Author’s Note: After a year of hiatus, Eikasia is back! To celebrate, please enjoy this ‘double update’ featuring installments 43.2 and 43.3. I’m finally ahead on my writing, so expect consistent updates for the next few weeks! Also, in case you haven’t heard, Tributaries, the first story arc, has had a huge makeover and is now available on Amazon and Smashwords as an e-book! It’s a new experience, so please consider checking it out! Thanks for keeping the faith everyone.
It had been one week since we left Holzoff’s, and two weeks since we arrived on this damned shard. We were starving, and always on the verge of freezing to death. Our meager supply of wood was dwindling, as Quincy had run out of things she could pull out of her bag for us to burn, and some of the wood we had collected had spoiled from exposure to snow. The others had largely given up on my idea to raise our luck through multiples of nine. I still tried, though not as often as before. Talking took real effort now, and our conversations were well past desperate in nature.
Paulo even asked if he could chop off one of my arms for us to eat raw.
“No,” I croaked, nine times in reply.
But only after seriously debating it.
I’d already had to shed a finger or two with my regenerative ability because of frostbite. In a bid to keep everyone’s hopes up, I’d sacrificed some of my bandage cloth so that they could wrap their hands and faces from the wind. I was starting to regret the decision. I was noticing that my regeneration was slowing down, and every time I had to heal took a lot of energy out of me. The others weren’t all that cheered up by my generous offering, anyway.
We were approaching a steep ravine when Paulo suddenly turned on Lethia.
“I said STAY OUT!” he bellowed.
I could see Lethia cringe, but a dark look soon crossed her face, and she spat back, “I told you to shield your thoughts! It isn’t my fault if you think at the volume of a trumpet!”
“Seres un lia bal!” Paulo shouted.
Everyone moved simultaneously. Paulo toward Lethia menacingly, while the girl retreated. Argos shielded his mistress with a snarl. Quincy and I intercepted Paulo.
“Paulo, be quiet,” Quincy hissed. “You’ll draw the daesce!”
He ignored her and craned his head to shout next, “You gods damned witch bitch! Do you want to settle things right now?”
“Shut up, boy!” I snapped. Or more likely it was my sister who said that. She sat just underneath the surface these days, tense and fearful. I knew she resented me for staying with the others, but we both knew this last bid for freedom to the real world was going to be a trial no matter what.
“Let him go,” Lethia mumbled behind us.
I took a second to turn and bat my eyes at the enchantress. “What?”
“Let him go,” she repeated, gently pushing Argos aside. “I owe him a debt. If he wants to collect it now, he can. It’s his right.”
“What debt?” Quincy asked next. She looked at Paulo next. “Did you make an agreement?”
Paulo started to answer her when there was a distant howl. All of us froze.
“Now you’ve done it,” Quincy hissed at the two teenagers.
Lethia moaned. “Are the daesce coming? But we’re pinned here!”
We were. The ravine was far too steep and icy for us to ascend normally with Hakeem and Argos. The mountain line, which previously seemed to embrace us, now seemed to box us in.
I shook my head, breaking off from the group to trudge toward the valley.
“No,” I breathed. “Those aren’t daesce.”
Sister! Kali exclaimed in my head.
I know, I thought in response.
Hurriedly I kicked off my boots and barked at the others, “Guard me!”
Quincy was looking at me as if I was insane. “You can’t be serious! We are in no shape to fight!”
“We have no choice,” I snarled back. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re trapped here!”
“Guard him,” I ordered through bared teeth. The snow stung my bare feet as I trudged out further. Dark shapes could be seen through the snow blind far ahead, and they were getting bigger.
I glared over my shoulder at the others. “Paulo, Argos, cover me! I’m going to shift! Lethia, stay with Quincy!”
“What’s coming?” Paulo asked, but even as he did so he already had his rapier out and was joining me at my side. Argos appeared a second later at my other side, his furry face harder to gauge even at this close a distance.
“Wolves,” I choked out, before the shift took hold.
