The rope burns my palms and my longbow digs into my tailbone as I scramble down. Above us, the necromancer shrieks and spits dark promises that we will not escape and while I’m not eager to find out what nasty surprise awaits us at the bottom of this rope, neither do I want to face Naked Mage with her nasty slug-like tongue.
Darkness embraces us, absolute and thick. The cloying smell is like old, wet newspaper and desert shrubs. It gets warmer the further I descend, though not overbearing like in the tunnels beneath the Wastes. My muscles scream as I fight not to fall or give in to the panic slowly tightening within me. Where is this going? I can see nothing but darkness as black as pitch. Not even the rope is visible to me.
And suddenly hands, sweaty and slick, slither around my waist. I scream.
“Shari, it’s just me.” Kamiron’s disembodied voice drifts around me and it takes him a few repetitions before I understand.
“Sorry,” I whisper. Kamiron helps me down and the burning muscles of my shoulders and arms rejoice. I can’t see him, I can’t even see what we’re standing on--though it feels bouncy. Like one of those ergonomic mats retailers place on the ground for their cashiers.
“I should have told you what I was doing. You okay now?”
I nod before I remember he can’t see me. “Got a light?”
His arm drops from my waist and I feel a pang of loss but a half-second later, his fingers thread through mine. A tingle runs up my arm at Kamiron’s quiet strength, that deep power and unwavering resolve. It steadies me and reassures me, though I should be reassuring him considering his injuries and the pain lacing his voice.
“How are you feeling?”
Kamiron hesitates and then my fingers feel a squeeze. “I’ll survive. Where do we go? That necromancer seemed reluctant to come down here, but we should put some distance between ourselves and her just incase.”
I’m not eager to go foraging into total darkness, but at least Kam’s at my side. I tune myself into the tugging sensation and am surprised to discover it’s straight ahead. I don’t want to follow it. I want to climb the rope ladder back up, find Zakk and Dace, and get out of here.
The faster you obtain the tether, the faster you can help them, Vayu intones. I feel him curled up by my left ear like a nesting eagle.
Not if we just end up getting ourselves killed, I scowl, but I give Kam’s hand a squeeze and follow the electric sensation tugging on my gut.
Taking small, uncertain steps expecting at any moment to tumble into an empty chasm, we walk for months in absolute darkness. No matter how many times I blink, my eyes do not adjust. I’m afraid to talk to Kamiron; afraid of what might be listening, what could be watching us from the deep darkness.
When I get too freaked out, I squeeze Kam’s hand.
He always squeezes back.
“Shari.” Kamiron stops me and sidles up close. His body presses against mine and the warmth of his breath tickles my ear. “Do you see that, to the far west?”
I scour the velvet dark, certain there can be nothing out here, but I immediately spot it. Light. Or, rather, grayish wisps of color suggesting light, but it’s something and it acts like a beacon.
“Think it’s a trap?”
“I think we need to find out,” Kam counters.
As we approach, a narrow shape forms out of the darkness. The dome of light, though not bright, is vivid against the oppressive darkness, and encircles a solitary obelisk. In the anemic light, the bouncy ground beneath us is solid but looks like transparent black liquid; the obelisk, narrow and no more than five feet in height, looms out it like the fin of a shark or the tip of an iceberg. The smell, that wet newspaper scent, gives way to the odor of dry putrefaction and . . . Despite ourselves, Kam and I inhale deeply.
I frown. “Is that . . . cloves?”
“We’ve seen weirder.”
Although a strange pillar in the literal middle of nowhere is up there on the weird list, it’s hardly out of place for Ater. “What do you think this is?”
Kamiron is brave enough to approach it. I hover just inside the dome of light.
“There’s writing chiseled onto it.”
“Writing? Like directions?”
“A spell, maybe. No--a poem.” Kamiron inhales sharply. “Jisei--a death poem.”
“Death poem? What’s that?”
