Rumi reached for her mother’s hand as they emerged from the forest trail and the great expanse of frozen sea stretched out before them. The frigid wind hit them full force now, pelting their faces with heavy drops of freezing rain. Rumi whimpered and buried her nose in the fur of her parka. Shiori clucked, squeezed her daughter’s tiny hand too tight, and yanked her into the snow covered clearing, toward the sheer cliff wall that loomed over the expanse.
Rumi was frightened and cold, and her hand hurt. Her finger bones felt like they were being crushed. But she didn’t dare speak. If she did, Mother would only become more vicious. That was the way things worked. The way Mother worked.
Life hadn’t always been so bad. They had been a happy family once, before Brother was taken. But things were different now. Mother was different now. And though Rumi knew in her heart of hearts that she was to blame for Mother’s pain, she was no longer fool enough to believe she could do anything to ease it.
A gust of wind bit at Rumi’s cheeks. She turned her head away and looked up at the Tagonkyo, the two towering sequoia that flanked the path to the village. They stood above it like giant sentries, their bases 20 men wide, trunks stretching all the way to the frozen grey sky, pale blue-green needles obscured in the tendrils of mist rushing in from the expanse. Rumi watched them retreat into the gathering dim and a bottomless cavern split open in her belly. She squeezed her eyes shut against the blistering cold and reminded herself that it wasn’t her time. Not until she turned twelve. She still had another month. Mother had promised.
Rumi tripped and fell in the snow. Shiori did not stop, and she did not slow down. She dragged the girl behind her until she righted herself, then gave the little arm a sharp tug, a warning not to let it happen again. Behind sealed lips, Rumi yelped in pain.
“Hurry, Rumi. Storm is coming,” Shiori barked.
Above the frozen horizon, the clouds were dark and formless, a sullen grey ghost draining its inky lifeblood into the expanse. It ran down the sky in splotchy grey streaks that faded and then disappeared into the stark white serenity of the ice, like an ill conceived watercolor left out in the rain.
Shiori towed Rumi onto the ice covered landing of an old wooden staircase that led down the sheer rock face of the cliff, then let go of her hand. Below, Rumi could hear the black depths swelling beneath the ocean’s icy surface. She hated the sound. The ice shrieked and moaned in a ghoulish chorus of alien tongues as the water strained against it. She paused a moment to massage her hand through knit mittens. Her feet began to slip out from under her, and she lunged for the wobbly wooden railing, slick with ice.
Rumi followed Shiori down, watching as her mother balanced herself between the railing in one hand and in the other her precious offering basket, heavy with reagents for Kai’zun, the Domyo of the hermitage, and his diviners. The items in the basket accounted for most of Father’s wages from the past month: black pearl and jade salt and tiger’s eye and brine stone. Ginseng and ice thistle. Nymeria blossom and spider silk. Nightshade, purple ochre, wormwood, and blood moss.
When they reached the last step, Rumi hesitated. The screeches and groans were louder down here, and the thick briny stench burnt her nostrils as it burrowed its way down to her belly. She wanted to wretch, but Shiori grabbed her by the elbow and she found herself on the ice, scurrying after her mother on the grimy narrow path that ran along the base of the cliff.
Beneath her feet, Rumi sensed the water churning, whipping itself into a froth, groping for a fault, a place to pop the frozen crust like a pustule and swallow Rumi whole. On the left, they were hemmed in by a low hedge of jagged rocks that thrust at them from beneath the snow. A short distance ahead, the hedge would open up. According to the hermits, the demon Akkho and his army had come from beyond the expanse three centuries ago, breached the hedge, and ravaged the village with a cyclone.
Rumi took quick, small steps, her thin salmon skin shoes skidding and sliding on the uneven ice pack. As they shuffled past the breach, Shiori pressed close to the cliffside and turned her head to the ground, muttering prayers in a language that Rumi recognized but didn’t understand, the secret language of the hermits. Most villagers wanted the hole sealed up. Not that the hedge was high enough to prevent a tragedy. Even young children could clear it, if they could summon the nerve. But despite their proximity to the ocean, the Ho’en were not a seagoing people. They were frightened of the dangers lurking on the expanse, and terrified of the horrors that dwelt beyond it.
Nonetheless, in three centuries, the hermitage had never allowed the hedge to be repaired. This was a source of strife between the village and its leaders that sometimes led to ostracization or even banishment for those who spoke out. After Brother was taken, Rumi’s own father had created quite a stir when he riled up a group of panicked parents to confront the Domyo. But Kai’zun prevailed, and the breach remained. A stark reminder of what happens when the people lose their faith, when foolish children dare to challenge The Way.
Still, Rumi couldn’t help but turn and look. When she did, the cavern in her belly split open again. In her mind’s eye, she saw Akkho and his demons gathered around a hole in the ice, laughing and cheering as Little Brother flailed, the ice crust breaking as he tried to pull himself onto it. He reached out to Rumi and cried for help, then disappeared forever beneath the cold black water.
The wind howled and blew back the hood of Rumi’s parka. In an instant, her dark pigtailed hair was soaked. The freezing water wrapped itself tight around her skull like a devilfish, then lashed at her back with sharp stinging tentacles. Rumi drew up her hood and squeezed her eyes tight again, this time escaping into a dream. It was summer. The demons were gone and the ice sheet thick. In her mind’s eye, she saw Brother burst through the fog of the expanse and run toward them brandishing a long pointed stick, the Zen’rei warrior helmet Father had crafted bobbing around his little head. Mother scooped him up in her lithe ivory arms while father filled the air with garish laughter. Then Mother turned toward her with eyes so wet with joy that Rumi could see her own reflection in them.
The dream was cut short by the sickly caw of a gull. Rumi opened her eyes and saw Mother disappearing into the advancing darkness on the far side of the breach. As she caught up, the hedge rose again and Shiori ceased her prayers. From across the expanse, the wind blew strong and cold, wiggling past the openings in Rumi’s parka and cutting to the bone. After what seemed an eternity, they came to another landing and ascended the feeble wooden steps. At the top, a solitary rowan, black against the pale of winter, clung tenuously to the cliff’s edge, its trunk bent backward and its nude emaciated branches trailing behind it, warped by the relentless forces of nature.
The rain had now turned to sleet. Rumi’s hands and feet had gone numb from the cold, and her scalp was frozen and throbbing. Icy shards pelted her face as she followed her mother east, scrambling up a slick rocky slope toward the dense forest where the hermitage lay hidden. To the south were the skeletal remains of a hanging wood, overrun with dwarfed sessile oak. Its tangle of intertwined limbs, parched and contorted by the elements, sheltered the fallow ground beneath it like a haggard old maid nursing a stillborn. Rumi looked beyond the wood, across the treacherous icy crags separating the hermitage from the village. A month after Brother had been taken, and Mother rediscovered her devotion to The Way, Rumi had wondered aloud why the ancient Domyo built the hermitage in such a strange, unfriendly place, so far from the people it served. She hadn’t expected an answer. Mother was busy at her table, stitching sackcloth garments for the novitiates, and Father was busy drinking suk and staring into the fire.
“Those superstitious bastards serve no one but themselves,” he said, turning to glare at Shiori. His eyes were sunken and bleary, his voice watery and hollow, a golem slithering up from the bottom of a deep, dark well. Shiori set down her stitching, glided over to Father’s chair, and plucked the bottle from his stubby, calloused fingers. Then she glided back toward her table.
“In that case, why do some men need superstitious bastards to provide for their own children?” she asked sweetly, stowing the bottle in a high cupboard.
“Bitch!” Father bellowed. “You give it all to them!” He raged at Shiori and tried to rise, but his hand ricocheted off the arm of the chair and he fell, slicing his knee open on the edge of the hearth. Mother gazed down on him with satisfied contempt, then squatted at his side and used a scrap of sackcloth to keep the blood from leaking on the rug. His curses faded as Rumi dressed the wound. By the time she finished, he had fallen asleep. Rumi wanted to take him to his bed, but Mother refused to help, and Rumi was too small to carry him herself.
