The cave fuglans could very well take care of their own dead without him, but as an outsider he had to offer something in exchange for their hospitality. He closed his eyes, wishing to avoid the whole ordeal. "You make it sound so terribly important."

"Come now, Karrak! You have a spirit to collect. Don't leave them waiting."

"Bah." Karrak waved a dismissive hand and stretched his legs. "Calm yourself. I know you care as little for the cave fuglans as I do. You only want their spirits for more rranha."

"Indeed, but while I have eternity to wait to collect spirits, your time is limited. Take some initiative, boy! Your reputation is at stake." The shaft of light flickered and bounced before returning to its natural state, leaving nothing but the faint whistling of air from above.

Perhaps the ancestral spirit was right. Despite knowing that he would need to perform the funeral, he knew that he was also just stalling for time. Karrak stood up, knowing that he couldn't delay it any longer, and stumbled back into the darkness of the tunnels.

Aside from his own tail, the only other source of light in the caves was the faint green glow of mushrooms that scattered the walls and floors of the caverns. Their weak glow did not provide much illumination, but the patches of patterns served to mark the labyrinth of tunnels when properly memorized. Any stranger to the tunnels would quickly get lost, but Karrak had spent several months navigating his way through the caves already and had grown accustomed to it. He followed the patterns through the tunnels until he arrived in a large cavern, drawn in by the sound of chattering and whispers that bounced across the walls. It was filled with dozens of orange and yellow lights flashing and swaying about in the darkness. Under their faint glows, Karrak could make out their owners and members of the Ralukah clan. His cyan tail light stood out immediately against theirs, and his dull indigo skin, while less visible in the dim light, was unmistakable compared to their pale, pigment devoid coloring. As he stepped into the cavern, their chattering soon came to a hush.

"Ah, Karrak, you're finally here." While Karrak had difficulty distinguishing the cave fuglans in the darkness, he knew the old gruff voice belonged to a clan elder known as Tladek. Tladek was in charge of keeping track of the dead in the clan, thus it was important for Karrak to stay on good terms with him for now. As Karrak's eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see Tladek more clearly, who was covered in jewelry carved from bones. "Are you ready to begin the death rite?"

"Yes, of course Elder Tladek. Apologies for my tardiness. I was mentally preparing." In the center of the room, surrounded by several bioluminescent lights, Karrak could make out the shape of a small body lying on a wooden platform. The platform itself was suspended by a crude rope and pulley system built into the cavern's ceiling. An entrance to large pit laid beneath the platform. It wasn't so much the corpse that bothered Karrak, but what lay below in the pit. "It's a shame what happened to the child," he said, feigning concern. Although the cave fuglans were not aware of his intentions, he found it easy to fool them regardless. "Sadly, a ralukah's healing is limited and can only do so much to aid the dying."

"Yes, poor child... Uadran was a frail one, and the sickness did her no favors. We thank you just the same for helping our clan since we lost our last healer to the sickness as well."

The cave fuglans also had no idea that Karrak was not actually a healer. A sickness had fallen upon the Ralukah clan in recent times, and for weeks he had been slowly draining the young fuglan's energy so that she would never fully recover. He wished there was a quicker way to collect spirits in a discreet manner, but spirits required dead cave fuglans. Too many deaths, too quickly would look suspicious, but draining the sick and weak was a cunning way to do it.

He approached the corpse, trying not to stare too intently at the gaping hole below the platform. Outstretching his hand, he could detect the energy of the spirit still lingering inside the body. "Ah, there you are," he whispered, his hand hovering over the dead fuglan. He could also feel traces of rranha emanating from it and, combined with the presence of the large pit below, it filled with him with a sense of uneasiness. Gently, he coaxed the spirit from its vessel, drawing it out. With the faint prickling sensation of a thousand thorns, the spirit transferred and condensed as it was absorbed into his arm.

"The spirit has moved on," he stated aloud, stepping back with a graceful bow. "May Uadran rest in peace."

Elder Tladek gave a signal with a wave of his tail and the platform was slowly lowered into the pit. There was a faint sound of clicking and chittering below, making Karrak shudder and cover his beak. Down in the pit below was a separate cavern, a natural cleaning station filled with thousands of ravenous beetles. They quickly scuttled over the corpse, targeting soft tissues, soon to devour the flesh clean off of the bones. The smell would be rancid and unbearable, but it would be several days until the remains would be retrieved, the bones separated and left out to be bleached by the scorching rays of the sun, then returned to the caves to be placed in an open mass grave and turned into family jewelry. Karrak found it to be a grisly practice, but the bones were considered sacred to the Ralukah clan and the beetles merely made it easier to dispose of unwanted flesh.

"Thank you again, Karrak." Elder Tladek sighed, backing away from the pit. "Kalagala, I will pray to the ancestors that the darkness does not take any more Ralukah soon."

"It is most unfortunate, but we can only do our best in times like these."