Ekikos. Near-cat. It was one of the five forms that Ailurans were capable of undertaking from the Sacred Five of the Lunar Hall, and it was one step after Ekilluos. It was a form mostly in Kali’s realm, steeped in her primitive and uninhibited passion as it were. Our body would shift to that like a predatory panther…but much larger, with a longer neck and longer digits that could almost function like hands.
As usual, the shift rendered us incapacitated, and through the pain of transformation I could hear Argos and Paulo meet the wolves in battle. Confusion and worry pulsed inside me, as I heard yelps and cries, and I had no idea if the fight was turning against us before I could even do anything about it.
It was just as well. Once the change was complete, and we raised ourselves from the snow, there really wasn’t anything I could do about it…because my Twin was the one in control now.
I opened my eyes and growled at what I saw.
There were three wolves before me, fighting the annoying boy and the large dog. My hackles rose. A pack of three could not survive in this harsh environment against the daesce. Beasts like these would need numbers.
We are being flanked.
The moment the thought arrived, I heard a scream behind me. I turned my furry head to see Lethia on the ground, a tall skinny wolf tearing at her right arm with hungry zeal. I let out a sharp roar from the very back of my throat as I pushed into a run, pummeling over the wolf that had set upon the enchantress. From the very edge of my vision, I could see Quincy fending off two more wolves that looked keen to get to the unconscious Hakeem behind her.
There were six wolves in all, and all of them were skinny. Still, I wasn’t going to be picky about a potential meal.
Which was just about all I could think of as I pinned the scrawny wolf beneath me with a massive paw on its throat and my jaws around its face. A sharp jerk, and even over the low howl of the wind I could hear its bones snap. One down. Without even pausing to glance at Lethia, I was moving again, my paws breaking through the snow like it was nothing. This power was costly, as Nyx whispered within the depths of our shared mind. This battle would have to be swift, or the exertion would leave me as vulnerable as Hakeem.
I charged in close to one wolf, my head ducking just underneath its chin before I reared up and back, ramming my neck and shoulders into the canine’s lightweight body. Like a pup, it was flung aside, leaving me open to bare down on its comrade, whom Quincy had just slashed back. The blood from its shoulder put me into a frenzy and…my thoughts became…harder to…hold…
Wolf turned to me. Wolf was food.
Looked like it. Smelled like it.
So I killed it. Chased it down and tore out its insides.
Made the snow a dark color.
Heard the other wolves yelp and howl. They ran.
Didn’t care. Got food. Was hungry.
Took my kill and dragged it to the other one. Both were mine.
Hunkered down so I could see the humans, and started to eat.
Meat. Meat. Meat. MEAT.
Quincy started saying something to me. Ignored her.
Food was lean, but it was mine.
Twin in my head started saying something too.
Shut her out. Annoying. It wasn’t her turn.
Quincy started yelling and came too close.
Jumped and snarled at her.
Even in the dark, could tell she turned white.
Wizard backed off, hands up, spoke soft.
I tensed up. Words were important.
I was supposed to listen to Words.
“Kali…we…too eat…can’t have…all.”
I growled a little. Stupid Words.
This was sapiens’ problem.
Words made things complicated.
I killed food. Food was mine.
But Quincy kept talking.
“We’re starving…Kali, please! You must share!”
I was distracted. Nyx wormed her way back in, too.
Kali! Please calm yourself! We cannot survive alone out here!
And with a shake of my head, the haze of bloodlust subsided.
With a great sigh, I took a few steps back, then sat on my rear paws. Quincy and the others stared at me a beat longer before nervously pulling the meat away. I was fine that they took the rest. I had already eaten my share. I may have even eaten too much, but that could not be helped now.
You did well, sister….
My furry face pulled up in what could be construed as a rueful smile.
No, Nyx, I replied inwardly. I barely managed to keep from making things worse.
It was true. For everyone’s attempts at bringing me out of that deep black primal fury that I was so accustomed to succumbing to, the only real reason I came back was for one simple fact. Exhaustion. I didn’t have it in me to fight off three humans and a bear of a dog, and the primal parts of me knew it.