That night, Rumi stayed up late, sitting in bed playing with her last remaining doll. Mother had got rid of the rest, but this one was too old and tattered to exchange for reagents. Rumi imagined trips to the theater, and dances around the harvest bonfire, and midsummer picnics in the glade, allowing the doll to take turns being mommy, daddy, sister, and brother. The doll’s clothes were filthy and there was a tear in the chest where the stuffing poked out. Both of its button eyes had long ago gone missing. Still, it was the only one Rumi had, and she loved it. Her play eventually gave way to dreams. But when she woke the next morning, Mother had already left for the hermitage and Father was still there, snoring with mouth agape, belly heaving, body twisted on the floor like a bloated corpse.
A loose rock slipped from the wet snow beneath Rumi’s foot and she went down, skinning her shin on the jagged slope. She stifled her cry, then scrambled up the last stretch. The mouth of the Hermit’s Path was hidden behind a ruined juniper. Under the darkening sky, the gnarls and folds of its huge, rotting trunk played on Rumi’s eyes. They twisted into grotesque, tortured faces that reminded Rumi of the hideous ogre masks worn by the Nama’zei at winter’s solstice.
The last traces of twilight faded and a pale moon ascended. The trail narrowed and the forest closed around them. They went in single file, twisting through bony maples with writhing, outstretched arms that snatched at Rumi with knotted claws. Further down, the wood grew heavy with towering beech, their dense sinewy branches splintering the moon’s pallid light with snarled webs of black blooded spider veins. Shiori was moving faster now, and Rumi struggled to keep pace. The sackcloth undergarments Mother forced her to wear ground against her body like pumice stone, rubbing her raw as they raked against her tender flesh.
As they neared the hermitage, the air grew still and fetid, the smell of putrescence as thick as the briny stench of the expanse. Thicker. Shiori stopped dead in her tracks. She lifted her chin and cocked her head, as if listening for something in the distance. Her well sculpted nostrils flared. Since Brother was taken, Mother had dragged Rumi out here a thousand times. Not once had she ever stopped along the way. Not for a rest. Not to wait for Rumi when she fell behind. Not even to hide from the wolves and other predators that roamed these woods. Never.
Rumi drew close to her mother, still winded from the hike, her labored breath visible, forming ghosts under the fractured light of the moon.
Shiori lifted a hand. “Quiet, Rumi. Something is wrong.” she whispered the words. Still, they echoed through the silent forest like the summoning call of a Syren.
Rumi felt it too. The smell of the air was sickening, but there was something else. A presence. A malevolence that had grown stronger with each step they took. She’d sensed it in her belly as she watched the mighty Tagonkyo retreating, as she was struck by the vision of Little Brother drowning beyond the breach, sinking to the icy deep while Akkho and his cronies cheered him on. It had been inching closer to them since they left the village, and now it was here.
“Mommy I’m scared. We should go back.”
It had been a foolish thing to say. Rumi was aware of that even as the words formed on her tongue. And futile. Mother would never relent. Rumi’s childish insolence would only make her angry, and even more determined. Yet she had opened her mouth anyway.
The wind had quieted, but Rumi was shaking. She looked up at the shadowy figure looming before her and searched for a reason to doubt. Mother stood so close. Even now, she could reach out for her hand, couldn’t she? Could throw her arms around her dear mother’s waist and beg for a change of heart?
“Stupid idiot!” Shiori hissed. “Don’t be such a baby!”
In the place they were standing, with the shadows of the branches slicing through the moon’s grey glow, Shiori appeared otherworldly. Her thin scarlet lips twisted into a snarl. Her ivory skin turned jaundiced and waxen. Beneath the severe arches of her brow, where there should have been eyes, there were only deep inky pools. They glared at Rumi.
“You’ve pledged yourself to the hermitage. You must present yourself to Kai’zun.” Shiori whispered the words, but her lips trembled with rage. “Now come!” She turned her back to Rumi and started out again.
Rumi recalled one of her father’s favorite lines from the Books of Wisdom he used to read to the family in the evenings, before Tai’o had been taken. Childhood is that time when we understand things we cannot put into words, while in adulthood we speak of things we do not understand. In this moment, watching her mother leave her in the deep dark wood, breathing in the musky stench of death, Rumi stood at the threshold. The hazy intuitions in her gut crystalized into something palpable, into words so strong and true that she could name them. The place to which Mother was leading her was a place of great evil, of utter and eternal loneliness, of decline and decay and rot. To follow Mother was to die.
She was desperate to go back. To convince Mother to flee home where they could rush together into the protective arms of Father. But those arms had worn hollow and cold. Rumi knew that as sure as she knew her mother’s strength, knew that she would push on to the hermitage and make an offering not just of the reagents, but of Rumi herself, hoping to gain favor, as if Kai’zun’s babbling incantations could quicken the corpse of poor little Tai’o. There, in that moment, Rumi understood with perfect clarity the mind of her mother. Somewhere in the black lunacy of her grief, she truly believed she could erase the past, if only she could muster the devotion. And Mother could muster the devotion. She had failed to do so when she herself was young, when unlike Rumi she had taken the pledge of her own choosing, then reneged and instead married Father. Father’s love had been Mother’s sin, Tai’o’s death her punishment. And if Rumi’s life were to be her redemption, so be it. Her daughter would not be afforded the chance to repeat her own mistakes. Yes, Mother would press on, dark leading to dark, no matter what, forever. Of that, Rumi was certain. The knowledge seeped through her skin like poison. It carved out her insides. But there was something else she now knew. She knew that she, Rumi, would not. She would not follow Mother into the bosom of madness. She would stand. She would fight. She would say no.
Up ahead, Shiori stopped again. She stood still as death, head cocked and eyes rapt, searching the darkness, as if reading Rumi’s thoughts. A long moment passed, then she turned back toward Rumi. “Come!” she commanded before spinning around and moving deeper into the wood. Her steps were firm and sure, but there was fear in her voice. This forest is no place for lone little girls, it seemed to warn, Not tonight, Rumi.
It began to snow. Not the pretty, lilting flakes that so often graced Rumi’s dreams, but in hard wet clumps that splattered against her face like spittle from the gods. She wavered, the clarity of the previous moment evaporating. Words of heartbroken defiance swirled like spectres in her gut, but when she opened her mouth to speak, they escaped her. Their misty forms wafted out to the trees and were lost among the shadows. Ahead, Mother disappeared into the dark.
Rumi’s courage left her. She ran to catch up.
On the hermitage grounds, the path was marked by grotesquely misshapen Ravenwoods with squat ashen trunks and meandering arms that stretched freakishly wide, branches unnaturally elongated by the hermits. The dense grey needles matted together, forming a smothering canopy that blotted out the moon and shrouded the path in darkness. Here, the cadaverous stench was suffocating. The malevolent presence pressed closer. Rumi felt its rank icy breath on her face, breathing down her neck.
She tripped over an enormous wisteria vine that snaked to and fro across the path before wrapping its fat black body tight around a Ravenwood like a monstrous boa. When she picked herself back up, she saw the path spill out onto a small moonlit clearing blanketed with snow. A pallid blue glow oozed up from the surface, then sat suspended above it like a low fog.
The entrance to the hermitage was a plain wooden doorway cut in a high Ravenwood fence that ran full around the compound. Trees on both sides had been allowed to grow wild. They pressed in hard, tangled limbs trimmed away only at the door, so that even in winter, with the foliage lying dead in the dirt, the entrance itself was the only indication of the hermitage’s existence. The air here was even more putrid. Rumi took short, sharp breaths as Shiori approached the door.
