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.