“You say this place is forbidden,” Shugokrur said, twisting through the air, “but it is unimportant. I cannot feel the presence of the Abaters. They are not upon this formation, so why do we continue?”
“To repay my debts,” I said, ducking under the rope that marked the boundary where humans are allowed to tread. Thick with the blood of countless generations, it sagged between the trees with the added burden. It reeked of the Temple, of death; and that revolting stench clung to me as bloody flakes. I gagged, coughed, and brushed it off as best I could.
“Sol onset,” I muttered, taking one last glance at the rope.
The rite was disgusting, yet I would partake of it. Yes, if all went well this day, I would add my own bloodstain to the rope come winter, and I would be rid of this aimless existence once and for all. Here, on this mountain, my drifting would end. Even if I failed, there would be an end for me. I’d have my peace.
“Debts, something to be paid back,” Shugokrur said, getting lost in his thoughts once more. “An obligation, but to who? Debts. Debts. The meaning, where is the meaning? You owe a debt to someone?” he asked, sending his arms through my face. “Who do you owe?”
I swatted at his shadowy limbs and spat curses. “Enough of your fucking arms! If I can’t see, I’ll stumble on some root or rock and fall to my death! And then what will you do? You’ll be short of anyone who will listen to your damned questions.”
As the appendages slinked away, I ensured my grip on the bowl and continued onward. For me, it all depended upon sunlight. But the sun’s place in the sky told me, quite plainly, that there was little of that remaining. Now the sun prepared to delve below the horizon.
Shugokrur put himself between me and this mission’s marker. “Focus here. Tell me, who are you indebted to? I wish to understand.”
He wasn’t going to quit. As ever, he’d mire us in the same talk forever. Aveyas be damned, he’d kill me with his questioning if I wasn’t mindful enough. The last thing I needed was up here was a wrong shove. This was dangerous enough without his meddling.
“So, who are they? I am listening. Perhaps it is connected to the Taint.”
“No,” I said, huffing it up the incline, “it isn’t, and you should know since I’ve told you several times, you damned spook. Have you forgotten already? Gods, I don’t know why I keep wasting my breath. It’s always the same with you. But, to repeat myself again, I owe the Temple. Did you hear that? The Temple.”
“But how? How will you pay these debts?” he asked, straining his whisper. His head, shapen as a fragment of the firmament freshly fallen, tilted as he eyed me without any eyes at all. “Are those, there, not coins that you could pay with?” The halo’s fluctuations betrayed whatever emotions he possessed as he continued, straining that pitiful whisper all the while. “Isn’t that enough for them? So many coins, brought to a place forbidden, and all to pay a debt that is held by those not present. You lie. I am missing something.” He brought himself close to my face. “You have been silent too long. Speak, now.”
Shugokrur never spoke above a whisper, but I could tell when he meant to scream or shout: the shadows within his pitted, rocky head quiver, his halo of light brightens, and that smoky, serpentine body twists beneath it all. Writhing with frustration, agonizing over details. Lost in itself.
It shouldn’t have existed, whatever he was.
Suppose I was insane then, for having conversed for so long with what amounted to a floating, pitted stone with some enigmatic lights and shadows playing about it; that I had the notion that I could discern even a sliver of emotion from him. Madness. Although, here I was, at the end of this journey with him alongside.
Paying attention to him at all was mad, truly…
But if my madness was of any use in understanding him, it told me that irritation now drove him to shove those arms into the holes in his head; all the way inside, though there wasn’t the space for it. Down they went, and the shadows danced. Jumped. Leapt. Irritation, frustration, it was written all over it. Gods… always in a state of unrest, the poor bastard. “Have I forgotten already?” he said as his halo’s burst apart before collapsing in on itself. “Is it lost? Gone?”
“Yeah, you forgot,” I said, giving the bowl a shake so that the hoard of gold coins sang their song of prosperity. “I already explained this right here. Before we were trailed, back at Un’s point, I went over it all. Shit, you were there when I worked for this. It took years, but you had one of your changes again. Like always. Well, not that you understand what I mean when I say that.” I sighed. “Aveyas’ balance is a little off when it comes to you.”
Shugokrur receded into himself some, and I focused upon the sounds.
Back in Roskor, they spoke like the mountain itself could speak to you past the boundary. Hallowed ground laid beyond the rope, and that is where the true voice of this mountain could be heard, or so they said. For now, if it were real, all it felt like saying was that there was snow crunching beneath my boots, a quiver in my breath, and a great swarm of vespedes buzzing above us.
Nothing sacred about that.
“Somehow,” Shugokrur said, “I forgot that we had been trailed. And your explanation, it’s gone. I thought on it, but they are gone. Other memories must be lost, if that line is followed. How many have been taken? I can only remember you looking upon these towers from beside the temple. A considerable distance unaccounted for in memory. There is much that I have lost. Though no chance of knowing for certain exists without you. Without your memories to compare mine against, it is impossible. It hinges upon you. My own memories, they have been lost. Forever.”
The winds blew through us in response, numbing my hands and stinging my face. I couldn’t even breathe while facing it. It was a mean one. The prolonged gust, though chilling only me, left us both in silent contemplation. And when it passed us it took some time to gather up all the words that had been scattered by that wind.
I shouldn’t waste the time on it. Not now, not ever. Since the beginning, it had been this way. More lost memories than those intact. But, even then, if there was some chance of connecting information, to piece it back together…
“No,” I said, “not forever. You’ll get some back once you lose some. Same as always.”
“Right. Always. Every day and all that. Gods, will you ever remember even this sort of thing for well and good? I’ve repeated this as many times as the sun has risen. Maybe even more.”
“This has happened before, Yukysh? Your name, that is your name, correct?”
“Yeah, at least you can retain that, though I wish it were the case for all the rest. And, it happens more than you can even guess at. Whatever you’re imagining, it’s worse than that, though I don’t know why I’m telling you. It’s more like I’m talking to myself each time, even if you are real. Gods, I actually might be chatting away with myself up here, thinking all the while that I’ve got some spirit that loses its memory and gains it as easily as the wind changes direction.”
A hallucination that could kill venators though? Even if he were a fake, he would be representative of something that was real. Spirit or whatever, it shaped the world at times. No delusion could entail that, not unless I was some sort of sleeping god. Now there’s quite the joke, not that I laughed. No, there was no laughter left in me when it came to this, not after seeing this play out time after time. He would place his trust in me and stop worrying till the next wipe came. It went just like that, only in different ways.
Every. Single. Time.
“I cannot recall everything. Moments back, they are missing. Gone.” Shugokrur ripped his arms from his face and let them blur back into his shadowy form. They faded into the swirling mass of dark until there was no longer any indication that there had been any limbs at all. “As long as it happens once it does not matter, isn’t that right? We are back to the very first step all at once.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I know. Believe me.”
“Then, I must be content to trust in you.” His halo shimmered as he cooled off. “Yukysh, what are the coins for? Not giving them to the priests, isn’t that an incorrect move?”