Rumi loathed this place even more than she despised the expanse, with its briny odor and its ceaseless shrieks and howls. The hermitage was a trap, a hidden hole in the world. When people fell into it, or were pushed in, the world disappeared forever. Standing this close to it, Rumi felt her insides hollowing out. Painful though it was, she didn’t want her world to disappear. She didn’t want to be left alone forever in this dark, forsaken place.
Near the door, a small pewter bell lay hidden near a high nami stone. Shiori set the offering basket down, rang the bell once, then took two steps back and bowed her head. Rumi took up position at her right side, a half step behind. Then they stood waiting for Kai’zun. Neither moved a muscle, each one alone in the forest’s icy, fetid silence. Rumi prayed the door would never open. She prayed the expanse would melt and wash the hermitage away.
An ice-cold gust rose up from nowhere, and the door opened a crack. Someone had left it ajar. Shiori stayed still, waiting. The wind’s icy blades pierced Rumi through. The heat from the hike had already gone from her bony frame, and she sensed her mother’s fear. Her teeth began to chatter.
The gusts grew wild, pummeling Rumi first from behind, then swinging around and shoving her backward. The door swung tight against its frame, then flung wide open, battering the nami stone. The trees were alive now, lunging at Rumi and Shiori with their long arms, clawing and scratching at the fence. The door slammed shut again, then reopened, stopping midway to shimmy back and forth on its hinges before again crashing into the nami stone with a loud boom that moved through the forest like the call of a spirit drum.
Rumi looked into the hermitage and her breath froze in her chest. In the snow covered courtyard, two dozen men and women were laid out, barefoot and in loose robes, the ghostly white flesh of their faces like scrolls, covered with the archaic black glyphs of the dead language safeguarded by the hermits. Their eyes were closed, their rigid bodies luminous under the moon’s cold light. They lay side by side in tight orderly rows, like ghost soldiers standing at attention. Around them, the snow was fresh and undisturbed. It had begun to accumulate on top of them.
Shiori’s eyes went wide. She stood still for a moment, eyes intent on the hermits, as if waiting for some type of signal. Then, slowly, she stepped forward, toward the open door. Rumi could hardly believe her eyes. Her mother was going to go inside. Two feet from the door, Shiori turned to her and motioned her to follow, but Rumi’s legs were frozen in place. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. Her teeth chattered violently and her whole body shook.
With silent, easy steps, Shiori glided over to Rumi. She slapped her daughter hard across the mouth. “Don’t be such a baby! It’s just a ritual!” She spit the words, her eyes hard black stones.
Rumi watched her mother turn and cross the threshold. Dread spilled into her body like black ink seeping through snow. This was no ritual, just like Rumi had never pledged herself to the hermitage. Her mother was insane. She lived not in the real world, but in one of her own making. A world in which greedy monks mired in superstition and ignorance can resurrect dead little boys.
Once again, her words began to rise up, swirling around in her belly like so many potions in a witch’s brew. She waited for them to congeal. Once they did, she would hurl them at her accursed mother and break the spell. Either that, or she would dash from this unholy place alone.
The promised spirits failed to materialize. Rumi felt no courage in her bones. All she felt was terror. No longer just for herself, but for her mother. Whoever, or whatever, had done this to the hermits could still be in there, waiting. Her mother was mad, yes, but Rumi loved her all the same. Perhaps together they could defeat it. If not, if they were to die here, then at least they would die together.
Inside, the smell was unbearable. Rumi lowered her head, trying to use her parka as a filter, but it did no good. She peeked out at the rows of bodies, her heart racing, her breathing hard and deep despite the odor. At the head of the first row, she made out the pale lavender hem of Kai’zun’s robe still partly visible beneath the snow. Beneath the mean light of the moon, his skin was bloodless and blue. Crystalline webs of frost grew on his exposed feet and hands. His chest did not move. Though there was no blood, neither was there any trace of frost above the sallow, parched lips. He was dead. They all were.
Shiori kneeled next to Kai’zun, nestling the offering basket in the snow next to him and removing her gloves. Then, as if to convince herself that the dead man was merely sleeping, she slowly reached out a finger to touch his hand. Rumi knew what happened next. She’d learned it from the book of dark fables she’d so often secreted from her father’s shelf, gleaning the stories through their monstrously vivid illustrations even before she could read. Mother threw it out after Tai’o’s death, but by then the seed had already been planted, Rumi’s blossoming young mind already corrupted, defiled by the book’s transgressions into the uncharted shadowlands of the human heart.
She held her breath, waiting for Kai’zun’s frozen eyelids to fly open, the fleshy ball behind them solid white, as if his pupils had rolled up into his skull. Next would come lips opened to unearth a dessicated mouth, black as the abyss and teeming with maggots, beetles, and centipedes. Then, a guttural hiss giving life to rotten, grey-green wisps that would spew from the ruined cavity curling and writhing, rising up like wraiths as icy hands closed around Rumi’s tiny ankles and pulled her down, down, down into the poison vapours to suffocate in Kai’zun’s choking embrace.
“Dead!” Shiori screamed, her voice tearing through the morbid silence like the wail of a beast ensnared by a trap’s steely jaws.
Shiori tried to jump to her feet, but they slipped on the slick grey flagstones beneath the snow and she went down hard on top of Kai’zun’s corpse. In her scramble to get back up, she latched on to his frozen face with her left hand and pushed off. His neck twisted and the face turned toward them, mouth agape. Rumi recoiled in horror, then regained herself. There were no maggots or beetles, only Kai’zun’s square yellow teeth and grim, dumbfounded expression.
Shiori shrieked like an enraged harpy, her body now in full revolt, jerking in wild spasms, desperate to distance itself from the dead. Rumi tore her gaze from Kai’zun and lunged for her mother, but Shiori went down backward, one flailing arm colliding with Rumi’s face, then gaining hold of Rumi’s parka as the other crashed into the offering basket, upsetting it. The reagents spilled out onto the snow at Kai’zun’s feet. Heavy drops of blood ran down Rumi’s cheek where Shiori’s clutching fingers had scratched it. Shiori kicked her legs and ripped at the flagstones beneath her, clambering backward, away from Kai’zun. Her throaty howls ricocheted off every surface and doubled back on themselves. They reverberated through the hermitage like a chorus of unhinged laughter in an asylum. Rumi bent and stretched out her hand to help the berserker regain her feet. Then they ran.
They had only made it halfway back to the mouth of the hermit’s path when Rumi sensed the warmth at her back. It was a familiar sensation. It felt as if eyes were boring into the back of her head. As if someone, or something, was following them. Distant at first, but gaining ground, and quickly. The wood became too thick and the path too narrow to run. Still, they moved at a frantic pace, going single file, Rumi pushing her little legs as hard and fast as she could to keep up with her mother.
The trail narrowed further and bent sharp around a hairpin turn that delivered them to the crest of a steep dip. Rumi came around the corner fast, not slowing her steps before turning her body to go down sideways. The outstretched claw of a maple took a swipe at her face, raking across the same cheek Shiori had scratched. Rumi’s blood flowed fresh. The branch caught hold of her hood, yanking her head back. Her feet slipped from beneath her, and she went tumbling down the embankment, buffeted by briars and brambles and tree trunks. Near the bottom, her progress was halted when her head collided with the jutting edge of a large stone. Pain erupted from her left ear, then rippled through her body like shattered glass. She felt dizzy and sick. But more than that, she felt those eyes burning into her back. Hotter now. Closer.
Rumi tried to stand, but the world was spinning. She thought she was going to vomit. Then, cold hands were at her chest, thrashing at her parka. Now she was on her feet, the world again taking shape. She was staring into her mother’s face. The moonlight was still cold on the landscape, but the face held a strange softness. Shiori pressed her hand against Rumi’s ear, then held it up to the moon. No blood.