Kamiron reaches out as if to touch the obelisk but catches himself at the last minute. “Jisei are written on your deathbed. They reflect your final thoughts about your impending death or death in general.”
“That’s pretty morbid.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by them.” Kamiron admits and then gives a sharp shake of his head. His expression relays his puzzlement. “But this one . . . seems wrong somehow.”
“Typical jisei are metaphorical. They almost never mention death explicitly. Instead, they talk about the end of seasons, sunsets, or falling cherry blossoms. This one, though, it’s almost . . . crude. A perversion.”
I stare at the stern characters that bleed down the obelisk like infected lacerations. “What’s it say?”
Kamiron steps closer, his gaze scanning the five short lines. His voice echoes ominously as he translates.
“The melting snowflakes
The countless ruined cities,
And Death lust insatiably
For the taste of human flesh.”
The implication dawns on us at the same instant. Hefting his sledgehammer as if his injuries are nothing, Kamiron scrambles back as the ground surrounding the obelisk bubbles like glassy tar.
“Stay behind me. You get a shot, take it.”
My fingers shake as I nock the arrow that was looped in my belt. The obelisk fractures down the center, splitting in half as if struck by lightning. The bubbling ground swallows the chunks of stone with sickening slurping sounds.
And then I see it, just beneath the boiling ground. It lurks along the seam where darkness meets light. A giant horse, though nothing like the kelpie we saw in the Onyx. Its flesh is the gray color of decay. Dead eyes, clouded and rotten, bulge out of its equine skull. It surges out of the ground and an ethereal cloud envelopes it, ghastly and pale like smoke lit by a harvest moon. Rank ooze pours down its mane, dripping maggots, millipedes and beetles.
The stink brings me to my knees. The undead creature smells like garbage burning in a thousand humid, swampy landfills. And yet the electric buzzing in my gut, the overwhelming tug suggests . . .
“Kamiron,” I wheeze, crawling away from the circle of light as if doing so will hide me from the hideous monster. “That thing is the tether!”
Kamiron spares me a horrified look. Over his shoulder, the massive horse, taller than most buildings, opens its enormous mouth and bears crooked black-green teeth. Mustard-colored fumes spill out of its throat and nostrils, and before I can choke out a warning--
“Don’t know how much more . . . of this I can . . . take,” Dace wheezes, his back bent and shoulders heaving. “They just don’t give up.”
Zakk wipes at his bleeding nose and peeks out of the mausoleum’s leaded glass window. The eerie, glowing Necropolis shimmers before them, quiet except for the ground-shaking thuds of the pair of lichs and the hissing calls of other undead.
“I don’t think we thought through this plan too well,” Zakk admits. He runs a palm down his face. “My magic is tapped out.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. I’m on my last leg, too.”
They both cock their heads, listening. A shuffle pauses at the mausoleum doorway. Dace positions his chakram for a lethal blow but Zakk holds up a hand to forestall him.
A half-second later the feet shuffle on. Dace exhales and scowls down at the black ring marring his wrist. “They still can track us?”
Zakk shrugs. “I think the spell’s finally working. Throwing our scent.”
Dace hesitates, scuffing his shoes on the cement. “Look, Z, about earlier, in the barrow--”
“We’re fine, Dace. Besides, we have bigger issues to face. Got your breath back?”
Dace’s chin dips in a shallow nod and his mouth forms a grim and serious line. He peers out the window, his gaze assessing every minute detail. “They are several blocks away. Naja’s doing a great job.”
“They sense the blood I smeared on her.”
“Now seems like as good as
it’ll get. We go to the ziggurat and meet the others?”
“Help me up.”
Dace strides over to Zakk and hooks his arm around the taller boy’s waist. Zakk leans on both his naginata and Dace before limping out towards the deserted boulevard. The air is cool and dry. A fetid breeze ruffles their aketons as they slip behind two narrow crypts. Four blocks away, the ziggurat arches for the bloody skyline. Anemic clouds swirl over its crown like a halo.