I may not be the essence of bestial instinct, Nyx. But of us both, I know, that it is I who holds that violence closer to her being.
And to this, my Twin could spare no other words.
As the others collected themselves, I turned and slipped further into the darkness of the weak storm that was dying down. Nyx was in no hurry to reclaim control, and I knew why. In an effort to keep things amicable between us, I decided to humor her desire to hide away from the others a while longer. She was tired. I supposed she deserved something of a rest. It was only theoretical in nature anyway. We shared the same body, after all.
I shook my head with a snort at this thinking. Theoretical? When had I started concerning myself with such bewildering ideas? When had I started thinking in such convoluted patterns, for that matter? It seemed like only yesterday when the most complex thought I could come up with was a mental picture of eating a gopher. I almost missed the simplicity of such an existence.
As the moments drew on, I decided it was perhaps best to urge the others to continue our journey. The daesce would smell the wolf carcasses soon enough, and the only way we could cook and eat them in peace would be if we were on higher ground.
Just as I started to return, a strange petite woman appeared before me, blocking my way.
I froze, my body immediately tensing. I could not recall seeing her before, and judging by Nyx’s alarm, neither could she.
She was topless, her breasts small and almost prepubescent, the nipples a warm shade of pink. She was chubby, her short golden hair in tight curls that teased her ruddy cheeks, and her eyes were a crisp apple red. Draping her slim hips was a white skirt, hemmed with gold. In her right hand she gripped a short golden sceptre with a circular crown that held rotating arrows pointing in all directions. What was most striking about her were the wings, of course. These sprouted from her back in bright white plumage that almost glowed.
This…this is…! I knew what my sister thought even though she couldn’t finish the idea in word.
The ethereal woman tilted her head to one side and smiled pleasantly. “Kali,” she said in a dulcet voice, all sweet honey…except, there was something sharp about it. Like she hid some darker spice, and it was just waiting for the right moment to come bursting out of her. It made me nervous.
Sure enough, the woman’s eyes darkened—literally darkened, like blood—and she spoke my name again, more forcefully: “Kali. Speak. Thou know who stands before thee!”
That was right. In this world, I could speak in my natural forms, even if I could not in the Real World.
“My lady!” I growled anxiously, dipping into my best version of a feline bow. “Forgive me…Fortuna!”
The goddess smiled again, her eyes once again lightened to their almost candy red shade, and she said, “I had to see Lacertli’s champion for myself. Thou art a curious thing, to be sure!”
“Curious, and in your debt,” a familiar voice hissed behind us.
I glanced briefly before deepening my bow. Lacertli appeared at my side and gazed levelly at Fortuna.
“Sister, it is unlike thee to appear under such circumstances. May I ask why?” the Lizard King asked.
Lady Fortuna shrugged, her innocent face turning coy. “Thou have brought a new game piece to the board, brother! Do not tell me that is not reason enough! Not when I am one of the few to have kept her piece in play!”
Lacertli made a face of disgust. “Not everything is a game.”
The goddess only laughed. “Please! Thou of all should understand best! Are we not in constant competition? Besides,” and here Fortuna spared me a wry look. “The Abominable Twins kept prodding me with their numerous invocations. She was lucky I was in such a good mood to treat her crude luck-mongering favorably!”
I could feel Nyx cringe.
I snarled at her mentally, Next time, don’t try our luck so hard!
Lacertli startled me right then. He reached down and patted my downturned head.
“She will not bother thee again. She was acting under my guidance. What would thou like in reparation?”
Fortuna’s eyes glinted and she smiled wide at Lacertli. “We shall speak elsewhere. This is not for mortal ears, champion or no.”
Lacertli sighed, and I could hear the gravity of the situation in his voice. What had we done?
“Master?” I dared to raise my head and look at the Lizard King. I had only truly served him for much less than Nyx had, but it already made me anxious to think he would be gone from us. Just about the only thing keeping me from losing hope in this place was the thought that Lacertli was watching over us.
Lacertli shook his head. “Kali. Nyx. Thou art to proceed as planned. Trust in thine instincts, for they are strong. I will be with ye both shortly.”