“Seems like it at first glance, but they’ve got me in deeper than even this, somehow. Really, it’s through means that I can’t wrap my head around. Even after consulting the others, it’s nonsense. Their rules, though they never follow them. So they can make up whatever they want. But who’s going to fight them on false counts? Not me. Everything they do is deception, and if you play their game the wrong way…” I used the bowl as a substitute for a blade, and motioned a stroke across my neck. “And that would be the end of that. Seen enough corpses and skeletons alike to know that there are quite a few losers in their game, and from what they said, if I’m to believe the worms, most of those gone ‘missing’ didn’t follow their instructions to the letter.”
“You are forced into this?”
“Right, and the coins are an offering to appease the vespedes. Exactly as they’ve told me to do.”
“Do you have debt with the insects as well?”
“No, at least, I hope not.” The bastards would eat me if I did. “If I secure a blessing for the village, then I can stop worrying about my debts. It’s said that they’re receptive to offerings that come at a cost to those offering. Something about the ‘sacrifice of needs to show one’s volition’, or something like that. Well, either way, it was the only deal they gave me that didn’t have me at their mercy for another decade or two.”
And somewhere in there, I bet I would have had an ‘unfortunate accident’ or ‘disappear suddenly’. At least, that’s the impression that I got. When you deny them their first offer, things tend to get nasty. Best to bow your head, lest you lose the damn thing.
“Another deal?” Shugokrur asked. “Is it as dangerous as the last? What little I remember of it is that your expectations were laid to waste.”
“Exactly. You’re so right about it that it kind of hurts.”
Guess he still remembered that complete failure of a deal. Still got the scars to show for it, even if the coin never came through. The risk was always there, but you take precautions, play your hand slowly, and get out with your life. Over all else, you’ve got to survive.
But no amount of planning and careful consideration can change the facts, especially when you get caught up in that level of conspiracy. Just another thing on the list of shit that almost killed me. Shame I haven’t been writing it all down for someone to recount around a fire. It would make for some entertaining storytelling, if nothing else. Who doesn’t love a good tragedy story, especially one led by a fool with too much hope? Although, there are plenty of those to go around besides.
The living have got a lot to say about fools.
“So, is it the same?” Shugokrur asked, prodding me with an arm. “Will your body be marked?”
“Might be worse than that, but if it works the temple will forget about everything I owe them. And that’s not something to be laughed at. I’ll grab up that inn and line these pockets of mine. Some positions opened up when old, trusting friends got real unfriendly. Sure, I’ll be profiting off the dead, but you won’t hear me complain about that. Sure beats being dragged around by the boys in cloak. Those bastards will work you to death if you let them.”
If things went my way, I would remove them all. By blade, if need be. There weren’t as many people in love with the Temple as the Temple thought there were. As it turns out, not many people appreciate the stench of death. Few would care much. They’ve got the rites memorized. Carved into their walls. Really, only those making a profit in partnership with them would mourn the loss, and their kind could easily be bought.
Though it’s best not to think on it too much. One step at a time. The greatest challenge was surviving till that point. Glancing up at the Golden Towers, I had my doubts. Lots of them.
“And if it does not work, do we leave?”
“No, I’ve passed the boundary already. If I fail, then I’ll be killed on the spot, Shugokrur. It’ll all be over. I’ll be, ‘ground into dust’, if I’m to believe what the priests said, but, truthfully, I don’t. Shit, everyone on Mt.Grav knows how vespedes kill. It’s messy. You look like a chewed up piece of fat by the end of it. Still, they’ll make it quick. Always do. Always have. So there is that, at least.”
“Is that why you shake? Fear?”
“Fucking cold, mostly.” Getting ever closer to the sun as I climbed atop this massive rock should have solved that problem, one might think from the safety of their shitty little shack, far away from any such mountain range. But that’s wrong. It alleviated nothing but the feeling from my face.
Shugokrur probed said face, testing my patience, and resolve, yet another time. Passing through my skull and all else, he continued, saying, “Then you admit that there is yet another reason? Speak. The truth is required.”
“I’m scared, yeah,” I said, half-heartedly attempting to expunge his arms from my head. “Deathly afraid, in fact, but I cannot pass this up. You’ve seen it, although you may not remember right now. The life of a hired sword is no life at all. Working the roads, it’s weeks of walking, waiting, and slowly falling to pieces. Day by day. And then, one day, you just die. Something hungry always finds your group. Gods, there’s nothing right about it. Nothing at all…
“Shit, I should’ve carried on as a bandit and went south. Using this blade against a person, it works. But against a svill, a venator? Don’t make me laugh. We’re no equal to the beasts, and we’re damned fools to try and match them regardless. Without a guardian at your side, you’re lucky to survive at all. Not that we ever had that luxury.”
Making my way across this path of shattered boulders, I was reminded of the mangled mess that’s left after the blades bend and spears splinter. Though the true scenes were still there. You didn’t need to look to memory to witness our failings. To this day, you’d find the aftermath. Scraps of armor and all. And along some paths, the ground is paved with our bones.
And yet we continue to tread there, and willingly. As if now the threat could be matched. What arrogance. By Aveyas, even I had made that mistake.
“Sorry, after so many years of this I’ve turned bitter. I know I have. It makes my head ache. Filled with too many truths, I suppose, though I’ve got no means to put them to use. Still, even that seems wrong. Like I’m mistaking my own worth again. Or, maybe, I’m just tired of everything, including myself, you know?” The wind howled on. “Well, maybe not.”
Whatever. Ruminating over that wasn’t my task. I only had to acquire this blessing for Roskor and bleed upon the rope. Beyond that, I could search for ways to fix Shugokrur. Finally, with a steady source of coin and a stomach well fed, I could resume that task.
Shugokrur paused, and so did I.
“Hey, what are you doing? We have to move. I got no time for your shit.”
Muttering to himself, he reached out in all directions and wrapped his arms around countless pieces of rock, and put them back together. One by one, till the boulder took shape. He held it above himself and said, “Do not despair. As with all things, fragments are meant to be whole. And they shall. In time, clarity will be granted. The form will take shape. Truth shall reveal itself.” Every shadow along his being reached out for my eyes, and he said, almost hissing, “The Abaters were sure of it.”
Faced with that piercing, eyeless gaze, I couldn’t help but tighten my coat and brace myself for something terrible. Shugokrur was ever unnerving. Especially when he saw right through me.
“You will succeed,” he said. “Do not be disturbed. This is fact.”
“I’ll keep trying. That’s all I can promise really, though I sincerely doubt that anything will ever come of it. How could anyone else know a damn thing about you? You’re a ghost, a spirit. Something hard to pin down. Shugokrur, I’ve a feeling that there won’t be much to find out. But, even then, I’ll search. By Unnce I will scour the North if need be.”
Hissing, he let the rocks clatter down the side of the mountain and remained there. Watching them fall, maybe. Thoughts were astir in that head, or rock besides. But I didn’t wait around for him. He would catch up. Couldn’t get rid of him, no matter what I did. Well, not unless I stuck a knife in my heart. And a simple solution like that, truth be told, would solve more than just having to deal with Shugokrur. Then I’d really meet Unnce. Wouldn’t be only talk then.
Man, I was getting cynical, but hauling ass all over a fucking mountain for this long will do that to you. I didn’t even like heights, climbing, or hiking. Yet here I was, huffing, sweating, aching, and bitching along.
