Tabidaque

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FIVE

Dark is the beast that grows inside
Insistent, fervent, cold and hungry
Sharp is the blade held to his throat
Spurs him to the savagery of survival.
For he is a coward. He fears
death, and the darkness knows this.
It knows he is weak.

I open my eyes, but nothing changes. I am still staring into blackness. I can see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing at all. My numb mind can barely form a thought, but after much consideration, one surfaces.

Is this what it feels like to be dead?

A void. I should have known. The dead dissolve into darkness.

At least it isn’t what Susaka Alfa said it would be, a place where you reunite with all who have died before. There are too many souls I would rather never see again.

I’m proud of you, Luirlan.

It’s the voice again. Mara. She’s come back. I try to speak, but my voice seems to have left me, and no sound comes out.

You took my advice. You listened to me.

This feels eerily familiar. Is she going to lead me to another person I have a feud with? Spur me on until I kill them? Who will it be, Susaka Alfa?

Perhaps another time, the voice says, reading my thoughts. But, once again, you seem to have gotten yourself into a dangerous position.

My voice finally comes back. “What is happening to me? Why can’t you send me back?”

Have patience. You’re on the ground in the middle of an icestorm, and you’re dying. Again.

“Are you going to save me? Keep me alive? Don’t we have a deal?”

Of course.

I pause. “So…why am I here?”

You’ll visit me when you’re in pain or about to die. It’s nothing important. Just a reminder that I’m still here, and I’ll be helping you survive. But remember the price, Luirlan. I give you advice. And you take it.

“Right.”

Don’t forget.

Flashes of scenery swim in and out of my vision, spotted with black. My limbs are stiff, immobile, and I realize I’m shivering.

I feel the stirring inside of me. The beast has woken up. The fear, the darkness, the necessity of survival has provoked it, and now it gnashes its teeth, yearning to begin the hunt. I watch it carefully, cautiously. It peels its lips back, revealing gums too black and a mouth with too many teeth.

I cannot refuse it. I don’t want to refuse it. I welcome it. After all, the voice is the only thing keeping me alive. And I know this beast came from her. Maybe it is her. She’s too hungry right now to form words, but later I will hear her voice. I can feel her bony fingers slipping around my throat now, a gentle threat, and I know I must move.

I float from the ground, weightless. I follow the beast inside. It tugs so hard I wonder if it will burst out of me, leaving a gory, gaping hole inside. My body will fall and spill on the ground, blood gushing, draining, seeping into the frozen ground. The beast will kill me to be free. And once it’s free, it won’t stop the hunt. It will find someone else to rest in, then slowly destroy as its hunger grows.

A cacophony of loud sounds gradually fills my ears. Ah. So the Vandrender have found me at last. This is what the beast was looking for: another source of life to devour.

Very well.

I seem to drift upwards as my hands dig into rock, pulling me higher, higher into the dark sky. I can’t be on the ground or they’ll stampede me. Crushed under their brutal claws is not a death I’m particularly looking forward to.

I focus on the cubs. They’re travelling near the middle of the herd, protected by the older ones. I’ll only have a moment to make my attack, but a moment’s all I will need. If I can do it quickly, before the older Vandrender notice me.

That’s the problem with these animals. They have an irritating sense of loyalty. Perhaps it’s for survival. But I have survived without that unnecessary thing, loyalty. So far. Maybe lack of loyalty will be my downfall. But I’ll never make the mistake of trusting someone else. And no one, if they value life, should make the mistake of trusting me.

The moment I’ve been waiting for arrives. One cub is stupid enough to break from the group. It stumbles over on lanky, clumsy legs, too long for its size. Its wide, innocent eyes are fixed on the thick moss that hangs from the rock I’m perched on.

A hunter, lying in wait. My tribe would be proud.

The cub moves closer, grinding the moss between its teeth. The fat beneath its fur jiggles with every motion. Something most cubs grow out of when they’re adults. Extra fat only slows them down. But cubs need it to ensure they don’t freeze to death.

Its herd hasn’t noticed they’re missing a cub. They continue on, soon blending into the distance. The cub seems to have realized it is being left behind and lets out a little squeal, turning away from the rock.

A mistake, on the cub’s part.

I leap deftly down from the rock, landing heavily on the Vandrend’s hindquarters. It yelps, thrashing beneath me, frantically flailing and pawing in a futile attempt to escape. But it’s too late for the cub. I hang on to its fur, twisting the fat between my fingers, and the cub lets out several shrieks of pain.

I draw out my knife. It’s second nature by now. Instinct. I know exactly where to cut, and I dig my knife in deep. The cub’s helpless screams are cut off as blood pours from its neck, and it slumps beneath my weight, its weak, feeble whimpers barely audible.