“Are you okay?” Like her mother’s face, the voice had an alien warmth to it, a softness that transported Rumi to another time, a better one. Rumi nodded and mustered a weak smile. Shiori grabbed her hand. The grip was tight, but it lacked the violence to which Rumi had grown so accustomed. Shiori turned and headed for the mangled juniper at the head of the trail, pulling Rumi in tow. The eyes followed.
They spilled out onto the snow-covered embankment that led down to the cliffs. The sensation of being watched grew stronger. Rumi felt it to her side now, as if some beast lurked just behind the tree line, stealing south toward the village, maneuvering to flank them.
An odd sensation began to wash over her. Mixed with the terror, she felt a strange sense of elation. She was horrified by what she’d seen at the hermitage, yet she couldn’t help but ponder what it meant: if the hermits were dead, so too was her “pledge.” This terrible event meant that she was free. At least, if she and her mother could outrun whoever, or whatever, was following them.
They scurried down the slick embankment, darted past the hanging wood, and came again to the northern stairway. The lonesome rowan was now etched in silver before the risen moon, the wind cold as a tomb. It came in throaty, howling bursts as they descended the stairs.
Above it, Rumi thought she heard something else.
A shrill wail seemed to be coming from out beyond the breach in the pitch black of the expanse. A cry from a wounded snow wolf, perhaps. Yet there was a sinister tranquility to the voice, and Rumi swore she could just make out the traces of a dark, languorous melody, a mournful tune possessed of a dissonant beauty, like an aria sung by a fallen angel. She tried to shut out the sound, telling herself it was only the wind playing tricks on her ears.
As they reached the bottom of the stairs and began making their way along the grimy path back toward the village, the voice grew louder. By the time they were approaching the breach, Rumi knew that Shiori heard it, too. Her mother bowed her head to the ground again, but this time she uttered her prayers loudly, to drown out the sound. Instead of barging ahead as she normally did, she pulled Rumi tight, keeping her close at her side, as if afraid the voice would reach out from the darkness and steal away her only remaining child.
The wall of jagged rock separating them from the expanse gradually grew shorter, then disappeared altogether. Shiori pressed close against the cliffside. They were walking past the breach. The wind was cruel here, piercing them through with icy daggers as its howls grew wilder and more shrill. Almost as if in response, the voice modulated and became more distinct. Before, it had sounded far away and disembodied, like an echo with no origin. But now it was crystal clear. And close.
Rumi recognized it. It was the voice of little Tai’o, her dear brother. It called out for Shiori.
Shiori froze in place. A thick cloud drifted in front of the moon, shrouding them in darkness. There was a sudden lull in the wind. For a long moment, the girl and her mother stood breathless in the pitch black, straining to listen through the infernal growls of the shifting ice. The voice came again.
“Mommy!” It was even closer now.
Shiori dropped Rumi’s hand and took a step toward the expanse. “Tai’o!” she cried. There was no answer. Shiori’s chest heaved. Her eyes went wide with desperation. “Tai’o!” She took another step. Then another. One more would put her over the crumbled vestiges of the wall and onto the expanse. She had never stepped foot on it before, never even been this close to it. Such behavior was strictly forbidden. She lifted her hands to her mouth. They were trembling violently. “Tai’o! Where are you? I am here! Come to me!”
“Mommy, please!” The voice was farther away this time, as if Tai’o were being sucked back into the deep dark of the expanse. “I’m so cold!”
Shiori stepped over the boundary of the breach, out onto the expanse. She moved quickly in the direction of Taio’s voice, her steps heedless and heavy on the uncertain ice.
Rumi wanted to run after her mother, but she was too frightened. It wasn’t Tai’o out there, calling to them. It was something else. The malevolent presence that had trailed them since they’d left the village, the evil spirit that had murdered the hermits, the dark angel singing its entrancing lament. She called out to Shiori, then called out again, but it was no use. Her mother had already disappeared into the darkness of the expanse.
The wind picked up again and the cloud in front of the moon dissipated. The expanse came alive with blue moonlight. Rumi spotted Shiori out beyond the relative safety of the shore ice, moving toward the stamukhi, the craggy piles of ice rubble that led the way to the floes. A few meters to Shiori’s left, a figure stood at the base of a small hummock.
It wasn’t Tai’o.
It was a woman. She was tall, with straight black hair that fell below the waist of her plain white kimono. Her skin was bloodless as the snow and she had livid blue-grey lips caked with frost. Her eyes seemed not to be eyes at all but portals to the abyss, solid black from end to end. She held her hands at her sides with palms up in an open gesture, the long drapes of her sleeves almost touching the snow.
“Don’t fear,” she said in a voice supple as quicksilver. “We bring you peace.”
When the woman parted her lips to speak, a black pit was unearthed, as if she had no teeth, as if her mouth were another portal to the abyss. Her watery voice struck the icy cliffs behind Rumi, echoing wildly. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
“Who are you?” Shiori screamed. “What have you done with my Tai’o?”
“We are The Messengers,” the woman replied. The tenor of her voice was soft and serene, yet it boomed across the expanse like a war drum. “Little Tai’o is safe, with us. He wants you to join us. We want you to join us.
“Tai’o!” Shiori was spinning around, searching for any sign of the boy. “Where are you? Come to me! Come to your mother!”
“Tai’o has moved beyond the breach and cannot return. You must come to us.” The voice chimed and cooed, like a mother calming her newborn. The woman reached out her arm, the long white sleeves of her kimono rippling hypnotically in the wind. She extended a bone white finger to Shiori. “Do not fear. We bring you peace.”
Rumi watched as Shiori became still. An air of serenity washed over her mother, as if she had been put under a spell.
“Come, Shiori,” said the woman in white. Shiori stepped toward her.
“No! Don’t!” Rumi screamed. But Shiori didn’t seem to hear. She continued moving toward the woman.
Rumi stood at the edge of the breach, terrified and shivering. Her legs ached to rush into the expanse after her mother, but just as they began to move, her mind was struck by the image of the dead hermits. Her next instinct was to run home to father, but that impulse too was defeated by an image. She saw him sprawled out on the floor, an empty flask of suk near his fingertips. She was the only one who could help her mother. But how? Again and again she called out, straining to make her own voice rise above the wind, above the moaning of the ice, above the lurid voice of the demonic creature that was seducing her mother.
It didn’t work. She watched in horror as the woman in white bent and whispered something into Shiori’s ear. Rumi’s own mouth was still moving, but she could not hear herself screaming. Her ears were filled with the shrieks of the wind and the hungry groans of the ice beneath her feet. When the woman finished speaking, Shiori nodded. The woman wrapped her skeletal arms around Rumi’s mother and moved her face in close, as if for an extended kiss. Shiori’s body slowly went limp. The woman eased her to the ground and laid her out on the snow in the same manner as the hermits.
The woman stood, then turned to face Rumi. Their eyes locked, and Rumi felt a profound warmth wash over her, the sensation of returning home after a long, arduous journey.
“Do not fear,” the lovely voice said, “We bring you peace.”
Rumi was struck by a new awareness. This wonderful, irresistible feeling could be hers, forever. She need only step out into the expanse, into the embrace of this impossibly beautiful creature. The woman in white reached out to Rumi with lithe, ivory fingers. “Come, Rumi.”
The mouth was black as onyx, but the voice was her mother’s.
They dragged the witch into town on a leash. A detachment of four muscled Zen’rei warriors, broad chests encased in metal plate, legs girded by wide strips of thick fortified leather, calloused fingers gripping swords with edges sharp as ice. Had the witch chosen to fight them, in one blow she could have crushed their ornate iron helmets and the flimsy skulls they housed. But news of such a deed would burn through this wooded realm like wildfire, bringing on a mob and forcing her to flee to the desolate Yuk’utta Mountains and survive the coming storm alone—something she could not do—or retreat across the Expanse toward her past—something she would not do.