“Pray it works out that way,” I said, seeing that he was at my side once more. “Otherwise, you’ll be on your own sooner than later. Best to put off my death if you want to keep asking questions to someone who will bother with you. But me dying, that’s going to happen regardless. Although, I can’t say the same for you. Who knows if spirits like you can even die? I don’t even think you’re alive. Still, you better hope I can help you. Else you’re on your own. Forever, maybe.”
“That is unacceptable. This bond must be maintained. That much, I know.”
“I’m not promising anything. I can’t.”
“Promises will not keep the bond intact. No, not that. It will be our actions that ensure its survival. Remember, the Abaters are waiting at the Gate. Remember.”
There it was again, that line repeated. Again.
Sometimes, I imagined what it would be like to be in his position: to lose memories without warning. Didn’t need to imagine though. One day, if I was so lucky, that would be me. The years degrade a mind, same as how these winds wear down this mountain. One day at a time. Till there’s nothing left. And here I was, risking my ass to get to that end.
Rushing to waste away…
Farther along, the terrain worsened as though it had sensed the end of our journey. The steep inclines became walls; shadows stretched, obscuring all manner of obstacles; and a blistering wind crashed against Mt. Grav. By the bite of it, this wind was straight from the North: a sure way to get frostbitten if you weren’t mindful enough. It was difficult to stand upright without something to break the winds, but this was the simple part. I couldn’t falter here. All of that, had to be climbed: hundreds of feet of the steepest rock so far.
“Just have to get up all of that, huh?” I said, taking a drink from my canteen. “This is where Mt. Grav tests me? Madness. They never said it was this bad. A few minutes of sweating, that’s all.” I took another swig, hoping that it would look somewhat surmountable after quenching my thirst.
“You dirty fucking liars.”
No matter how I looked at it, getting up this would be a bitch and a half. Of that I was certain, since a mountain is a mountain. Ever higher. Up and up. Despite this height which made enormous lakes and rivers appear as mere blotches and shimmering, meandering lines, I had to keep climbing.
Damn all the aches and pains. All the moaning. Today, I’d say those fucking words. They’d have their gold. And I’d have some hope. A chance to right my wrongs.
But was it truly that easy? Just say some words to vespedes. Give gold, to vespedes. Gods, that’s akin to making deals with the weather! Oh-so-horrendously stupid. If it got me killed, believing what sounded like pure fantasy from known swindlers, I would deserve it. Trusting these slimy bastards to not lie to me, themselves, or even their own mothers was a mistake. It was a part of their being by now. I doubted them, but…
They knew some things of worth; a lining of truth was present amongst the lies. Though no words would help me surpass this. Damn, pieces of the cliff face were, even now, losing their seats on the cliff and making the more reasonable journey of descending the summit. Oh how I wish I could have done the same.
Without heavy wear, clothing that was too cumbersome for climbing, these winds were unbearable. Every tree had its color stripped away by these howling gales. Life was drained from them. Their bark peeled away, and needles were ripped from them.
Dammit Yukysh, time was wasting.
Color or none, cursed by the gods or blessed by them, it didn’t make a difference; our daylight was nearing its end. I could examine the holds and cracks, every damn fissure and imperfection in the rocks, but it would do me no good. The surface would cut into my hands, these winds would try to send me to my death, my hands would sweat, my heart would race, and I would be afraid as a child would be as you lifted them above your head in a drunken rage.
Gods, heights were such shit. Couldn’t talk them down, even with a horde of gold. “Why did it turn out this way?” With another swig in me, I got moving. “Here, take this,” I said, handing years of grueling labor off to Shugokrur in a deep bowl. “Just don’t let a single coin spill, alright?” I secured what I could and checked everything over one last time.
“Do you want me to carry you up as well?” He pointed to the Golden Towers. “It is possible for me to take you to your destination, without risk.”
“I would like that, being as shaky as I am and all, but, really, I’ve got orders to do the climbing on my own. Actually, I’m supposed to do this all alone. You should be gone, not that they could tell either way. Bah, whatever. I’d rather not break some unspoken law and get chewed up by a vespede. They’re watching us, you know.”
“Then,” he said, wrapping himself around the bowl, “I will watch closely. No interference. But tell me, are you determined? An Abater must always be determined, and you should emulate that. They found the Gate that way. Through their wills. So, be determined.”
“Determined, huh? I guess you could say that. I’m determined. Yeah, it might help to repeat that to myself.”
I did just that for some time. Although, the winds soon pilfered all the determination I had. Guess I couldn’t fool myself well enough to ignore the North’s bite. And realizing that only piled curses into my head. Determination? Hah. Once the winds died down enough, and I could breathe without being assaulted and choked, I would have some choice words at the ready.
Determination wasn’t even the half of it!
Shugokrur drifted effortlessly, with gold in tow, to the top of the cliff, while roots became rungs to heave myself up the heights. The wind-worn rock crumbled like cheap cakes as I grasped for handholds, and the pale shale tumbled down the mountain. Seeing the debris fall made me sick. I imagined that any mistake could send me down the mountain same as the dislodged stone, and I lingered on some footholds to muster the courage to climb farther. Sweat never left my hands no matter how often I wiped them against my cloak.
Shugokrur’s halo shimmered as if he were trying to tell me something, else it was another one of his damned questions. I hoped not. I really did.
“Stay where you are, dammit!” I shouted. If he were to forget what I had asked him to do, and he dropped those coins to come get me, then I would have to start digging my own grave. There just wasn’t enough time to be setback like that. The halo shimmered again. “I’ll be there, just wait! Don’t drop that bowl!” I gave up shouting over the winds and doubled my efforts.
This damn spirit would be the death of me.
Pulling myself up the cliff was like being born again. There had never been a time when I was so pleased to lay on the ground. But there was not time to enjoy it properly. I picked myself off and glanced at the sun. Sinking. Falling. Getting darker: a limit by which to test my own limits. Yes, it wouldn’t be long before the day was done.
And then I would be…
I took the gold from Shugokrur and rediscovered the old path: an ancient, worn out line that marked Mt.Grav. Stories tell that it was laid down exactly where the goddess walked to reach the summit ages ago, but goddess or no, I wished she would have taken an easier route. At least she could have left fools like me a ladder.
“Have to do it her way, eh? Aveyas is smiling, I just know it.” The vespedes were louder here. But not enough to outdo my ragged breathing. Or my cursing. “Greetings, you holy bugs. I know you can see me. You bastards. But, you’re going to make me go farther, aren’t you?”
No more words. Had to save my breath so I could run.
This was my time. Finally, my luck would change.
And with that pace, it was not long before we reached the Golden Towers, which capped the summit of the mountain like a crown. Impressive, as always. But, in some way, this was more. They could be seen all the way to Hiede, but being this close was entirely different. What would only have been seen as thin lines from afar were stout spires that pierced the sky as gleaming lances. The highest of the towers must have scraped the bottoms of clouds and bled the lightning from them. Impressive, yeah, that word didn’t cut it. Peering up at them made my neck sore, but I could not take my gaze away.