“I can’t stand looking at that thing. Makes me feel like I’m gonna hurl,” Dace mutters, picking his way down the street. Zakk grunts and his eyelids flutter as if he is on the verge of fainting.
“Don’t look at it too long,” he wheezes, “It’s designed to do that--there are runes.”
Dace squints at the monstrous structure, his gaze roving over the white characters scratched into the surface. He groans and his face pales to green. “Ugh.”
“Well, well. What bountiful feast do we have here?” a sibilant voice purrs.
Dace and Zakk whirl, peering into the dim gap between a pair of mausoleums. A necromancer slithers forward. Unlike its compatriots, it does not wear Victorian-style clothing. Instead a tattered robe dangles from its muscular frame. A thick purplish tail like that of an alligator sways as it strides closer.
Zakk pulls away from Dace and angles his naginata at the creature’s head, covered by a deep hood that hides most its features except for its long snout and feral blue eyes.
“What are you?” Dace demands.
“Unseelie, like my brothers and sisters.” The necromancer lowers its hood to reveal a reptilian face. Its snout flares and its wedge-shaped head angles toward Zakk. “I taste magic on you, tall one.”
Zakk says nothing but his feet shift into an offensive position.
“I see why you hide under tattered robes, Bowser. Not quite as good looking as the rest of the family, huh?” Dace taunts. The creature’s lips draw back from serrated fangs that are angled backwards like a snake.
“My name is Jaaspialzar, not Bowser, and I care not for the drama of aesthetics. I prefer the pleasure of power. I am the wisest, the strongest. I knew you would turn up here sooner or later, mortal ones. I will not share your essence with the others. I will gain more power once I eat you.”
“I prefer to be taken out to dinner and cuddled first, Jasper.” Blue-white fire blazes along the deadly curves of Dace’s chakram. Zakk elbows him and the boys peer around. A half-dozen revenants erupt from the mausoleums. They form a tight circle around Dace and Zakk. A deep, bone numbing cold, the chill of the grave, saturates the dry air.
Jaaspialzar grins. “Dinner? I think my pets can arrange that.”
A revenant lunges at Dace. He has just enough time to parry its rapier with his chakram before another revenant sinks its spear--
I wake up gasping, my heart racing. It’s dark but not the all-consuming darkness of before. Globes of bronze float above my head rendering light but I’m too disoriented to understand what it’s showing me. I have images of Dace and Zakk in my mind. It was like I was there but invisible and unable to speak. Was it a dream? Did I just see the future?
You gave Dace and Zakk one of your arrows, Vayu explains. When you lost consciousness from the fumes, your awareness and concern for your friends allowed you to “see” them through the connection of your arrows.
I have to help them!
You need to help yourself, first.
I try to sit up but find myself tied down to a round stone slab. The bronze globes float around me, their hazy glow casting circular light on some kind of casting circle filled with black-flame candles and bones.
“Good, you’re awake.”
Ice freezes my blood and I tilt my head to the side to find naked belt lady. She grins at me. “We meet again.”
I curse. Kamiron was right, I should have killed the heifer when I had the chance. The thought of Kamiron jolts me. The last I remember, he was confronting that giant monster, the one holding the tether. And now he’s alone. He needs me. Dace and Zakk, battling for their lives against impossible odds, they need me and yet here I am, trapped with Miss Nudity.
I scream in frustration and struggle against the leather cords anchoring my wrists and ankles to the slab. The necromancer laughs.
“Now, now, little mortal child, no struggling. Once I’ve eaten your soul, I’m going to turn your corpse into my new servant. I don’t want you too damaged beforehand.”
My heart slams against my ribs and I can’t seem to get enough breath. When she comes at me with an obsidian knife, I lose all reason. I want to be brave, to not grant her the satisfaction of my terror, but I can’t stop screaming and my tears blur her image. She squats and inhales deeply. Her blade slashes down and my shriek renders the air as white heat sizzles down my torso. My shredded aketon falls away, exposing bare flesh.