So the witch decided that the flimsy skulls would have to wait. Still, she needed to act soon, before her captors discovered the truth about her. Not that she was responsible for the recent disappearance of the little girl and her mother. So far as she could tell, the only thing that even made her a suspect was that she was an outsider, a suspicious traveler who appeared all the more suspicious for keeping to herself and setting up a lean-to outside the city walls instead of joining the clamorous herd at one of the squalid village inns.
It was a reality with which she was familiar. Those who are of a mind to forsake the quiet solitude of the natural order for the crass refinements of society are considered normal and duly rewarded. But the witch had discovered that she was not the sort. She could not endure the deafening cacophony of civilization. So she was deemed strange and made to suffer.
At the time of her alleged crime, the alleged witch—when the Zen’rei first called her that, she’d taken an immediate liking to the appellation—still had a full three days’ travel between herself and this odd little settlement at the end of the world. And, assuming these strange, backward people would deign to listen to reason, she could prove it. Then she could proceed with her plan. Once the storm passed, she would hire a guide to get her up the Yuk’utta Pass. After that, she’d descend alone into the uninhabited lands on the other side and be done with humanity forever.
If the witch had needed more evidence for the wisdom of her intentions, this latest development would suffice. But she did not need more evidence. Her future was set, and nothing would keep her from it. Unless of course these people discovered what she really was. Were that to happen, her innocence would not save her. If they discovered what the witch really was, she would never make it out alive.
A crowd of villagers formed around the Zen’rei and their prisoner as they approached the town gate, which, like everything else, was blanketed in freshly fallen snow. As the detachment passed, a youth with a dirt-streaked face and shabby clothes dug through the powder and pulled up a jagged stone. He threw it at the witch, howling in triumph when it pounded her in the back of the head.
The Zen’rei had taken the witch as she was gathering fallen branches from the dense wood just beyond the low timbered walls of the village. Even then, she knew she’d ventured too close to civilization, but the storm was closing in, and she needed enough firewood to last the night, or she’d freeze just as sure as the humans.
Before the Zen’rei had even finished securing her shackles, she had sized them up, determining that the intellect and talents of these men were a match for their outfits. They were standard issue. In stark contrast to the witch, their mediocre abilities rendered them far less dangerous than suggested by their intimidating physical aspects. Compared to them, the witch looked small and frail. But like all good witches, this one knew well how to use the powers of her own body—which was long and lithe and crowned with a face possessed of dark beauty and shrouded in raven hair—to her great advantage, wreaking destruction on those fool enough to judge the world by appearances. So far as she could tell, that group included the great majority of humans.
So when she sensed the rock connect with the back of her head, she went into action, wincing and whimpering, feigning more pain than she felt, putting on a display of false vulnerability that was in truth a poison dart aimed straight at the heart of her captors’ own very real vulnerabilities—their sexual instincts.
Her arrow found a mark.
The grubby upstart’s challenge was answered by the strongest of the Zen’rei, a squat rock of a man who the others called Ke’zo, a girl’s name meaning beautiful flower. Despite the man’s curious moniker, which seemed not to offend him in the least, the witch took Ke’zo to be the leader, since he had been the first to grab her and the one who fastened the leash around her neck and applied her other restraints. The certain pleasure he took in doing so had not escaped her notice.
The moment the stone hit his captive and she cried out in pain, as if he had been waiting for his moment to shine, Ke’zo initiated a performance sure to make an impression.
In one fluid movement, he pivoted all the way around on a single foot, plowing the other through the powder and kicking up an impressive snow cloud. He stood there a moment, silent and still as a sculpture as the white dust swirled all around him, his arms down and palms open, his stubby, bulging plow leg extended to the side with toes pointed to the ground like a dancer. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the gracefulness melted away, and he drove toward the youthful interloper like a charging bear, his greasy red face growing redder as he hurled death threats at the boy.
When he drew near, he brandished his weapon, a sleek, arching katana that seemed only more frightening for how out of place it looked at the end of his colossal arms, as massive and hulking as if they’d been chiseled from solid granite. His beady eyes glowed as he spat murderous promises, the red of his cheeks bleeding onto a nose that turned up like a snout. Finally, he raised the sword’s tip to the boy’s neck and growled as he bared his front teeth. One of them protruded grotesquely, being twice as thick and wide as the others.
At the cold jab of the sword’s tip against his artery, the boy’s bladder went loose. His filthy grey pants grew dark around his crotch. The stain moved down the left pant leg until the drops streamed onto his foot and stained the fresh snow with sprinkles of pale yellow.
Ke’zo burst into bawdy laughter.
The shock of this sudden change in demeanor sent the boy back on his ass. Tears smudged the child’s dirty cheeks as he scrambled away on all fours, then picked himself up and ran. At this, Ke’zo laughed even harder, the red of his face spreading to his neck and deepening to a purplish shade that reminded the witch of burnt flesh.
As she stood watching this pathetic display, the witch smiled to herself. Her magic had worked, as it always did. Now she was in possession of the one thing that witches value most—information. She had been wrong about Ke’zo. Though he was deemed the leader and though his features gave him a beastly appearance that, perhaps not coincidentally, was a perfect match for his brutish disposition, he was not the strongest of the group but the weakest. The ease with which she had goaded him into performing for her proved that much. His theatrics also put the lie to his designation. A beautiful flower he was not. She supposed that was likely the point. Either way, the witch had made up her mind: his would be the first skull to be crushed.
Ke’zo walked back, took a position in front of the group, and led them into town as the other Zen’rei walked behind and to the sides of the witch. Even beneath her thick black hanten coat, her matching hakama offered scant protection from the cold. She could sense her body losing its own rhythms as they slowed in sympathy with the brutal Kaido winter.
Like her need for solitude, her choice in clothing garnered the wrong type of attention. She had purchased it before setting out across the Expanse, knowing that she would be shunned entirely unless she dressed in the style of the locals. But when she arrived, the disapproving stares made it clear that the particular garment she had chosen was all wrong. And it wasn’t just the hakama itself. The locals seemed to disapprove even more of the witch’s preferred color scheme of solid black.
With the crowd following, the Zen’rei marched the witch through narrow alleys paved in stone, the white backsides and dark wood posts of tiny, uniform homes pressing close on both sides, their curved shingles piled high with snow. They neared another gate, this one forged in stone and etched with a sophisticated crest. The crowd held back, but the Zen’rei pushed the witch through.
Here, the streets widened and the buildings grew larger and more varied. Most appeared to be large residences tucked behind high stone walls. Outside one of the largest, a small woman in a plain winter kimono stepped through a wide wooden gate as they were walking past. The witch caught a glimpse of the grounds beyond, an expansive garden blanketed in snow and carved by a wandering frozen stream. It reminded her of the place outside the city walls where she had set up camp. It’s okay to appreciate nature, she thought, so long it’s subjugated within the walls of the city.
A few turns later, they entered the administrative district and shortly after arrived at the garrison near its center. It was a large but unremarkable building built atop a raised stone foundation. Inside, Ke’zo commanded one of his men to unlock a large armored door in the rear wall. Then he relieved the other Zen’rei of duty and took the witch into the dark narrow stairwell by himself. He slammed the door behind them, extinguishing all light, the boom echoing a while before getting swallowed in the black below.
Ke’zo took hold of the witch’s leash from behind and pushed her forward, jerking on the leather strap to guide her roughly down the steep stone steps. He kept his hard body pressed against hers, making sure she could feel his enthusiasm for this ritual, jabbing her in the back like a hot knife. She wondered if he would try to rape her. That would force her hand, which would be bad for both of them. Ke’zo would get his head bashed in sooner rather than later, and the witch would be faced with the added challenges of escaping from this pitch black dungeon, then sneaking out of town in broad daylight. Gently, she tested the iron restraints cinched tight around her wrists, careful not to cut her flesh and expose herself.