Here, this is where it would start: beneath the Golden Towers of Mt. Grav, the farthest north I had been from Pelce. This was it. And it was beyond words…
Openings were scattered all along the glazed, bubbled structure, and vespedes poured out with a buzzing that drowned out all else. They danced through the sky in a blur of wings, and, despite their size, they flew quicker than an arrow. Up on the summit, the winds chilled my blood and cut through clothing as if I were wearing nothing at all. No human could survive here more than a day without huddling around a bonfire and stoking it high, but the bugs thrived in the stinging air.
“What shall we do?” Shugokrur asked.
“Simple. Now, we wait.”
And we did not have to wait long, as one vespede broke from the swarm and launched itself towards us. It touched down paces ahead of us with feelers waving and wings humming. The packed permafrost, as hard as stone beneath us, dipped below its weight.
I suppressed a curse and tried to remain calm. Didn’t work, though I was too scared to do anything stupid.
Like most of their kind, the vespede was a shed-sized warrior wrapped in a brilliant golden sheen. And it was not impressed with my bowl of gold. Gods, of course it wasn’t. Things ready to slice, tear, and consume shook in anticipation inside its mouth. The frantic scratching within betrayed its calm demeanor. There was a bottomless, feral hunger repressed by the bug, and once it found no reason to spare me it would satisfy its urge; those arms would do the gruesome work the goddess had crafted them for.
So before it did that, I spoke the words the priests had taught me: “Vakash, somet nac vol.”
Damn, I was shaking like a leaf.
It stood still, the humming of its wings died, and, for a moment, it stared into me with its iridescent, unblinking eyes. The look was chilling, like it was pitying a pest that had lost its wings and now, in an annoying manner, flopped about its feet. The priests had better been right about the words, else they would be my last.
My heart. Was beating. So fast.
And, instinctively, my hand went for my sword, but I held off on unsheathing it. That would get me killed even quicker. I couldn’t run. It would be upon me in an instant, slicing and tearing. There was no escape. Maybe the words were never supposed to work and I was not meant to return to Roskor. Perhaps I pronounced it wrongly by way of shaking so fiercely, but the thoughts were too late. The vespede had made its decision.
Its death-delivering jaws pulled away, with a low knuckle-cracking sound, and reached around my head as if they were arms inviting a warm embrace.
Shearing machinery was revealed in all its repulsive wonder, and it moved about in a feverish way at the sight of my flesh. It was too late to scrape a few meager moments from this life. It was done.
I was done.
A tongue, spined and veined like a common worm, slid from its brutish face. Long and purple, it throbbed in unison with the vespede’s heart, which must have been a keystone of horror to give life to such a beast. Encouraged by the quickened beat of its sickly heart, the tongue brandished its spines and rushed towards my forehead.
Wet. My forehead was wet. Gods, was it blood? No. If it had stabbed me, I should be pained, and, more importantly, dead.
The tongue slid back behind the vespede’s toothy mask, and its wings hummed once more. I expected to feel a hole there, driven deep into my skull, but it was only a thick and sticky paste upon my forehead.
These damn words, they had worked. They worked!
“Primitive, yet effective,” Shugokrur said. “A chemical marker. Allied. Advice, you should leave it there.”
“Right,” I said, smearing the paste back onto my head. Didn’t want to lose that, of all things.
The vespede turned and slowly made its way to the towers, and I, still shaking, followed. While the vespede led me, it flashed its wings. That caught the attention of the swarm above us, and the skies thinned as the insects landed around the base of the towers. They congregated around a grand opening and made clicking sounds that resembled speech. Perhaps it was speech. Though it did me no good to imagine just what they would discuss at a time like this.
Maybe some line like, ‘Which one of us will get to eat this pathetic, shivering thing?’
I hoped not.
Still, more came. The summit was blanketed with vespedes as hundreds of the warriors and drones continued to pour out of the towers, and when I reached the edge of the swarm, I stopped dead in my place: stunned; dumbstruck. At a severe loss of words beyond, “Oh shit.”
They were oh-so-right about her. More than they knew!
What came from the gaping hole shook me deeply. The ravings of the priests could not have prepared me for the queen’s otherworldly appearance. Getting my head chewed off by a vespede didn’t seem like such an unappealing idea anymore now that I had to face her.
Eyes forward. No looking away. No fear. Exactly as they had instructed me.
And her grotesque array of eyes, in turn, stared straight at me.
The slender, towering queen emerged from the mountain without a sound. It was a grand and eldritch thing. Warped armor was her crown, and it continued down her body as far as I could see. Her black carapace was slick with a colorless liquid, and where the thick flows seeped off her back and hit the ground, there was smoke and sizzling.
The air burned around her.
A hundred thin arms unfolded from her body and, with a crack, uprooted a mighty pine, tossing it aside as if it were no more than a twig. The vespedes clicked and clacked louder amongst themselves as the queen removed offending trees and boulders as she made her way over to me.
With one hiss, the queen silenced the entire mountain, and I knelt before her with the bowl held high. It was quiet.
Even the wind stopped howling.
“Sol, somet nac asant,” the queen hissed while plucking the bowl from my hands. The gilded bowl was held high, and flames poured from it as some strange magic did its work. The fire was blue and wild, and the bowl glowed white.
Once the fire wavered from her breath alone, she continued, without a shred of hesitation, and poured the molten gold down her throat and ate the entire bowl. Two bites, that’s all it took. Years of labor… Hundreds of yvens lit up her throat from within before being extinguished by a brutal hiss.
Gods, was that not enough for her?
“Sen urustu negau,” the queen said, extending a blade-like arm out towards my head. “Somet nac sen, issen, an allacsent.”
A sickle point came close to my forehead, my vision became wobbly and it was difficult to breathe. Then it touched me. It was so cold that my skin ached, my head drowned in pain, and these ears were filled by a siren’s song.
Visions, or illusions adrift, skirted the edges of my shaky sight. They danced and played together, while sleep swept over me. Like a quilt, it was a calming, cozy weight. I had come home after all these years. Time played with the stars, sent them on their way, and rearranged what was left. My legs turned into mouths that mocked the way I ate, while they themselves sank their teeth into the mud. A sun fell from the sun, and the mountain stood up.
It was sitting all along?
A warrior screeched, and the queen pulled away from my pounding head. Everything was stretched as muddled senses struggled to listen in on the commotion. And I heard it again: a screech. Voices, clacking, whispers, and the song of the wind. All these things and more are what conversed in my head, but that was all it was: in my head. Rooting out the distortions, illusions called upon by memories long forgotten, took time. Enough energy was spent on that removal that this body was left throbbing, with each pulse worsening the symptom: pain. Yet I listened for what was true.
Nothing. Nothing besides my own breathing. A breath, then nothing. A breath, then… something different. There was something that gave even my breath pause.
Something was wrong about it; the sound betrayed a fear within the hearts of the vespede. But it was inconceivable that they held fears, for even death cannot harm them; death was not their end. Nothing could frighten them. Nothing should have.
Across the entire mountain, the swarm fixated their luminous eyes on something impossible, something even more improbable than my last thought: Shugokrur. They were all staring at Shugokrur. Shugokrur! My stomach dropped at the sight. No, my heart, everything. Impossible.
