Tabidaque

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SIX

And he fears the darkness.
He fears the control it has
over him.
And he knows if he tries to
flee
it will destroy him.

My mind has escaped the memory, but I refuse to open my eyes. I don’t want to think. I don’t want to remember. It’s not fear this time, it’s dread. Because I know that wasn’t the end.

She didn’t die that night. I never went back to that place, so she found me.

I was sleeping by the cliffs. I never felt safe sleeping in the tent, in such close proximity to all the bodies who hated me in the waking world. I heard her croak, so hoarse and quiet I thought it was a dream. I heard her plead my name, and I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping it was a dream. But it wasn’t. She had survived.

And I hated her for it.

I knew we would never get away. Death was better than whatever they would do to her now.

I remember her haunted eyes, her distended body, blistered and ugly from the poisonous mist. She could hardly walk, yet somehow she made it here. Somehow, she knew I would be here.

Her hand, bony and emaciated, stretched out to touch my face, and I shrank away. Eyes open, eyelids slit so she couldn’t blink, just another hideous implement of torture. I didn’t want to be here, with my walking corpse of a mother. She wasn’t alive. She wasn’t dead, but she was dying. Her soul was a prisoner, trapped in a body she no longer wanted. She wanted to take me with her. Take me to die.

That’s what I thought then, anyway.

Without thinking, I ran, screaming, back to the camp. It was a mistake, for it roused him. My father. And he saw her, and he knew what he had to do.

Perhaps that was why I didn’t stop it. I knew it was relief. For her.

A clenching pain in my abdomen jerks me away, and I am grateful for it. I wipe my mind clear and peer over the cliff. The Vandrender are still curled up, asleep, but they won’t be for long. I quickly skin the dead Vandrend carcass, take what meat I’ll use, and stuff it in my small leather pouch.

I sit for a while, rocking back and forth and trying not to freeze, keeping my mind blank until I hear the sounds of the Vandrender, beginning the move once more. They have sat vigil for their dead cub and are ready to move on.

I’m ready to move, too.

The carcass isn’t any use to me anymore. I leave it on the rock. Once the Vandrender have disappeared into the distance, I leap down and begin to trail after them, keeping a safe distance. We’re moving along the cliffs of the sea now, typical for the migration path of the Vandrender. I’ll be able to spot any ship that comes near the cliffs. The Vandrender have a remarkable sense of direction, so I won’t have to worry about getting lost while I’m travelling near them.

I hunt, luring a Vandrend away from the herd and killing it when the others can’t see. I sleep when the Vandrender do. They probably have some internal sense of time, even though the sun has been gone for what must be days. Sometimes it seems like my sense of touch has vanished, and sometimes the cold is so penetrating I think I will bleed, but it never happens. I’m existing. Not living, but existing. Surviving.

Soon I realize we’re heading away from the cliffs. I have no choice but to follow if I want to eat. My heart sinks as I see the towering peaks in the distance, looming like shadows. The Vandrender are moving to the Isfell.

This is the worst place I could be. The Season of Dvale is approaching, which means icestorms will be increasing. The Sviroser may take cover from sandstorms in their mountains, but in the Isfell, icestorms are the most concentrated. Besides that, snow tends to pile up on the cliffs, causing frequent and unexpected avalanches that tend to ambush travelers. The jagged cliffs tower high against the barren horizon, and the few paths that lead through are narrow with few places to take cover. To pass through would be nearly suicidal, attemptable only for someone with a death wish.

And yet, for some reason, the Vandrender always migrate here during the Season of Dvale. I suppose that’s why the tribe always preferred to hide in caverns and stock up on meat. Perhaps they were smarter than I gave them credit for. No, I always knew Susaka Alfa was smart. But I often considered myself smarter.

Underestimating my enemy. A mistake I’ll never make again.

I stand still for a moment, watching the massive herd of Vandrender disappear into the distance. I’ll lose them completely if I don’t make up my mind soon. I must follow them. As much as I hate having my choices confined by theirs, if I value survival, I don’t have a choice. I’ll likely die in the Isfell, but starvation is long and painful.

Not that there’s any guarantee whatever doom I face in the Isfell won’t be long and painful. But at least I have a chance.

I don’t take my eyes off my target ahead. I can’t lose track of the Vandrender. There’s quite a lot of distance between us, and I’m not as fast as they are. And my constant pursuit over the frozen terrain is beginning to take its toll. My legs and chest ache, an insistent demand for a break. It will only be worse when I’m in the Isfell, because once I’m in, I won’t be able to turn back.

The ominous shadows in the distance grow closer, and soon I can see the sharp edges etched into the ice, tiny cliffs coiling down the nearly vertical peaks. I’ve always imagined the sandstone mountains in Sviros look like these. Not carved from ice, of course, but maintaining a similar daunting, sinister atmosphere.

The symphonic calls of the Vandrender are amplified here, echoing and bouncing around in my skull. They swell, peak, and twist like shrieking waves. I clamp my hands over my ears and press my back against the icy cliffside. It’s my best chance of surviving if there’s an avalanche.