Sooner than the witch expected, they reached the bottom of the stairs. Ke’zo shoved her aside and pushed a key into a large metal door, its surface rough and damp and streaked deep red with glistening rust. On the other side was a jail with twelve wooden-barred cells, six on either side of a narrow stone walkway. Only four of the cells had occupants, and only the occupied cells had their lamps lit. They hung high on the stone walls, one per cell, emanating spectral yellow light barely strong enough to set aglow the walls’ trickling streams of water, which, from the smell of it, was fetid.
A scraggly old woman sat cross-legged on the floor of the cell directly across from the door, the jaundiced glow from the lamp highlighting the streaks of grey in her wiry long hair but leaving her face immersed in shadow. Ke’zo shoved the witch toward the cell, unlocked the door, and pushed her inside with the old woman. She spun around to face him, raising her chained fists and bending her knees, bracing for what might come next.
But Ke’zo didn’t enter the cell. He smirked and gave the witch a contemptuous grunt, then slammed the barred door and walked away. She heard the boom of his massive legs pounding the steps as he lumbered back up the stairwell, then the loud thunk of the upper door as it slammed shut behind him.
“He will not rape you.”
Instinctively, the witch pivoted to face the source of the unexpected sound, her chained arms still raised, her shackled legs as near to fighting stance as they could manage.
The old hag smiled dumbly. Half of her teeth were missing, and the ones that remained were rotten and chipped, giving her mouth the appearance of crumbling old stepping stones meandering across a stream of black water. The witch blinked, tightening her focus on the old woman’s face. It was leathery and haggard, but there was a youthful twinkle in her eyes that was at odds with the rest of her. They gleamed like twin mirror ponds in a desert. Even in the dark of the jail, the witch thought she could almost see her reflection in them.
“You must want it,” the old woman offered, “Otherwise, he will not accept you.”
The witch lowered her arms. “I don’t want him to accept me.”
“Yes.” The hag nodded once, but her expression remained unchanged, her vacant, gaping smile making the witch wonder if she had heard her at all. She moved closer, trying to get a better look. “My name is Xan,” she said, performing a shallow bow to the strange woman on the floor.
Again, the woman nodded once. “Xan,” she repeated as she continued beaming dumbly with her huge, ruined smile.
“How long have you been here?” asked Xan.
At this question, the woman’s mouth snapped shut and her face took on a quizzical expression. “Such an interesting question!” she chimed, clapping her hands together. She cocked her head and shifted her eyes away from Xan’s, fixing them instead on the empty space between the two women, gazing on it with a look of deep concentration. After a long moment, she spoke again. “A very long time, I suppose. Yes, that must be it — a very long time!” Contentment flashed across her broken face, this answer evidently meeting with her full satisfaction. She smiled again, even more broadly this time, but the mouth had no further teeth to boast, only deeper shades of black.
On the other side of the walkway, a young man with a dark, stubbled face and unkempt hair spoke up. “Don’t bother. The old bat is crazy,” he said. His voice was gruff, his tone wry. He lay flat on his back atop a filthy tatami mat covered by a filthy blanket. He had his bare feet crossed, one resting lazily atop the other at the end of his long legs. In one hand, he held an object. Every few seconds, he threw it up in the air, then caught it, then jostled it around in his cupped fist before tossing it up again. It was small and metallic, but in the dim light of the jail, Xan could not make out exactly what it was.
Xan ignored him and turned back to the old woman. “Why have you been here so long? What crime did you commit?”
Again, the woman flashed her huge, toothless grin and clapped her hands together. “Precisely!” she said. Her eyes sparkled as she looked at Xan. “Such an insightful girl! And so lovely!” She reached out and pinched Xan on the cheek, then withdrew her hand suddenly, her smile fading and countenance darkening, as if she had seen a ghost. “You are not from here,” she said, her voice now low and husky. “You are not of the Ho’en.”
Xan pulled away, as if she would somehow be found out if she allowed the hag to remain close to her.
“You are not human,” said the old woman, the gleam in her eyes now extinguished.
“Told you,” grunted the young man, “Loony as a Teze’te.”
“Not insane,” came a female voice from the darkened cell next to the one that held Xan and the old woman. “Ignorant.”
Xan had thought the cell empty. Startled, she pivoted into fighting stance, nearly tripping over her chains. She strained her eyes, trying to get a fix on whoever was in the pitch black cell. Despite the cell being occupied, its lamp was unlit, shrouding the person inside in a darkness so absolute it seemed preternatural, as if something had lured in the thick cloud of gloom that hung over this foul, detestable place and enchained it.
“Ignorant and simple,” came the disembodied woman’s voice again, “And a charlatan. A counterfeit witch.” As with the young man, the tone was dry and cynical. But while his was the voice of the cocksure rogue, his speech marred by the guttural snarls and choppy cadence of the lower classes, this woman spoke with an easy lilting drawl, her words dripping with practiced nonchalance, her enunciation refined and fluid, her utterances lighter than air, seeming to mock the very atmosphere itself as they floated above it, puffed up with the cool arrogance of the high born.
Once her eyes adjusted, Xan could make out the woman in greater detail. She was seated in a high back chair forged of rich darkwood and upholstered with thick black cushions. Delicate carvings were sparsely placed along the chair’s arms and back. It was topped with a crest engraved with ornate designs, giving it the appearance of a small throne. The woman’s head rested squarely against a small cushion at the crown’s high center, accentuating her height and suggesting the chair had been custom made. Her face was stark white, her lips caked with a pale grey paste. In the middle of the bottom lip was a narrow strip of purple that stretched down to the bottom of her chin. She had long black hair that fell precipitously from either side of a part that split her scalp into perfect halves. A flowing black kimono enveloped her long body. It was adorned with a deep purple obi and boasted sleeves so deep the fabric piled up in folds on her lap, making it difficult to differentiate the woman herself from the curious piece of furniture on which she sat, so out of place in this spartan dungeon. She sat erect, with both feet flat on the floor and both arms on her armrests. In her left hand, she held open a large, leatherbound book. With ashen grey eyes, she gazed down at its yellowed pages, though it was so dark in her cell that Xan doubted she could see well enough to read.
“Stay away from that one,” said the young rogue. “She’s a cold blooded killer.”
Xan was accustomed to receiving warnings from those who had no idea of the powers she possessed. Like the rest, she ignored it and shuffled her chained feet closer to the woman’s cell to get a better look.
The man jumped up from his tatami mat and pressed his face between the wooden bars of his cell. “Hey! New girl! You hard of hearing or just stupid?”
Xan paused to inspect the shabby delinquent who had just insulted her. He had a strong nose and full lips, with unruly dark hair that wiggled down past heavy brows to hang before intense hazel eyes. They stared back at her with urgency. “I said stay away!” he shouted. Across his right cheek ran a thin scar, lending a touch of ruggedness to a face that otherwise would have been too boyish to be truly handsome. His expression was alive with an earnestness that Xan almost found amusing.
The rogue’s shouts roused the prisoner in the cell next to his, a balding, middle-aged man who until then had been sleeping with hands clasped across a belly that was showing the first signs of portliness, gently rising and falling in rhythm with his quiet snores. The man stood, then immediately fell into a regimen of graceful stretches, seemingly oblivious to the commotion around him.
“I am Sada,” said the woman, lifting her eyes from her book and gazing at Xan. Her lips curled up to form a hollow smile. Xan saw that her teeth had been blackened.
Xan gave Sada a slight bow. Her vision was more acute now, enabling her to survey the rest of the cell. The throne was against the far wall. On its right was a large bookcase full of leather bound manuscripts, most of them large and dilapidated. They looked ancient. On the other side of the chair was Sada’s tatami mat, with several blankets neatly folded on top of it at one end. Both the mat and blankets appeared sparkling clean. In the middle of the cell was a low darkwood table which held an elegant stoneware tea service, black with dark purple accents.
