Fantel woke the next morning to the taste of magic in the air. She sat up immediately and swept her gaze around the lake. The sky above was opaque as marble, and the clouds hung low, pouched and heavy like an animal’s teats. Her ears buzzed with static. The surface of the lake was as flat as a table-top, reflecting back to the sky the ominous ripples of the clouds. Fantel scrambled to gather their meagre supplies and then stepped across the dead campfire to crouch beside Rashari’s sleeping form.
“Rashari, come, wake up.” Fantel shook him, eyes scanning the trees on the other side of the lake. The miasma was coming and they needed to move. On the ground Smith stirred, his long double-jointed legs unfurling and the light in his eight eyes flaring. Rashari remained limp as a dish-rag under her hands. Fantel pushed him over onto his back. He flopped like a dead fish, head lolling. Sweat drenched his shirt and flattened his hair to his scalp. Purple shadows, dark as bruises, hollowed out his eyes. Only the fluttering of his dark lashes and the rattle of his shallow breathing told her he was still alive. Fantel turned to Smith, worry and exasperation fighting for dominance. Rashari had to wake up. They had to start moving. If they failed to pick a route toward the pass before the miasma fell they would be stranded, stuck in the middle of the miasma, perhaps for days. Rashari did not have days.
Smith darted forward and jabbed his two front legs into the meat of Rashari’s right shoulder, not enough to wound but enough to get a reaction. Or at least it should have. Rashari did not even twitch. Smith scuttled up onto his chest, walked up his sternum and jabbed at the delicate skin around the dip of his collarbone. When that failed to evoke a reaction Smith started jabbing at Rashari’s face, pricking at him with the tips of his legs, even going so far as to push one pointed foot past Rashari’s slightly parted lips. Rashari flinched, head jerking and brows arcing down into a somnambulant frown. Smith tapped his foot on Rashari’s teeth again and Rashari stirred a little more. His eyelids fluttered. Smith leapt to the ground. Fantel hauled on Rashari’s good arm, wrenching him upright and slinging his arm over her shoulders before he’d fully woken. She ignored the gasping hiss that escaped his teeth and the way his body went rigid in pain as he was jostled to his feet. She braced against the crush of his weight as he staggered and wrapped her other arm around his back.
“Come on, we have to move.” She was not sure if he could hear her or understand what she meant if he did, but he stayed upright and that was perhaps all she could ask of him. His body was quaking with shivers and his head hung down, chin against his chest. His left arm swung limply at his side and his steps were uncoordinated. Fantel propelled him forward, urgency adding to her strength. Smith scuttled ahead, the light from his eyes spreading like a search beam ahead of them as the sky grew progressively darker. They hit the trees on the over side of the lake just as the animals began to scream and call, a sudden and jarring cacophony of shrieks and hoots. Rashari jerked in surprise, lifting his head. His steps stuttered to a halt. Overhead the canopy rocked and shuddered as entire flocks of birds burst into the air, cawing and screaming as they flew in circles. Fantel’s pulse beat in her throat, her skin crawling with danger.
“Move, move,” She hissed hauling Rashari along with her. It was dark under the canopy, darker than it should be in daylight, and the underbrush shivered and rattled. Fantel’s head swivelled from side to side, trying to keep track of every direction. She could see the gleam of predatory eyes peering at them through the shadows. The tension in the air grew and grew until every breath felt like she was sucking treacle into her lungs. They were not going to make it. The miasma was almost upon them.
The undergrowth erupted and Fantel shoved Rashari backward, placing her body in the path of their attacker. A large Litnim jumped into their path, canine snout wrinkling up into a slathering snarl. Its eyes burned with miasma fever. Its head hung low, the ruff of thick brown-black fur around its neck and broad, muscular shoulders quivering with tension. Its rear end rose in the air, bushy tail up, as it prepared to pounce. Fantel launched herself forward, meeting the Litnim’s charge head-on. The impact knocked the breath from her lungs as she slammed her shoulder into a wall of solid muscle, grabbing for its front legs so she could flip the beast over onto its side. The Litnim whipped its head around, teeth snapping down on thin air a scant breath from her shoulder. Fantel twisted up onto her knees, straddled the beast, and reached for its snout. The litnim snapped at her again, body bucking underneath her. Fantel moved with it. She knew that if it managed to dislodge her she’d be dead. A full grown litnim could bite her arm clean off with one snap of its jaws. Knowing this she still reached toward its slathering mouth, catching the upper and lower jaws in each of her hands. She ignored the sharp pain as its vicious teeth cut into her skin. There was immense power in the creature’s jaws; the muscles of her arms burned as she fought to pry its mouth open, her claws digging into the wrinkled flesh of its snout. She twisted her wrists, body moving in tandem with the rocking and writhing of the Litnim underneath her. She jerked her arms and heard the crack of its jaws breaking. The litnim unleashed a blood curdling cry. Fantel threw herself off as the beast reared, staggering to its feet, injured, unable to manipulate its jaws, but even more enraged now than it had been before.