“Aveyas’ blood.” This was not part of the ceremony. None had said anything about this. We had diverged.
I motioned for him to hurry over to my side as the queen reached a wicked arm towards him. He listened, made his way over, and the queen’s arm sunk into the dirt where he had been moments ago, tearing a gash into the summit. Debris rained all around as she continued ripping at the earth.
“Aren, ves nantes on allune, ah kruetz” she shrieked, while assaulting Shugokrur’s path. “Kruetz ves nant, ves nant!”
She was trying to kill him. What had he done? How was the spirit visible to those eyes? How?
“Aveyas’ blood. Not this. Gods, no!”
An arm rose to strike where Shugokrur now floated: beside me. I had to move. Now. But I had caught on too late, and the arm came down in a blur. All too late.
I was going to die here after all.
Something spoke in that moment, as the queen threatened to crush me. It was a voice that seeped from the air, and its words were like music played through an instrument of bone, rattling, blowing, and pounding away on sun-bleached skeletons. It chilled my body as deeply as any winter storm, yet death did not come; the queen retracted her arm, having been similarly chilled by the voice.
It spoke of things that I could hear, but not understand. Things that could be felt, but not touched or held. A power, a true sort of power, was channeled through the voice so that I knew who spoke without ever having met them myself. Without any doubt, it was the goddess that so many legends here spoke of: she who bears no name. And it was her that played this instrument of bone, her voice, in such a way that not even the mountain could stand tall.
The ground beneath my feet recoiled from the voice, leaving me to grasp about for holds as the ground went this way and that, unable to be stable for even a moment. Every inch of dirt squirmed about like a trapped beast that wanted ever so strongly to return to the safety of its burrow.
But neither it nor I could ignore the voice.
With most already said to others, that voice shifted its aims; it spoke to me. The sun curled up. Our eyes disappeared, and a cacophony of screams overturned the world in a million flashes.
The goddess spoke to me, and I responded by collapsing into the dirt. Everything was ringing for some time, so much so that I couldn’t tell which way the sun was moving or if my breaths were returning or leaving.
“What—” was all I could get out. No one could speak out of turn, at least, not while she was present.
So I waited. Lying in the dirt, cold and numb, I waited. And when the goddess quieted, the queen and her warriors scrambled back into the Golden Towers, and the winds howled once more.
We were alone on the summit.
No vespede flew overhead.
It was all over. We had deviated, but how? How? And why?!
I got to my feet, worked the numbness from myself, and found Shugokrur amongst a pile of debris. He had done something. Somehow, they had seen him. And with that it all fell apart! But how, and why? Gods, what happened? I wanted to strangle the answers from the spirit if he knew even a piece of it. But they saw him, they saw him! He had to know, right? He had to have known something, anything!
All of this was wasted, and I had no idea why?
“What did you do?” I asked. “What did you do?”
“Nothing. I simply was. No interferences, just as you said.”
“Don’t give me that shit. What happened just now? Why were they looking at you? It shouldn’t be possible, and we were so close too. Damn, damn, damn!” I punched a dislodged tree. Again and again. Till my knuckles bled. I felt like punching it further, right up to the point where I died from blood loss, but that would gain me nothing. It was too late. I knew it, yet I asked, again, “How did they take notice of you?”
Shugokrur, reaching for his head, said, “I do not know. There was no input on my part. And when they were aware, they were aware only vaguely. Their notice was not as clear as yours.”
“So you know nothing? Can’t explain a thing to me?”
“External forces were applied, but hidden. There was that vagueness. Things were manipulated, though I cannot say where, or how. Details are muddled, ruined. Warped. Without further information, there is nothing to gain from this.” Shadows leapt from his head, made for the ground, and rewound themselves back. They moved about in a jumble, and the halo wobbled. He waited for the movement to settle and aimed his head towards me. “Without true clarity, it is an impossible task. Only as a whole could I unravel this. Do you understand?”
“Of course not!”
He knew absolutely fucking nothing. Nothing! His head was as barren as this damned summit! I did so much, and risked even more, only for it all to end like that? Death or success, that’s all I planned for. With all the facts aligned, only those futures would have occurred. I planned, listened to each of them, but this… There was no sense to it! Vespedes running from us, and the goddess speaking to me?
This couldn’t, but if we were…
I sat and held my face in my hands. “What happened?” I muttered. “She took the offering, didn’t she? But for what, for what? Nothing, that’s what. And now I’m done for. All my coin is gone and I have offended their great protectors. Damn. Dammit, why? Why? And why now?”
“If they sensed me, then we have gained something as long as you remember. Perhaps I shall remember a fact of relevance. It is possible. You still live as well. We can continue towards the Gate. This is not the end.”
“I know that.” But I didn’t know enough to explain this. “I, I know…” The right words didn’t come to me. I would be run out of Roskor and my name would be cursed. Months and months of planning and work and wearing my hands down to the bones and not complaining about a damn thing while everything was going so wrong…
Ruined, and thanks to what? It had all been ruined in one moment. I searched for a meaning behind it all, but there was none. This was beyond me. Completely. The voice, them seeing…
All of it.
For a while I only thought on what to do next and how to do it best. But nothing came to me. My ears were still ringing from her voice, and my body gave off sweat like I was being cooked alive. Maybe it was trying to offset the cold of her words; although, it wasn’t working. No amount of shivering would avail me relief from those words. Damn, she had shaken me, and straight to my core. Worse still, the goddess knew the exact method to reach that point, how to get within me. Yes, she understood how to undo my existence with the greatest of eases. And in that moment she considered that fact.
Ideas were weighed.
And I was allowed to live.
Without understanding any of her words, that’s what I felt. I could have been undone. Effortlessly. Instead, with a magnanimous stroke, she jolted me with a simple revelation. I was tested and spun about. Manipulated. And, in that way, reduced. But I was not alone in this. The entire mountain was maimed, and, even now, it had not recovered. It rocked slightly from time to time, remembering the uncanny sound of the goddess.
And what she had said.
Though what the words meant… It gave me the shakes to merely remember the vibrations, the music of her voice and its eldritch reach. Probing further was perilous. Without any doubt, to recall those words wrought from the palest of bloods—
I buckled, fell to the ground, and was awash in agony. My brain felt as though it squirmed. These eyes jittered, and I threw up. Coughing and gagging, this sludge came bursting out of my stomach. It was black and bitterly cold. I cried, removed my gloves, and attempted to get the shit out of my throat. I scraped handfuls of it from my face and threw up again. There was no easy way to remove it, as it clung to whatever it could. And so I threw up again, and again, till there was nothing left in me. And even after the blackened, viscous sludge had frozen, I heaved.
I was not to pry. Those words were cursed.
“Damn myself. Damn it all. Even this is denied to me?” I picked myself off the ground and wiped my face clean. Whatever it was, it was wrong. That should not have come out of me. Though it was linked to those words. The meaning, I couldn’t understand it, or wasn’t meant to. Although, simply listening to it shook me.
And Mt. Grav too, it had been—
Shugokrur came up out of the ground, splayed himself, and said, “Did you hear that? It’s coming closer.” I heard nothing but the wind. If the goddess was speaking again, I could not hear her. “Look,” he said, pointing towards the mountain’s spine. “All of them are moving. Away from here.”