“The old fool says you’re inhuman,” Sada said, her pale lips again curling up to show off her meticulously blackened teeth, “What say you?” She clicked her long black fingernails, each one filed razor sharp, against the arm of the chair.
Xan sensed that the impertinent young rogue was probably right. Not that Sada represented any physical threat. But it was clear that the only reason the woman in the dark was speaking to her was that she wanted something. It was also clear that here was a woman both accustomed to and adept at procuring what she desired. Whatever Sada’s intentions might be, Xan suspected that if she satisfied them, Xan would find herself in an even worse spot than she was already.
And where she was already was already pretty bad. She didn’t know exactly what Ke’zo and his betters were planning to do, but it probably wasn’t to free her, apologize for the misunderstanding, and wish her luck on her trek across the Yuk’utta Mountains. Possibly, there would come a formal accusation, fingering her as the culprit responsible for the disappearance of the woman and her daughter. Then perhaps a trial. But given what she’d seen of Ke’zo and his cronies so far, any trial would probably be a mere formality, a small bump on the road to scapegoating this strange unsociable outsider called Xan and doling out whatever punishment would best entertain the masses.
Xan had no intention of sticking around long enough to be served up as a delicacy to satiate this village’s morbid predilections, which, given its strict propriety and fondness for displays of uprightness, were almost certainly more perverse than most. She needed to hatch an escape plan. Standing around chatting with Little Miss Malevolent in the neighboring cell would be a distraction at best, and at worst could considerably complicate matters. Already she could sense herself being drawn into the spider’s web. In her mind, she chanted the mantra she had rehearsed ceaselessly since leaving her former life behind. If you want to survive in this world, you must keep to yourself.
And yet. And yet. Something urged her to answer. To speak the Truth. To spit it out like acid bile and to hell with the consequences. To tell Sada and the rest of these misfits that the old hag was right. That Xan was inhuman. And that maybe, just maybe, failing to be fully human wasn’t such a bad thing.
But perhaps there was something else tugging at her guts, trying to pull her inside out. The stirrings of a flush heat rising up in answer to the cold glimmer of detachment in this strangely regal creature’s pale grey eyes, so elevated and withholding that they enchanted, sealed coffers that pleaded to be unlocked, dark mysteries that demanded to be unravelled. Perhaps what was truly driving Xan to engage were the first inklings of desire, slinking from the black soil of Sada’s faceless allure like a bewitched fog, writhing out of shapelessness in Xan’s belly, licking at her with succulent, poisoned tentacles, squeezing tight around her basest instincts, engorging the virus that already was eating away at her mind, trying to wipe it out entirely, to knock Xan loose from the moorings of reason and set her adrift on the raging, swollen waves of emotion, a ship without rudder or anchor, dashed against the rocks by the wild winds of an impulse all too human, the yearning to fall in idiotic worship at the deaf and dumb idol’s feet, to bury one’s tearful cheek in its lifeless lap and offer up one’s very soul for but a taste of the heavenly nectar within.
Yes, that was it, Xan concluded. And somehow, Sada had foreseen it. Sada had sensed the presence of the virus within Xan and was attempting to capitalize on her vulnerability to the passions the virus was unleashing. Sada wanted to seduce Xan. Seduce her so she could destroy her.
But Xan would not be conquered so easily. She had not abandoned her precious, hapless Sayuri and risked her life escaping the Tani only to let the virus have its way with her now. She had not spent months traversing that homicidal stretch of ice called The Expanse only to be bested by some preening occultic temptress in a backwater jail house.
Sada had been wrong to call the old hag a fool. It was the hag, not Sada, who had divined Xan’s true nature.
“Fool is a name that false prophets give to true ones,” Xan blurted out with a smirk.
And then, there was no in between. No moment of transition. No space-time in which Xan could have reacted. There was only ghoulishly seductive Sada brooding on her dark little throne one instant, and in the very next instant, a ferocious beast raging in Xan’s face, screeching like a demon, its gaping, frothing mouth a portal to hell, its glistening black teeth grinding and gnashing, its long, sharp claws ripping away Xan’s throat.
Ten thousand frozen miles from the village at the end of the world, far away from the missing girl and her mother and the diabolical creature that seduced them, far from Sada with her cold sharp claws thrashing at Xan’s throat, and far too from the shouts of the young rogue and the dumb gaping smile of the hag and from the oblivious bald man slaying ghosts in his cell, far from all of these people and all of their woes lay the crumbling remains of a once mighty city.
It was a vast dead metropolis sprawled like a dismembered corpse, its mutilated quarters strewn across the landscape like carrion, its rotting bones stretching all the way from the low Tani Valley to the high Rei’zak Mountains. The skeletons were the vestiges of great and terrible machines which long ago had flown up from the wasted earth like a multitude of dragons, to scorch the swirling grey sky with pillars of pale fire and blot out the sun with billowing plumes of red smoke. In times still ancient, the city had been quick to abandon the old gods. And now it was itself being disregarded by the new. It stood like a ruined temple, a decrepit and haunted shadow of its former self, the immortal capital of Kai’zetan.
Deep within the still groaning bowels of the city, in a darkened underground laboratory with rough stone walls, crouching over a large metal examination table on which lay a yet unanimated body, stood a grey and wrinkled alchemist. When he was young, the alchemist had been given a name. But, like the rest of his past, he had been forced to forget it. So now he conceived of life not as an unbroken chain, but rather a scattering of deaths and rebirths.
And yet glimmerings of his former lives remained, flickering like the dull orange glow that could still sometimes be seen wafting from the hulking remnants of the city to which the alchemist belonged, shadows of memories slipping like wraiths from forgotten tombs to roam the misty terrain between blackest night and dawn. Though he had little evidence to prove it, the alchemist was sure he had once been a Natural Philosopher. And not a mere student of Nature, but a Sage, a master who had unearthed the Arcanum and unraveled the mystery of life itself, who had with technology wrought of his own hands breathed the Quickening Spirit into both the departed and the unborn.
Though this knowledge had been lost to him, so that all of his current efforts to recapture former glories were doomed to fail, something would not allow the alchemist to quit. It was as if a voice were calling to him, bewitching him from across the impassable chasm of time, galvanizing his mind, seeping like elixir into his waning essence. Even now, as he bent to the naked husk of some poor unfortunate soul like a wanton necromancer, the alchemist could hear the voice, compelling him to press his crude instruments into the hard yellow flesh of the cadaver and defile it with the inert reagents of his specious, forbidden craft. The voice was that of a woman, and it whispered only a name: “Xan”.
With his head slightly cocked, as if hearkening to the whispered refrain as it guided his every move, the alchemist walked to the table’s side, near the corpse’s belly. He retrieved a small angled blade from the shelf behind him and poised it over the dead man’s navel. A long moment passed in which the alchemist stood frozen in deep concentration, head still bent to the side, listening. Then he pressed his knife down into the stomach and began to saw.
The stench of internal rot filled his nostrils. Thick, sticky black and yellow-green fluids oozed around the blade as it moved up and down, carving a jagged path around the belly button. Just before reaching the halfway mark, the operation was interrupted by a pounding on the door.
“Open at once! By order of the Prefect!”
The alchemist let go of his blade and spun around toward the door of his laboratory. He saw the feeble old door handle shiver as someone in the corridor took hold of it. The rusty door latch clanked as it flew up and disengaged the lock.
Earlier, the alchemist had barred the door with a thick wooden beam, as he always did when conducting his experiments. He prayed it would hold. A crack appeared along the doorframe. It grew a full two inches before the beam shuddered and bounced in its cradle as the door slammed against it. It held fast.
The bellowing voice of the man on the other side came again, louder this time.
“Open this door at once! Under penalty of death!”