No longer needed any further, Karrak quietly slipped away to let the clan mourn, as there was something more important that required his attention. Further below the main tunnel system was an aquifer, the clan's source of fresh water. As he entered the large cavern, he was greeted by two familiar cave fuglans waiting near the water's edge, their pale skin nearly translucent against the dim yellow lights of their tail bulbs.

"Is it just the two of you here?" Karrak's piercing green eyes scanned the area with cautious suspicion.

"Yes, Karrak," replied one of them--a heavy set cave fuglan with a set of long, glowing tipped whiskers. "Everyone else is at the funeral or busy elsewhere."

The other cave fuglan, his lavender eyes darting about, spoke up, "If the elders found out what we've been doing with these spirits, they could throw us into the beetle pit alive."

"I'm well aware, Tsevik," Karrak hissed. He hated how cowardly the cave fuglan was, but it was difficult to find many Ralukah that were weak-willed enough to join him. "Your job is to make sure they don't find out, so watch the entrance with Duikez so that no one comes down here to interrupt me."

Karrak approached the dark pool of water, his tail light casting a mirror reflection on the still surface. "Master Ludaru, I have a spirit for you."

Underneath the surface of the water, an unnaturally murky shadow formed. "Give it to me." The hollow voice of Ludaru echoed inside Karrak's head, undetectable by the other fuglans.

With an outstretched hand, Karrak transferred the spirit he took from the young fuglan's corpse into the water. The prickling in his arm immediately faded as it left, where it drifted downward like a billowy puff of smoke and leaving the water completely undisturbed.

"Ah, this one suffered greatly during its life," Ludaru whispered, their form nothing but an inky mass. "It will make a fine tukra. Very good, Karrak."

Karrak bowed his head. "Thank you, Master Ludaru."

"I will keep the spirit here for the time being, but do not shirk in your duties. Your next task will be to expand your following. We need more followers to help us when we overtake Hulerin. I know you can do it. Now go." The insidious spirit churned and sank further into the water until it was gone, leaving no trace of its presence.

Karrak let out a sigh of relief. His least favorite part of their plan, collecting spirits to transform into tukran, was finally complete. Now he was permitted to move onto what he really wanted to do--start a collection of loyal followers. So far, he only had the two cave fuglans, Tsevik and Duikez. While both useful, their loyalty was still somewhat questionable. He needed to test them further.

"The transfer is complete," said Karrak, turning towards the cave fuglans. "You may leave now."

"Wait a moment, Karrak," said Tesevik, wringing his hands with anticipation. "I have some concerns. How many more spirits will this development take?"

"How... many?" Karrak eyed Tsevik, offended he was even asked such a question.

"Forgive me, but surely you must have a substantial amount by now? The grave site of our clan had possibly hundreds of spirits before you... redirected them to Hulerin."

"Why so impatient, Tsevik? It will take as many as Ludaru needs."

"As much as we want to assist you, these spirits still belong to our clan," Duikez chimed in. "We are merely concerned for them."

"Let me remind you that not every fuglan spirit can produce a substantial amount of rranha, especially if they lead peaceful lives. It will take time for them to stew. Trust in Ludaru, my friends. Soon you will be able to walk on the surface."

"You promise this, but why is rranha needed?"

"Like you, Ludaru lives in darkness. They cannot use the light of the sun, moon, or stars to produce magic, and so rranha must be used in its place. But in order to get rranha, we must collect it from tukran. Peaceful spirits produce nothing!"

Tsevik sighed in defeat. "I don't like how our spirits must suffer for our sake. Surely there's another way?"

"No, there is no other way! But worry not, suffering is merely temporary. It will be worth it in the end."

"Very well, Karrak... I believe our clan has been confined to these caves for far too long."

"There will be no more nasty sunlight to burn your skin and blind your eyes when Ludaru is powerful enough, and Hulerin will be ours when the Naku clan is gone." Karrak smiled, pleased that the cave fuglans were coming around. "Now, while Ludaru gathers rranha, I need more followers from the Ralukah clan. But first they need some convincing."

"Won't the elders oppose us leaving the caves?"

"You two are going to assist me. If enough clan members agree to relocating to the surface, we can simply drive away anyone who disagrees, but it must be subtle at first. Convince them that there is nothing left for them in the Derunerin caves."

The cave fuglans nodded eagerly in agreement. Karrak gave them a satisfied smile, knowing he now had them wrapped around his claw. "Good, now go and spread the word. I have other matters to attend to on the surface, and I may be gone for some time."

The cave fuglans went their separate ways and Karrak was once again alone in the solitude of darkness. Despite their hopefulness of a better future, corroborating with cave fuglans was challenging due to their limitations dealing with sunlight. Until Ludaru was powerful enough to dampen sunlight itself, Karrak needed more help, especially from the surface. Although it would require leaving the caves, he had an idea where to look. There was an aslauk clan not too far from the caves that had potential. As hybrids, aslauk fuglans had difficulty fitting in with any one tribe, but if persuaded properly, Karrak was certain they could become valuable allies. He knew they had some bad blood with the fuglans of Hulerin, which had added potential for what plans he had in store. It seemed planning a trip to the surface would be next on his agenda.

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