All around, swarms of insects scattered to the winds, creating a clamor of buzzing and other strange noises that only insects made. It was an exodus. Every damn bug coalesced into a cloud so dense it made the retreating sun appear dead in the sky. You would have never guessed that there were just so many of them here. A damned swarm that spanned miles across…
That has… never happened. Ever.
More of the goddess’ influence? Gods, just how much had she shaped in those fleeting moments? Was the whole world subjected to her voice?
“They can hear it too,” Shugokrur said, cocking his head, “and are afraid of it. An impressive fear response. Nothing but fear in their heads. Fear of death. Fear, do you feel it now? Are you afraid of it?”
“What are you going on about? Afraid of the bugs? Fuck them. Did you see what I just threw up? Do you not remember that I almost died? The bugs can eat shit! I got other things to worry about, Shugokrur. Just… just fucking remember a few minutes back, damn you!”
“Irrelevant. But perhaps you have not seen enough to respond correctly,” he said, pointing towards Roskor. “Tell me, can you see that? Focus your sight. Beyond the fleeing things, that’s where you will see it.” He directed my sight again, and muttered, “Sight, sight, sight, sight, use your sight. Observe as the Abaters once did.”
There was nothing but bugs at first. But as they scattered, I saw it: a grim pillar of smoke creeping upwards. It choked the light from the sky as it billowed outwards, molesting the gold trimmed sunset.
“What the fuck? No fucking way that’s real. This is a joke, right?”
“No,” Shugokrur said, his halo brightening, “that is real. It brought allies with it, but now they are leaving. Frightened of getting too close to the greater one. As now it is arriving. Coming closer. But are you frightened of its arrival? I am not. I only wonder why it has come, don’t you?”
“Not another damn riddle,” I snapped. “This isn’t the time.”
Sometimes a careless idiot will set something aflame by accident. A beard leaned in too close to an open flame, a misplaced stick used for stoking a bonfire, and other stupid things of that nature. But this was not something even the king of idiots could do by accident. It was as if…
All of Roskor was burning.
“What shall we do?” Shugokrur asked. “You cannot put out this fire. Not without the Abaters.”
I wasn’t going to leave them to their fate. There were many who would bury my bones when the time came, even if I had been exiled. And I would do the same for them.
“We’re going to find out what’s going on.”
I took my risks and had Shugokrur carry me off the summit. Shit, it scared me. Made me uncomfortable in ways I couldn’t accurately describe. Hanging by shadows, hundreds of feet in the air… It reminded me why I hated heights so damned much.
But I had to see past that. Keeping myself as calm as I could, I talked to Shugokrur. No matter what he asked me, or how ready I was to get put down, I simply reminded him to not let go. One slip, and that would be a few broken bones at best. No way I could get set back like that, so I swallowed my gut reaction and kept blabbering on.
And by this way we were able to get close much quicker than if I had huffed it myself. With my body this worn, the fire would’ve burned itself out by the time I got there. Right now, that wasn’t much of a worry; since the blaze was picking up. So intense was it that we were forced to touch down before Roskor. The smoke was too thick this close, and getting there quicker wasn’t worth shit if I suffocated as I arrived.
And seeing this much, I suspected that the others may have choked already. Or, they were hoping for someone to pull them out. Save their asses from burning alive.
Fuck, I couldn’t just leave them. Not again.
So I ran, while Shugokrur trailed behind; his halo’s light would have revealed the path ahead if only I had slowed, but, this time, I didn’t need it; the inferno became a beacon as the night grew old, and I merely followed the glowing sky.
The sun fell away as it succumbed to the smoke-beleaguered airs, and a twitching blackness gripped the ancient forest. Night befell us. And the world gained a sharper bite as warmth was blown away. Aveyas was a real bastard. Robbing us of sight for half of the day… His balance knew nothing of mercy.
Roots and rocks alike found my footing inadequate and threw me to the ground, tore skin away, and let the blood flow. Like wicked hands, branches slashed my face and got caught in my mouth. It was miserable, but not a single bug preyed upon my wounds. It was surreal. Like a damn curse had befallen the mountain. Had they all flown away? Really? Was that my fault? Did I cause her to speak and send everything into disarray?
No, I didn’t do that, right? Right?
But no matter how much I begged, the stars would avail me no answers. Shugokrur was worthless. The others had been killed upon the roads, and there in Pelce too… Just me then. Yes, I was alone in this, but I wasn’t going to lie down and die! This was not over.
And so, running faster still, I cursed Aveyas’ name. Nothing was right, yet one thing was clear over all else: Aveyas was balancing something profound, and at our expense. As always.
Running, I noticed it: the sounds were muffled. Reduced. A wrongness grew in the center of these events. Of that I was certain. Without revealing itself, it could be sensed. It was overtaking the senses. Even the world couldn’t match it. It was that prominent now, so that even I, just a woman, could sense it! Gods, what was coming, what was I racing towards? And why? Why was this something… Why was it looming above our heads?
“It is speaking,” Shugokrur said. “A message is being woven.”
“Enough, just help me fucking run!”
“As you say.”
As I neared Roskor, I could hear the screams of children and men alike, and I felt the earth rumble as the illusion of silence passed on. And these horrific sounds and vibrations became louder and more pronounced still as I pressed onward. The shaking of the ground beneath me quickened this pace of mine, till I was close enough to make out people amongst the flames; and the flames would soon take those people, no doubt; it was absolute chaos. Much worse than it sounded, though it sounded like absolute mayhem.
Mt. Grav was ablaze, gaping holes were carved into the mountainside, and there were many, many screams. People ran, holding belongings and children, and made for a way out. But that would not be happening. Not without a miracle.
They were doomed.
The flames burned fiercely all around Roskor, and it wouldn’t be long before the winds hurled embers over the cleared lands and made short work of the houses, barns, and all. Once one building went, they would all burn. Roskor was nothing but food for the damned flames. With these winds, with this much fire, nothing I could do would help. Not even an army could help. By Unnce, not even an entire lake’s worth of water could stop this! Only a storm whipped up from the World’s End could stop this. But we were too far inland to be blessed with such a thing.
These people were already dead. Shortly, the flames would close in. Damn. I didn’t want to think on it. Couldn’t bear to. This wasn’t right! Where was the balance in this?! Enough, isn’t this enough?
“Well, Aveyas?” I screamed. “Is it?”
No answer. Nothing but the flickering of the stars. It couldn’t be stopped. Aveyas willed it so, and in response, the winds came cutting through. Made nothing better, only worse. Not long now before the end, and here I was, sitting; watching it all go.
“And go you should,” someone said. “Yes, go away from here.”
“Since it is here where all things go away.”
“As the dreamer stirs—”
“And the boundaries blur.”
It was cold. Straight to my bones. As if I had been touched by something I had ought not to be touched by. A wrongness. I puked up more of the blackness and fought the urge to expel my guts across the mountain. Weakness spread, along with that frigidness, the more I expelled this sludge.
I had to fight it. Had to stand.