Except both gods were gone in the blink of an eye before I could protest further.
I stared into the dark, a heavy sinking feeling settling in my stomach. Being in Fortuna’s debt was not a good thing. I imagined it was no less treacherous even for a god.
“Kali!” Quincy’s voice. I snapped my eyes in the direction of it, and found her approaching through the snow. “What are you doing? We have to hurry!”
I didn’t need her warning. I could hear the daesce roaring in the near distance.
With one last look around me, I hurried to join the others.
I hate mountains.
Not a lot of elbow room in this crevice we’re sleeping in.
We’re halfway to our destination, surviving off burned wolf meat and frozen weeds found under loose rocks. I cannot say I’m eager to return home, but anything is better than this. Nyx shifted back. Kali couldn’t climb the mountain, obviously, but she went as far as she could before changing. It was almost nice having Kali around. Of the Twins, she holds the least resentment towards me.
My left arm is tingling. I think it knows what awaits us at Syria’s tower.
Forgive the smudges. Argos drooled over my shoulder when we were taking a break on a plateau. I’m afraid he may have read some of my letters to you. I suppose I could just refrain from saying anything important here, but it’s one of the few things bringing me comfort these days. If I must, I’ll simply wipe my friend’s memory again. It is a horrible thing, but it has to be done. Otherwise, I won’t make it. I need this, and Paulo needs his wish fulfilled. Sometimes, when I wake from sleep, I catch him looking at me. At first I thought it was scary, but I’ve come to accept it, now.
I think we’ve only a half day’s journey left. We’re going to forego sleep for one last push to our destination. I hope I can make it. The last of our food ran out and the cold is making me sleepy…
We’ve finally reached the top of the mountain, and I can see it! I can see the tower!
Nyx and Quincy agreed to take a short rest, but we’re leaving again in a few minutes. The hard part is done. Now we can go home.
I could hardly believe it.
After so many days, so many places, so many hardships, we were at the end of it all. We had arrived at our escape from The Other Place. This gods damned half-dimension teeming with spirits and warped by confused laws and time. The eight-story tall gate surrounding Syria’s land seemed hardly an obstacle compared to everything else. I picked the lock at the gate with ease, pushing it open and ignoring the discarded chains at my feet. Lethia pointed and said the gateway to our freedom was toward the tower, and I ran, down the dirt path that cut through the snow-covered grass to the tall stone structure, where a small barn and a tree stood near it. None of the others could keep up with me, especially whilst dragging Hakeem. It was beyond selfish, and I told myself I wouldn’t leave without them. But I just had to be there, closer to the way out. I wanted to see my salvation with my own eyes.
It was a little after halfway down the path that I started to hear it—
It was wordless, and mournful, and terrible, touching all the places in my mind that I hadn’t even been aware of. My body tingled and I yelled, covering my ears. The others, who had been just as eager to reach the tower as I had skidded to a halt near me, their eyes wide but their faces showing they did not hear what I heard.
I tried to return to them, tried to escape that horrible sound, but like a noose around my neck I was pulled back, and the sensation in my head reached a crescendo of full out pain. I fell to the ground writhing, trying fruitlessly to claw the noise out of my ears.
“The music! It hurts!” I screamed.
The others backed away, their tired, pale faces drawn as they watched me helplessly. I thought I heard Quincy or Lethia yell something at me. Paulo looked on the verge of running back the way we’d come. Only Argos seemed wiling to try to venture closer, but I stopped him with a frantic wave of my hand.
“No!” I bit out, fighting to gather myself. “Don’t Argos! It’ll hurt you! It’s…the sound…is coming from…something near the tower!”
When I tried to get up, I swooned, my vision rippling with rainbows and stars. I thought my head was going to split into two. It was made worse by the sensation of maggots in my brain.
I slowly looked over my shoulder. Through the burst of colors in my eyes I could make out the tower, the barn, and the tree.
My eyes widened.
I looked back at Paulo, then back again.
“An axe…for the tree!” I panted.