“Mmm, fear. A lovely spice.”
She leans over me and licks at my blood like a cat. “When I finally found you, you were so limp. I was annoyed, thinking you might be already dead, but imagine my luck! You stilled breathed. As for your champion--not so much. He will die a terrible death, but there is no helping that. I have you at least, and you taste delightful. Well worth braving that horrible creature’s Den.” Her slug-like gray tongue burns as if it’s coated in acid. I whimper.
Pull yourself together! Vayu-Vaata growls. You are not helpless.
Not helpless? My weapon is gone, my hands are tied, and--
Your essence, the essence of the element Air, is in your weapon and in your arrows. You called them out of the air itself, remember?
I know it’s supposed to be significant what Vayu says, but I can’t focus through the pain. It’s like her magic is amplifying her hold over me; like she is siphoning away my will and reason only to replace it with panic and blind terror.
Searing pain down my left thigh this time. With each cut of the obsidian blade, I feel my life draining away. Despite the heat of the wounds, I’m growing numb and cold. Serrated lightning follows battery acid as her fat tongue stabs the fresh wound across my upper right thigh.
Vayu is yelling something. Telling me words that can save my life but I don’t understand them. He sounds like mosquitos buzzing near my ear on a hot summer afternoon. The pain drags me to--
Zakk collapses under a pile of decayed flesh. Jaaspialzar cackles as the revenants kick Dace’s feet out from under him. His last chakram spills from his bloody fingers and clatters across the cobbles. A pair of revenants grab him by each arm, holding him still before their master.
Jaaspialzar slithers over the fetid remains of four of his creations without so much as a glance. His thick tail lashes Dace across the cheek, knocking his glasses askew. Dace’s eyes roll into the back of his head. Dirt and blood smear his lenses, and hairline cracks crawl towards his wire frames.
“How was dinner?” Jaaspialzar scratches his scaly snout with one of his three fingers. The revenants drop Dace who crumples unceremoniously at Jaaspialzar’s feet. The revenants climb off Zakk though their bottomless hunger doesn’t abate. Zakk doesn’t move or appear to be breathing.
“Glad you enjoyed your meal. Now, shall we cuddle?” Jaaspialzar kneels, drawing Dace up close. The necromancer crushes Dace’s arms to his sides and opens his long snout.
Above, a screech shatters the intimate moment and a grey blur collides with Jaaspialzar. Stony claws rip at the necromancer’s beady eyes and he howls, dropping Dace in his attempts to swat Naja away. Dace fumbles with his belt and pulls out the pale orange arrow. It looks transparent and brittle, like it might shatter at any contact.
Jaaspialzar uses his tail to bat Naja away. She disappears behind a tombstone. He turns towards Dace and his black tongue licks at his fangs. “Now, where were we--”
Jaaspialzar’s eyes bulge as Dace stabs the arrow into his mouth, sinking it deep into his snout. The arrow burrows into the necromancer and disappears.
“We were discussing dessert, but I’ll have to take a rain check on that, Jasper.”
Jaaspialzar’s scales glow butterscotch before shattering into thick shards. It sounds like bells when the pieces of the necromancer hit the cobblestones. The remaining revenants fall still, staring blankly at the glittering pieces of Jaaspialzar. Their hunger continues to bite the air, but they no longer attack. Instead they--
She drags the edge of the knife up my hip. The cold blade splits the fabric of my breeches, and saturates my flesh with hoarfrost. My throat closes with fear, but I fight through the weakness and pain. The fingers of my right hand flex against the leather restraints and air condenses in my palm.
Setting the obsidian blade near my left hand, naked belt lady leans over me. Her teeth nip at my throat, right at my pulse. Her slug tongue traces circles up and down the side of my neck and then she pulls back. Eyes like soil lock on mine. There is nothing remotely human in her expression.