The alchemist’s eyes darted to and fro about the small windowless room, searching for a way out. Before him, the stolen corpse lay naked on the examination table, its mouth and eyes gaping, as if its soul had been wrenched back from the void, the excruciant’s body reanimated by the blade which still protruded from its ruined navel. Surrounding him was his precious disheveled apothecary, walls lined with racks of sundry shapes and sizes, their labyrinth shelves cluttered with small dusty vials half filled with flakes of silver and gold and fool’s gold, the diminutive vessels crowded between portly caramel bottles secreting herb of betony and vervain, resin of amber and copal, bull’s gall and oil of vitriol and blood of the dragon tree. In the far right corner, a squat doorless cupboard held a scale piled with ginger root and mandrake. Next to it, an ancient and defunct balance stood with arms akimbo, like a faceless metallic scarecrow. On the racks to the left, crucibles tarred with once molten metals sat above mortar and pestle, and below those lay tiny ceramic dishes smeared with snail slime and virgin wax. Interspersed through it all, smudged flasks splashed the scene with hazy rays of muted color as the room’s fallow light refracted through blood red serums, pale blue potions, and grey-violet elixirs.
This cramped, disorderly space comprised the totality of the alchemist’s worldly possessions. So far as he could remember, it represented his life’s work. It contained everything he could ever possibly need. Except, it now came to him, a means of escape.
A thunderous boom shook the room as something crashed into the door on the other side. A battering ram, no doubt. The shelves shook and the jars rattled. One fell to the floor and shattered. Noxious vapors rose from the puddle as the liquid ate into the stone floor. The alchemist quit his frantic appraisal of his surroundings. He let his eyes go blank as he turned his ear again to the Chasm.
The room shook again as the ram pummelled its target a second time. Already, the frail wooden door had started to splinter. Just a few more blows and it would give way, allowing the intruder to reach in, remove the plank, and enter the room to do whatever he planned to do with the transgressing alchemist.
Through the crack in the door, he had seen the black ruby glint of the intruder’s insignia, the mark of the Exigent Chamber, an extrajudicial council established to reinstate order after the Plague of Lethe engulfed the empire. In that case, the intruder’s intentions were easy enough to predict: he would kill the alchemist on the spot.
The alchemist stared into the frothing pool on the floor and listened. The boom came again. He felt the acrid fumes burning his throat and he listened. Once more came the thunderous peal of the ram, the dry cackle of splintering wood, the clattering jeers of shattered glass. But the alchemist did not move a muscle. He only listened. He was sure the still, small voice would guide him to salvation. If only he could hear it.
A large bubble formed on the foaming puddle of acid. It popped, animating the smaller bubbles around it. They sizzled and hissed as the stone burned away.
The alchemist flew to a shelf and pulled down a beaker of dark green liquid. Outside the door, he heard two male voices talking over each other in gruff tones. It sounded like an argument. He balanced the beaker on the corpse’s chest, then rushed over to another shelf and grabbed a small vial of clear fluid. The ram came again. The alchemist looked over to see a large gloved fist punching through the splintered door. It opened up and reached down, groping for the plank.
The alchemist glanced around the room, looking for a clean cloth. There were none. The hand found the plank, and the fingers wrapped beneath it. On the floor, the alchemist spotted the sheet he had used to hide the body as he’d moved it down the darkened streets in his cart. At the door, the hand heaved against the wooden beam. It rose up from its cradle, then slipped from the gloved fingers and slid back down. The man on the other side cursed.
The alchemist bent to the floor, picked up the sheet, and ripped a broad strip from it. The hand disappeared back through the hole in the door. Again came the sound of men arguing. He tossed the sheet onto the body, then reached for a large jug of water that was perched on the shelf next to him. He hadn’t expected the jug to be slick with condensation, and before he could get his other hand beneath it, it fell from his grip and shattered on the ground. Water and glass splashed across the floor, the new puddle quickly spreading until it was one with the old. The gloved hand punched back through the door and groped again for the beam. The alchemist plunged the rag into the puddle, trying to stay clear of the acid. The gloved fingers wrapped around the beam for another try.
The alchemist cinched the makeshift mask around his face. Spots of dark red grew on the rag where embedded shards of glass dug into his skin. The agent from the Exigent Chamber was more careful this time, pulling up slowly, trying to keep the large heavy beam balanced until it cleared both arms of the cradle. Cautiously, the alchemist picked up the vial and the beaker of green fluid, then moved close to the door. He’d need to wait until the intruder succeeded.
He watched and waited, noticing for the first time how huge the agent’s hand was, and how thick with muscle the arm behind it. He imagined the hulking frame of the body on the other side of the door, and of the other bodies with him. How many agents? Maybe two or three, maybe a dozen. Either way, what he was about to do — or attempt to do — was insane. If his life weren’t already forfeit, it certainly would be if he failed now.
Despite the overwhelming gravity of the situation, or perhaps because of it, the alchemist found himself laughing. What a strange, pathetic old man he was. How befitting it would be if he were to die here tonight, howling in agony while the boys from the Exigent Chamber took turns shoving their swords up his ass, completely alone in the world save his friend the stolen cadaver. If he had any sense at all, he would set down the deadly concoction he held in his hands, open the door, and beg. Who knows, maybe they’d send him to prison. At least there he would still be alive, still able to listen for that whispering voice, free to dream, to pretend there was yet hope that someday he might uncover the mystery of its source, might discover to whom the voice belonged, and in so doing might finally remember the person he had been before the world went to hell, the person who had made him the sad, lonely old fool he was now.
Yes, the alchemist concluded, if he had any sense at all, he would just quit. Truth be told, If he had any sense, he would have quit long ago. But, so far as he could remember, the alchemist had never given up before. And neither would he now. Because, truth be told, he knew that he was not really alone. Truth be told, he knew to whom the voice belonged. Somewhere out there, the alchemist had a daughter. He didn’t know how he knew that to be true, but he knew it all the same. And he knew that she needed him desperately, needed him to do much more than merely survive. And it was with that thought, radiating clear and bold as crystal in his mind, that the alchemist turned again to the door, poison gripped firmly in hand, and prepared to face death.
Xan woke up to the sound of shouting. She was lying on the floor of her cell, her arms and legs still shackled. The jail house was dark, the stone floor cold against her skin. The smell was different down on the ground, less fetid and swampy, The ancient stones had the smell of something sour and sharp, almost like garlic, or Arsenic.
She raised her arms and checked her throat. Whatever damage Sada had inflicted was already healed. So much for keeping her origin a secret, then. By now, the other prisoners would have surely figured out what she really was.
The yelling was coming from upstairs. Xan heard boots pounding and scraping across the low timber roof of the jail house. She looked up to see the planks shaking and bowing. She figured it was Ke’zo roughing up some poor defenseless soul, probably bound hand and foot as Ke’zo taunted him and showered him with blows.
The commotion stopped. Xan heard the upper door to the stairwell slam open. Someone was coming down the stairs. A key scraped into the iron door of the jailhouse, and the door creaked open. It was Ke’zo. His face was badly bruised, his lip swollen and bleeding. A man in black armor stood close at his back. He shoved Ke’zo into the room, then stepped in himself. His sword was drawn and pointed at Ke’zo, who was unarmed. Three soldiers in identical armor came in behind them, followed by a diminutive man in a black robe.
“Release her,” ordered the man in the robe. He was very old, his voice both frail and commanding.
Ke’zo looked at Sada, sitting on her little throne. A devilish, placid smile crept across her face. Ke’zo looked back at the old man in the black robe. The man stared back, the look of death in his eyes, and waited. Ke’zo reached for his key ring. His hands were trembling. The key rattled against the keyhole as Ke’zo slid it in. Before turning the key in the lock to open the door, he looked back at the old man, his eyes pleading.
“Don’t worry, you fool,” said the man in the robe, “She isn’t going to kill you. If we wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
To Be Continued …