Pathetic.

The beast has quieted down, wet snarls diminishing into dull grinding of bone on bone, stained teeth satisfied with the kill. Blood sticks to every part of me. And then I can hear her voice.

Perfect.

I let the blood cover my palm and fingers, stains too deep to ever vanish. I let out a shaky breath as I raise my hand and touch it to my face, spreading the sticky gore along my cheek, down to my chin, letting it fall back to the carcass. My breath is trembling, but my hand is steady as I grip my knife once more. In a single stroke, the belly is split open, faintly vibrating entrails sprawled on the ground, gleaming intestines bulging.

This small act of stealth, balance, and instinct reminds me I am in control.

Fire blazes through my veins. I live for this thrill of death.

My heart picks up a rapid pace, and I relish in the emptiness of my mind, focusing on nothing but the life pouring from this small creature. Killing leaves no room for anything else. Perhaps that’s the best part.

I’m shaken from the enthralling trance at a mournful, piercing call. The Vandrender have discovered one of them is missing. They will be returning soon, and they’ll recognize the scent of the blood on my clothes. I have to move.

I fling the body over my shoulder and haul it up to the rock. It’s slow progress, and by the time I’ve scrambled onto my old perch, the Vandrender have arrived. They don’t see me, but they smell the blood on the ground and let out sorrowful cries. They will stay here for tonight, grieving for the lost cub, and I will be trapped.

Not a problem. I can stay here for the night. If it is night, anyway. The sun hasn’t reappeared yet. Hopefully it does soon. I can feel the air getting colder. One day I will wake up and I will not be able to move, because all my bones will be frozen in place.

Or I just won’t wake up at all.

I lean against the hard rock, hoping I won’t fall off if I fall asleep. The carcass rots beside me. Sometime, I’ll eat it. But the beast is tired, and now the hunt is over, and though I am starved, I have no energy left.

I don’t remember when the world faded around me. But it does, and then I am gone, drifting into a world filled with all the things I’ve tried to forget.

I can hear the sound of my mother’s footsteps, running, panting, tugging my hand, shouting words I cannot hear. Her face is frantic, wild, white hair sticking to her face from the sea spray. I want to pull back. I know what will happen. But my legs keep moving, keep following the doomed path.

We run for what seems like forever. I can hear them behind us. I watch her eyes, desperately searching the sea for something to come and rescue us.

Nothing happens.

We can’t run forever. We can never run forever. She stumbles, falls, and then it is too late. I am pushed to the ground, and I can only watch as they drag her away, shrieking and flailing in vain as she cries to me.

Find something better, Luirlan. Escape. Do everything you can to escape.

She was trying to find a way out, for me. But they never came.

They never came for her, and they will never come for me.

The scene plays out exactly as I remember it. Fuzzy memories are cleared. They drag us both back to the camp. She protests, I remain limp. I had seen enough then to know what to expect.

The method of performing and Ofre always differs, depending on where we are in the migration. We were near the sea, but not close to the cliffs. But there are always opportunities for torture. It’s astonishing how many sorts of painful death our twisted minds can conjure.

We had discovered the cavern a few days before. It was mostly the stench of the dead Vandrender carcasses that lured us there. We saw several bodies outside the cavern, strewn near it. They were bloated and swollen, faces distorted so that we could hardly tell they were the same creature. Even before we noticed the odd swirling mist, shimmering iridescently, we could smell the danger, the poison lurking within the place.

The pit descended deep into the ground. The mouth was wide and yawning, cold, white wisps curling out from the sides. A pale sheet of fog seemed to hang in the air around. It seemed to shoot tiny, prickling stabs into our flesh, burning deep into our veins. The area radiated with uncontrollable power.

Susaka Alfa knew this. Her eyes glinted with an emotion I couldn’t place. In the memory, I can see what it is. Desire to control the power. To uncover the suffering it could cause, fingers itching to send someone into that pit, just to see what would happen.

Even at such a young age, I felt it too. The itch for pain. And power.

And when my mother decided to run away with me, only a few days later, it was the perfect opportunity.

I watch, motionless, as they fling her into the pit, push her down the narrow, winding tunnel. I watch as my mother’s hand made a wild, fleeting grab at the outside world, as Susaka Alfa crushes her hand beneath her boot. I listen to my mother’s agonized screams, feel the earth tremble as contortions seize her body, poison penetrating her skin and burrowing deep.

I feel my own scream, push it down until it is nothing but an aching lump in my throat. I ignore the stinging in my eyes, suppress the sobs I’ve practiced so many seasons to keep inside. I remain cold, frozen, emotionless, completely still as my mother’s life leeches from her.

And I do nothing.

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