I climb up to a ledge that runs along the side of the mountains like a vein, in case the Vandrender decide to turn around. I move quickly, watching the ground ahead of my feet, and I always keep one hand against the wall. There could be pitfalls or patches of slippery ice anywhere, and a fall from this height could be fatal.

The Vandrender have slowed, perhaps realizing this is a dangerous place. But they, like me, can’t turn back now. I’m directly above them on the wall, and I can see the ground they leave behind them is pitted with the indentations of their claws. They’ll have to move fast if they want to survive this expedition. A journey through the Isfell takes about two days, and none of their precious moss grows here.

Stupid beasts, I think to myself. They’ve trapped themselves. But I know the Vandrender are relatively intelligent. They follow the same migration path each season, so they must have passed through here before. So where are they trying to go?

One of the Vandrender lets out a sharp screech that warbles in my ears. A threat. Or a warning. I wince at the sound, for just a moment, and when I open my eyes the Vandrender is across from me, perched on the other side of the vertical cliff, hanging by its claws. Its bright eyes are fixed on me curiously, and it lets out several tentative chirps.

I’m instantly on my guard. I’m not interested in making friends, and I know the Vandrender aren’t, either. They may be herbivorous, but nothing’s stopping them from attacking if they think they’re being stalked. They see me as a predator. And now my hiding place has been revealed.

The Vandrend scuttles alongside the cliff, keeping its eyes locked on me. I stand, motionless, mind racing through what few options I have. I could attack, but with what? My knife won’t be much use at this distance, and I can’t jump the way the Vandrender can. I could try to retreat, but I’m too far in the Isfell to make it very far. I could stand here and wait to see what the Vandrend does.

The Vandrender below have halted completely and are making loud noises, probably calling up to us. The Vandrend across from me makes a flying leap, pushing off from the wall, and lands deftly beside me. I hear a distant rumbling, and moments later multiple chunks of ice fall down from the cliff across from me, striking several Vandrender, who screech in pain. The Vandrend doesn’t seem to notice, or care, about the tremor it caused. It scoots closer to me. I read all the signs: the bared teeth, unsheathed claws, the clacks and pops it makes with its teeth. So I’m prepared when it makes a sudden swipe at my head with its paw.

I duck, but the Vandrend seems to have anticipated my action. Before its paw even touches the wall again, it’s struck out with the other paw, this time aimed for my neck. I’m forced to back up since there’s no place I can take cover on the narrow cliff. I whip out my knife, but if I go anywhere near its throat, it will easily knock me off my balance and send me plummeting down. If the fall doesn’t kill me, the rest of the Vandrender will.

The Vandrend moves closer, then freezes, its eyes wide and alert. I hear it, too. The cliff across from us is moaning tiredly, tiny crackles slicing through the air.

I only have a moment to flatten myself against the narrow ledge before a wall of ice sloughs off and falls directly onto me.

The Vandrend is not fast enough. I hear its agonized screech escape its throat as it is crushed beneath the ice.

The ledge trembles beneath me, and I know it will fall soon. I clutch the rock and lower myself down the side of the cliff, searching for a foothold. The Vandrender, realizing their companion is dead and sensing the danger, have let out several alarm calls and are now stampeding away.

Such loyalty.

My hands are flying, slipping, frequently clutching at empty space as I scramble down the cliffside. I don’t look up, but I can hear the rumbling above me, signaling the barricade has only just begun. The Isfell is so fragile, the slight pressure of the Vandrend’s force has triggered an avalanche.

I leap to the ground and don’t stop moving at the impact. I run as fast as my legs will take me, so fast that even if I was watching for ice ahead, my feet would land before I could stop.

I fall several times, but I can’t afford to stop. The falling ice behind me is gathering pace, and a sudden boom dominates the frigid air, shaking the world. I hear a crash, followed by a wave of powder explodes into the air and melts on my skin. It’s rolling quickly, but I can’t detect how far the avalanche is from me just by sound, and my body makes the wrong choice in the moment. I glance back, for only a brief moment, and the ground is uprooted and I’m tossed to the ground. The violent roaring echoes between peaks, thunderous vibrations returned to the air and bouncing back. The noise is deafening, mingling with the white and the cold surrounding me.

Giant shards of ice accelerate down to the frozen ground. The slopes around me are moving, writhing, deadly with life. When the snow hits, it is hard and unforgiving. In another moment weight is on my back and pressing me to the ground and I can’t move, I’m suffocating. Before a cry can escape my lungs, I am encased, packed in tight. Everything stops suddenly. My body heat flees into the snow and barely melts a crystal. My brain numbs, my blood runs cold, my heart slows, my body bends and snaps like the fragile being I am.

It is too familiar. It is just like the Ofre. The external world forcing itself into my lungs, stealing the air and replacing it with thick snow.

I can’t breathe—

I lay still for a long time. Shift my head, my shoulders, trying to make space in the tomb around me. But nothing budges.

There is nothing I can do except wait.

For her.

And she comes. I can feel her fingers tracing a cold trail along my throat, closing around my neck, jerking me up through thick, biting layers of snow, never ceasing even as my thin skin rips open, sprays blood, my delicate bones crumbling and breaking against the force.

Hello, love.

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