“Are you aware, Yukysh?” Shugokrur asked, prodding me. “They did not ensure absolute destruction. That is proof that they are not our true enemies. The Taint would never hold back like this. It can’t be them, though they were coordinated. And fear spread from their approach. Strange, odd, perplexing.”
These ominous holes and this ring of fire were, I feared, far more than ill omens. Some other force was at work. Magic? A curse? Just what had happened down there in the time it took me to reach the summit? Gods, what did it mean? Think! Think damn you! How had it happened, and why did I feel as though something was coming. It was looming. There were no hints, no answers! Nothing! Shugokrur only rambled on as usual, and— Wait.
He had said something cryptic up there. It was coming, right? I didn’t take it seriously, erroneously thought that the worst of it had passed, but, after seeing this…
“Shugokrur, about what you said before. What’s coming?”
“Coming? No, it’s already here.”
A thunderous crack pierced my ears and shook my bones. The entire mountain quaked. It was the sound of the sky shattering, time ripping, and souls being reaped. The gods damned end of the world. The last moments: vevantez.
“Shugokrur!” I shouted. “We’ve got to get out of here! Now!”
A deafening howl ripped through the night, and I was sent tumbling to the ground like a mere plaything. The wind was knocked straight out of my lungs and I gasped feebly to fill my wracked chest. I couldn’t breathe.
Everything screamed. Everything was pain. Pain.
The taste of dirt, a loud ringing, the ground trembling as if it were struck by the gods themselves. Everything fell around us as the mountain took a knee, perhaps trying to stay its fall and not topple over, but it could not stop what had been set into motion. Everything would go down with this piece of stone, like hired hands on a craft too close to the World’s End.
“Open your eyes,” the spirit spoke. “You wanted to know what it was. It is now exposed.”
Then, as I reeled amongst the pine’s needles in agony, I saw it: what should have been a part of the illusions; my eyes should have betrayed me here. I didn’t want to see it. No, this couldn’t have been true.
“No. Gods, no.”
It was a behemoth of a thing. It was a god: majestic, powerful, and beyond comprehension all at once. Its long, snake-like body rivaled the mountain with its sheer size, dwarfing everything it loomed over like an outstretched arm poised to snuff out an unsightly bug. There wasn’t a weapon in existence that could harm it, nor an army that could stop it.
“By the gods,” I said. “What have we done?”
As it pivoted itself around, its putrid breath swept past me, chasing away the numbness of the cool night air; I gagged on it, choked and coughed until my throat burned and these lungs ached. A damned miasma came from its jaws, wringing the life from all that depended upon the airs. I could barely take it. The shit even burned my exposed skin.
I bunkered down as best I could, but still, the mountain trembled. It was not over.
The gusts from its breathing washed through the forest, shaking pines as if a calamitous storm had blown in. Pines, older than the village itself, bowed before the serpent’s breath alone. A golden tower, tallest of them all, collapsed from the trauma incurred, and it vanished on the other side of the mountain, leaving only a broken stump amongst its brother towers. Soon, there would be none left. Nothing was sacred. It was blind to values. Blind to everything, since its head was bare of eyes, but beside its maw were slits that billowed smoke and glowed white hot from within.
Oh, how the inferno that engulfed Roskor shrank when compared to its core! All the flames in the world could not overcome its overwhelming light! There was a sliver of the sun burning within its head. It may have swallowed up the weakened sun as it set in the sky. Would it ever rise again? Could a third be granted to this world?
Were we worthy of that?
A world of darkness would mean the end of humanity; there would be no more kings or kingdoms. No more strife. No more life. Nothing at all would exist after vevantez had finished, and the harbingers, be they only this serpent or things worse still, would tear it all away. Nothing could survive. Aveyas held dominion. Aveyas would choose what was brought into the light, if it ever returned at all.
The serpent coiled itself around the mountain and ground it into a fine dust. What laid beneath my body shifted, dancing with oblivion as it teetered on the edge, closing in on the exact point where it would all come tumbling down. Gusts churned and moaned, and the mountain groaned beneath the serpent’s tightening coil. Ash fell from the sky like so many drops of rain, and embers became the stars.
Slowly, the serpent turned its glowing maw towards Roskor.
“No.” Not this. “Allone…”
Rearing its head back with a stomach-churning sound, it unleashed a surge of glowing, molten death from its maw. And it passed over every last bit of it, with a purpose, so that Roskor was engulfed in a fire-storm; and, all at once, the screams were silenced. Only the cracking of the fire remained. They were dead. Every last one. Nothing could survive that. Not any human, and especially not hope.
Roskor was now the heart of this destruction which would soon tumble farther across the mountain and take even my life. Yes, here was a true fire, one fit to warm the gods, and it illuminated the entire mountain with a sickly, orange glow.
And I sat.
Half of the mountain was incinerated, and the flames, urged on by the serpent, only spread further. The cracking and popping of the pines grew into a roar. Heat rose up to bake the life from out of this body, smoke choked out these lungs, and Shugokrur embraced me. “Try not to breathe,” he said. “Stay aware, the chances of you dying have increased. I cannot protect perfectly. We should leave.”
I shook and shivered. My legs felt as though they were slowly being replaced by stone. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stand. I could only watch in horror as my home, my last gamble, burned to the ground, and everyone else burned along with it. Everything was destroyed in a matter of seconds. Hues, Allone, and everything left unsaid were all kindling now.
All kindling now.
There were tears, and they were fat with regret. But like my prayers, they did nothing but agitate. I did not want to believe it. The grief was too great a thing to bear.
“We should leave.” Shugokrur said, pulling me away with his many arms. “Quickly, to the river. We must leave, now,” he repeated, pulling forcefully. “We can do nothing for them. Their bodies are decimated. No chance of revival nor retrieval.”
“Damn, damn it all,” I said, thinking of nothing but hate for the serpent. “Why now? Why, why? Dammit!”
“It is too late for questions. If you remain here,” he said, catching a tree from falling on me. “Your body will be severely damaged. Your death, will then be assured.” His arm set the flaming trunk aside, without a hint of effort, and returned to my shoulder. “The opportunity to escape is nearly up, do you wish to die?”
Damn this serpent, curse its blood, every last drop!
“Again, do you wish to die?”
“No, not here. Not now.”
“Follow me,” he said whilst draping his arms over me. “It will most likely pain you, but not permanently.”
And so, these locked legs of mine were made to move.
All around us, flames climbed atop the trees and leapt about wildly, lunging at the sky and hurling up black clouds. It hurt, passing through the overwhelming heat of it all, and even though I bypassed the worst of it, I should have died by all rights. The spirit shielded me from the fate of all I had known down there: incineration; returning to the world as ash and bone.
Even still, it pained me. Shugokrur could not keep it all from cooking me. Gods, my eyes were starting to melt by proximity alone, and my fingernails were flaking off. Or at least they would if I didn’t move faster. The fires consumed all, and would take me as well, without pause, if I could not move swiftly enough. But flames don’t need to breathe. And neither do they tire.
In truth, my survival rested upon the spirit.
“Continue,” Shugokrur said. “Here.”
Something vital within the ground had been disturbed by the serpent, since the river had grown wild, bursting forth with a force so strong that there, amongst the conflagration, was a rapid pushing aside boulders and picking up fallen pines like they were mere driftwood.