“You taste so good, mortal. I will savor you a little longer, I think.”
Grunting, I bury the slender shaft of my saffron-colored arrow deep into her stomach, just below her belly button. Bile squirts out of her mouth and blood courses down my wrist. She staggers back with my arrow burrowing into her stomach like a nesting sparrow. The necromancer tries to shriek but only chokes on her own blood. For a few seconds, her mossy green skin glows the color of rotted kiwi and bubbles outward like boiling water. Gurgling, her dark eyes and slug-like tongue writing, the necromancer collapses. Her leather belts fold around crumpled, flabby skin and a reeking substance stains the floor where she once stood.
I sag and dizziness overwhelms me. When it at last passes, my left hand flounders until my fingers curl around the obsidian blade the necromancer abandoned. I cut through the leather cords binding me with clumsy, weak movements. Pain and feeling rush back into my limbs and blood oozes out of the deep cuts the necromancer has made across my body.
Get up, Shari. Your friends need you! I coax, but my body only curls into the fetal position. I’m too exhausted to move much less rush to the rescue of Dace, Zakk, and Kamiron. I lay in the darkness against the cool slab. The black-flame candles crackle like a welcoming campfire. I feel Vayu-Vaata hovering between my temples like some kind of massive hawk. At last he seems to come to some sort of decision.
I will lend you some of my essence, he announces. It should strengthen you.
Relief floods through me but it is short-lived. Something in his tone is . . . grim. What’s wrong? Isn’t that a good thing?
You are not yet ready to handle my essence. I risk damaging you further. And once my essence recedes, you will require hours of rest. Time you can ill afford.
If I can’t get to my friends, there won’t be any time left for any of us, I point out. I accept the risk.
I sense Vayu’s continued hesitation. What do I need to do? I prompt.
His sigh is like an artic cold front. Nothing. Just try to relax.
I start to snicker at the idea of “relaxing” at a time like this, but then Vayu attacks me.
Crushing hurricane winds beat against me, yanking me off the floor. I dangle several feet in the air. My hair lashes about wildly. The wind snatches the air from my lungs and I can’t breathe. The tattered strips of my aketon thwumps around my bloody body but I no longer feel weakness or pain. Though it is a struggle, air fills my lungs and Slowly I drift to the ground. My head shifts side to side, taking in the room though it is not me that moves it.
It is me, Vayu confirms. Part of the sharing of essences is that I possess your body for a time.
What? I gasp, feeling horrified and vulnerable. How come you neglected to tell me this earlier? Didn’t you think it was important to know?
Before more panic can build, Vayu shifts, receding from my consciousness enough that I regain control of my body. I’m embarrassed at my instant relief. Vayu-Vaata is helping me, has saved my life twice over, even helped me save Kam’s life. Why can’t I trust him to take possession of me--especially if it will help me rescue my friends?
We’ll cohabit your body for a short while, Vayu continues, politely ignoring my internal debate. For the most part I will remain in the background, but if I see the need, I will step in, he warns. You must not fight me when I take control.
Where do I go?
I feel Vayu’s smug smile. Nowhere. I will take us where we are needed. Who do we assist first?
Kamiron. Is he even alive still?
Your weapon remains near him. See for yourself. Vayu’s attention drifts. When I get a lock on him, we will shift to his location.
I exist everywhere there is air, Shari. I move through it and therefore so can you.
Like a movie screen, the air before me turns viscous and milky. Shapes grow out of the mist like a 3-D hologram and I recognize the cavern. My longbow rests at the dome of light’s threshold. At the giant horse’s rear hooves I spot a form sprawled on the glassy ground.
My heart skips. He isn’t moving and the horse is angling up for a fatal stomp.“Kamiron! Move!” I scream, but of course he can’t hear me. Hooves as big as cars crash down and I watch in helpless horror as Kamiron is trampled underneath.