The litnim threw itself on her, broken jaws hanging loosely, strings of bloody drool trailing down. Fantel rolled out of the way of its heedless charge, twisted at the last moment and drove her claws into its back haunches, scouring deep furrows into its flesh even through the bristly pelt. The litnim screamed again, a mangled garbled sound, falling from its broken snout. Fantel reached around her back to where the makeshift bindle hung from her shoulder. She ripped the Yammik’a’lim shell loose of the folds of her coat, scattering dried up nasri stems across the ground. Seizing the shell like a shield she held it up in front of her as the litnim charged again. The impact of the litnim hitting the shell knocked her backwards into a tree, her spine striking the trunk hard enough that her grip loosened on the shell. With one jerk of its wide wolfish head the litnim knocked the shell from her hands. Fantel ducked her head toward her chest, threw up her arms in front of her face and brought up her knees to protect her abdomen, bracing herself for the litnim’s assault. Smith leapt onto the beast’s back, driving his pointed legs into the litnim’s shoulders and neck, punching through the thick fur ruff and the tough hide underneath. The litnim reared back, twisting around in a circle, dangling jaws snapping messily, trying to bite at Smith. Fantel snatched up the shell again and brought it down on top of the litnim’s head with elemental force. The beast went down, front legs splayed underneath its head and back legs crumpling. Smith nimbly leapt off its back. Fantel smashed the edge of the shell down on its head again and again until the beast stopped twitching. Fantel could see blood pooling in the shell the litnim’s wide tufted ears. It’s huge bulbous eyes, wild and dark, were fixed and glassy in death.
There was no time to catch her breath. Surging to her feet Fantel snatched up her coat and whipped around. Rashari was slumped against a nearby tree. She didn’t know if he was conscious. Tugging on her coat Fantel strode over and hauled him to his feet once more. There was no easy way to support Rashari’s weight and carry the Yammik’a’lim shell and so, with some regret, she left it on the ground by the litnim’s corpse. Smith was already scuttling ahead, the light from his eyes burning against the gathering darkness. The wood was alive with the howls of animals. Fantel knew it would be mere moments before they were assaulted again. The miasma drove animals into frenzy, and every predator hidden in these woods would have heard the litnim’s death cries. Blood and violence energised the air and Fantel could taste it; it burned on her tongue.
They broke out of the woods on the far side, staggering into a world of swirling mist and dancing vapour. The miasma had swallowed the steppe completely. The shallow basin where she had encountered Anoush the night before was now a lake of pearlescent mist, bubbling like a cauldron. Above their heads the clouds rolled black and angry, burnished in lightning silver, spinning and twisting into funnels and knotted like the bark of ancient trees. Thunder growled. The miasma rolled, flowing across the ground, soft as hookah smoke. Flashes of light danced in the vapour, tricking the eye; mirages meant to coax the unwary deeper into the mist.
In the corner of her eye Fantel thought she saw movement, but when she jerked her head all she saw was a distorted reflection of her own face, like a ghost haunting the air in front of her. There were whispers in the miasma, garbled sounds that tantalised the ears like half-heard confessions, fragments of speech or simply animal calls twisted into something compelling and enticing. The miasma rose toward the clouds and the clouds twisted down ward to meet it, obliterating the horizon. The steppe had become a shining white canvas, blank and empty, ready to be remade by the raw anima in the miasma. There was no telling what might happen to them if they became trapped within. They could be thrown off course and transported to another death trap like the malignant forest, or dropped into the bottom of the lake.
Fantel gritted her teeth and threw herself forward, hauling Rashari along with her. She was moving on memory alone. There was no way to navigate this thick vapour, but she knew that the pass was on the other side of the plain had been on this heading last night, and that the Vay hills still curved to the north-west even if she couldn’t see them. The miasma could steal away one’s sense of direction, make it seem like the world was made up of swirling white mist and nothing else, but out here, so close to the Vay Hills, the miasma could not fundamentally alter the geography of the steppe, only obscure it.