“There’s no way I can wade through that,” I said. “I’ll be killed for certain.”
“Then keep to the edge. I will keep you from being swept away.”
“Shit.” He was serious, as always. “No other choice then?”
“None that prevent you from dying within this hour.”
“Right. Don’t lose me in all this shit then. Counting on you.”
It was insane, but the whole world had lost its sense as well; no better way through the serpent’s rage existed. Surely, the squeeze it had put on Mt. Grav opened up the only door in its fiery trap, else this was a route to a death more agonizing than any provided by the inferno. Madness. Though it could be possible, if only since Aveyas would enjoy that. Would make him grin even harder than he’s grinning now. The bastard.
This crushing heat had sweat pouring down my face and soaking my garbs, even as I trudged through the icy, waist-high edge of these rapids. Insanity. One half of myself was cooked while the other was going numb from the cold. But, to be boiled alive, after escaping all else…
The thought ate at my nerves; biting away, ever encroaching like these damned flames.
With what little stamina I still possessed, I pushed myself through the waters, and gave my best to escape this inferno. But, as oft we find, one’s best is not enough. I was only human, after all. A weak, pathetic thing that couldn’t even find its breath nor its footing in all of this smoke. Death was gaining on us, and I was the only one left on this damned mountain that could die.
What a farce.
I tied my shirt around my face and kept low, but it just collected spittle from all the coughing I did. There was hardly a point to wearing it, other than to offer a false sense of protection. It was no substitute for a proper plague helm. I only slowed. This wasn’t going as I had planned. Shit, to choke out after getting so far.
One big fucking farce. And it would all be for naught.
“Hurry, Yukysh, or you will die and it will have been for nothing. You cannot last long in this situation.”
“You don’t need to tell me that,” I said between coughs. The inferno was coming faster than I could move, and a shift in the winds brought the smoke to suffocate and blind in a degree more severe than previously. How could it have gotten worse? How? Even the serpent’s core was lessened by all this smoke: dimmed and suppressed by several degrees. There was so much smoke that these flames were known to me only by their sweltering auras.
A world of darkness loomed, and I only slowed.
Come now, don’t fail on me, you damned legs. Worthless flesh, it was stumbling all over in this chaos and falling over everything. Weak.
“So damned weak,” I shouted, falling over something and landing, hard, upon a boulder that burned me. Already I was getting cooked, and all I could do was scream and shout between the coughs that continued regardless of how furiously I fought them.
“Further,” Shugokrur said. “Safety ahead.”
“Like I can tell! It’s all fucked to me!”
In the midst of the smoke, I could only follow the tugging of his arms. It was up to him to make sense of it all. Ahead, back, north, or south, it was all the same to me. All smoke. All burning and crashing to the beat of the mountain’s expiring heart, ever succumbing to the serpent’s hold.
All of it, a certain death.
“Here it is,” he said, and a nearby blast shook my bones and rocked my jaw as his arms left my shoulders. Then, as his arms returned, he said, “come, I must seal it quickly. Follow this pull.”
Out of stamina and the ability to bitch and moan about it, I crawled into a hole without complaint, feeling my way around like some eyeless thing. Our sanctuary was more cave that hole, but I could not rightly tell. I relied on the far off echoes of dripping water to feel out the place while my eyes, all smoke-stung to submission, remained shut.
Tremors continued to rock the mountain, and the thought of a cave-in crossed my mind more than once, but there was nowhere else to go but out into a certain, and very painful, death. Being crushed by rocks, at least, would have been quick, and, hopefully, painless. Didn’t want to test it out, but I knew which I would pick, given the opportunity to choose.
“The outside has been barred,” Shugokrur said. “I made sure of it. This place should allow for your survival. For now.”
I mumbled out a thanks and collapsed right where I was. Didn’t even matter that it was a bed of rock under me. At least it wasn’t burnable. At least the smoke was gone, not that the coughing had. Nope, I was still coughing like mad.
Shugokrur floated above me, saying, “Sleep. Sleep, I remember that you require it to regenerate.”
“That’s not how it works, you shit.”
“But it is what you need. I know it.”
“Sure, whatever, just leave me be. At least you can do that.”
Rest did not come easily, and I spent a long while trying to forget the screams. I always remembered their screams over all else. Gods, they went screaming. Memories of a place best left unremembered came to me, harassing my every thought with images best left unrecalled. Chasing them away was futile. As these memories dragged me back to Pelce, I no longer wondered why so many people turned to drinking to escape such a thing.
I did not want to return to that place no more than I wished to recount exactly what it was that I had seen. Both were equal in their repulsiveness. A terror too profound for words laid in each.
Indeed, words offered no comfort as it came rushing by, those mirrored currents. The coffins on the waters. Their faces. Those twists. Our turn, it was. Another step amongst many. Whatever resistance I had left, well, left me to my fate. Till the other came in turn. A terribly foul thing. I wanted to be rid of it forever, and perhaps my blade could impart that release, dare I call upon it.
No… not yet.
For times like these, I wished that Shugokrur could force me into a sleep. My mind, beleaguered with their agonizing screams, made for poor company; thoughts returned, always, to the voices; they had been pleading for help over the roar of the inferno, seeking salvation. They wanted to live, but all died; while I ran off into a cave like a worm. And now that I lived? What was I doing now? Paying them a mere pittance of respect, if anything. Using the present to agonize over the past.
Pathetic. Wish I could be as uncaring as a venator, or else some other steely beast; anything but this squishy sack of flesh. Especially one that had its mind turn against itself by a mere accident. Just a coincidence. One turn of the fates. Should Aveyas’ smile shift, then it would all be over. Really, I shouldn’t even worry about it. They wanted to live, but I too desired life! What was I to do? To die alongside them rather than take this chance? Gods, when had I become so pathetic? Having such disdain for my own flesh, for myself and all its weaknesses…
“Do you think anyone else made it?” I asked, trying to take my mind off the thought.
“Perhaps.” Impossible. He was lying. “If they left earlier, before it arrived, then they may still survive. A chance.”
“No, they wouldn’t leave so suddenly. Even if they outran the flames… No. Without escorts the roads would be where they met their ends. The mountain is their haven, but this…” I stopped rambling to set aside the troubling thoughts. Didn’t need to explore them any further. What I had seen was enough.
“Please,” Shugokrur said, “do not let me forget what just happened. Please.”
Ah, this again. Should’ve known.
He always pleads that I keep his memories safe, but I’ve surely forgotten some of them along the way. Even my own are subject to erode in ways that I can’t even imagine. There is a frailty about our kind, and as the years come, it will only be revealed more so. Remembering it all for him, connecting these pieces… It’s impossible. I can only do so much.
But this, even if I wanted to forget, would never leave me.
“I won’t, Shugokrur. It’s just not possible to forget this. Ever. I’ll remember. And so, you will too. I’ll be waiting for the day when you’re fixed. When you’re whole again, then you’ll know. I promise.”
His shadows, eager for some far off event beyond comprehension, danced away. “This one gives thanks.” Straining himself as severely as he could, Shugokrur let loose his form and said, his whisper rising ever-so-slightly, “I shall repay you someday.”