Smith scuttled ahead, his eyes the only colour around. Rashari hung off her arm, becoming more and more a burden, but somehow still managing to put one foot in front of the other. Fantel swallowed around the racing of her heart and tasted electric fear on her tongue. She had never been so afraid within the miasma before. This was the first time she had been in miasma since leaving Aashorum. When she had been truly chimera she had had no fear of the miasma; her magic and her connection to Mother Aldlis had protected her whenever she ventured out of the jungle. Now she was acutely aware of how vulnerable and alone she was. Her magic was gone, between them they had no weapons, and Rashari was barely conscious.
Within the miasma there came a huge, guttural roar. Fantel had no time to react. Something large, muscular and snarling burst out of the wall of solid vapour and slammed into her from the side, knocking both she and Rashari to the ground. Fantel landed and curled into a ball instinctively. There was another deep growl and she was hit by a forepaw as wide through the middle as a young sapling. Fantel bounced over the ground, batted away as if she weighed nothing. She felt something like four lines of fire scour down her back and her vision flashed brilliant ruby. She cried out more in surprise than hurt. A hot wave of stinking breath scorched across her cheek, jerking Fantel into action. She threw up one arm and her palm slammed into the furred underside of a wide, blunt jaw. Her elbow immediately buckled against the weight of the beast above her, but her strike was enough to throw off its bite. The creature reared up on its hind legs. It was huge; a great massive beast at least seven feet tall and covered shaggy black fur. Its head, twice the size of her skull, was dominated by a snub snout and a wide maw of small but fantastically sharp teeth. Its eyes, big and bulbous, sat above its snout, bloodshot and crazed. It stood on its two strong and stocky back legs and held its front paws curled against its chest. She could see the elegant curve of the long claws gracing each massive forepaw. It was a Steppe Bear; the ogdegre hunted these mighty beasts for sport, but Fantel knew her chances of surviving were slim.
The bear roared again, throwing its head back, its jaws stretched wide. Her back sticky with blood Fantel scrambled to get out of the way as the bear dropped heavily back down onto four legs, its front legs crashing down onto the ground exactly where Fantel had been lying seconds before. The bear moved with shocking agility, bouncing back up onto its hind legs so that it could swipe at her with its forepaw. Fantel was not fast enough to avoid the blow and the bear’s claws tore across her knee and shin. Fantel kicked out as the bear pranced around to face her. Her booted foot connected with the side of the bear’s head and it snarled, rocking back a step. Fantel scuttled backward over the grass. Her back was on fire and her ribs ached where the bear had smacked her across the ground. She felt dizzy and wasn’t sure she could stand. The bear reared up on its hind legs again, releasing another thunderous roar. This one victorious; it knew its prey was soon to succumb.
The bear dropped again, forelegs aimed at her chest, intent on crushing her as it fell on her. Fantel brought both legs up and kicked with all her might. She struck the bear in the chest, the force of the impact reverberating all the way up her legs and into her hips. The bear snarled, jaws snapping and forelegs swiping the air close to her face, but Fantel was able to hold it off. The bear rocked back off her, taking a tottering step on its hind legs once again. Exhausted Fantel knew she could not defend against many more of these attacks. She rolled to the side and struggled to get up onto her knees. Instinct had her raising her arms above her head and ducking to cover her face as another swipe of the bear’s forepaw struck her across the side of the head and opened up her left shoulder. Fantel collapsed to the ground, her head ringing with the blow and the taste of her own blood on her tongue. She curled up into a ball. Ducking her head she pulled her knees up to her chest and waited for the finishing blow.
Above her the bear roared again, this time in pain, and the mist was rent with a chorus of undulating cries coming from all around. Fantel dared to lift her head just as a spear of dark wood ripped out of the miasma through and struck the bear in the right flank. A second later a brace of spears sailed through the air from the opposite direction. The two shafts pierced the body of the enraged bear. The bear bellowed in pain and batted at the spear sticking out of its side, blood poured freely from the three spears stuck in the bear’s hide, soaking into its fur. Ogdegre burst out of the wall of vapour, brandishing more spears and hollering in triumph. They swarmed the bear, easily bringing it crashing to the ground. Then they set about stabbing the fallen beast again and again. Fantel, lying, bleeding, on the ground, couldn’t keep her eyes open a moment longer. She lost consciousness before the ogdegre had even noticed her presence.