It was near lunch when I realized that we were being followed. We had stopped at a small platform that overlooked a creek, marking the half way point of the forest. I had taken out bread and cheese when I heard snapping in the branches above us. I put a finger to my lips as Daegan put a hand on a spear he had brought. I shook my head and took up my sling shot. It was perfect for hitting birds or small animals hiding in trees. The sounds were too big for a bird to make. Anything larger than a bird or squirrel meant danger.
Silently I climbed into the branches, my eyes sharp as they looked for the source of the sound. I spotted a large dark shape a dozen feet away from me in another tree, hidden amongst thick clumps of pine needles. I took my sling from off my shoulder and placed a smooth stone from the sling pouch. Slowly, so as not to startle the creature, I pulled back my shot and took careful aim. The stone flew across the forest with a small whistle and smacked right into the animal.
I knew that voice.
My brother fell several feet then landed on a lower branch, swinging around it for a moment before scrambling back up to the higher branches. I was not sure what had scared me more, that Trigri had followed me or that I had almost caused him harm. He smiled as he jumped from branch to branch, stopping when he had reached mine. He was already forming a bruise on his shoulder where my rock had hit him. Had he been a small animal it would have killed him.
“What are you doing here?! Father will be sick with worry!”
“I am coming with you Marlia. I do not want to be in this world if you are not with me.”
Tears sprung to my eyes before I could stop them, and I scrubbed them away before they fell.
“You must live Trigri, for father and our aunts. They will need you.”
“I need you.”
He looked so small and scared. His voice shook when he spoke and I wrapped him in my arms. We hugged for many long minutes, and would have stayed that way until the stars were in the sky had Daegan not called up to me. I pulled away from my little brother, staring into his brown eyes. He looked so much like our mother.
“Trigri, I am too happy to see you to be mad with you. You may go as far as the edge of the forest with me, then you must go home with Daegan.”
“You must do as I say.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but thought better of it and nodded his head instead. Together we went back to the platform. Daegan did not seem surprised to see my brother, and we ate lunch quickly before continuing on our way. Trigri spoke into my mind the whole way, his hand holding mine tightly as if he were afraid I would fall or disappear. I welcomed the distraction of his thoughts. The stars were twinkling above us by the time we reached the last platform, and for the first time in my life when I looked forward there were no trees. Vast skies and a never ending land filled with large mounds of dirt Daegan called 'hills' were all that existed. A narrow trail that went between the rolling hills reminded me that too soon I would be gone from my loved ones. I felt dizzy as Daegan put a hand on my shoulder, steadying me.
“The world dae's no' end here. You're to follow tha' road, and stay tae the right when you come tae a split in it. Marlia, I...”
Daegan struggled with words he wanted to say. I knew how he felt. All of my words were jumbled up in my mind, too fast and deep and painful for me to say out loud. I kissed him instead. Our words were said without being said, like speaking to Trigri, but different. When at last we made a fire and ate the last of the food in Daegan's pack Trigri fell asleep in my lap while I stared out at the strange rolling hills that were black against the star filled sky. I do not know how many hours passed sitting like that. But I could not sleep, and it seemed as though a whole lifetime went by. Beside me Daegan's chest rose and fell in the breathing of those in a deep sleep and Trigri's arms were wraped around my waist like a vine around tree.
Slowly I untangled his arms and carefully placed him on Daegan's lap. I could not put off my future any longer. I pressed one last kiss to Daegan's lips.
“I will be back. Wait for me.”
I do not know if he heard me. I hoped he did. Gently I kissed my brother's forehead and the left him with the wooden figurine Daegan had carved me. It would remind him to be strong. Getting down the tree quietly was easily done thanks to some wooden stairs, and I held my breath as my bare feet gently touched the forest floor for the first time. It was solid, but soft. Like stepping on a thickly woven rug. One foot at a time I walked towards the clearing. As I came closer to the strange rolling hills I turned back to face the forest. The branches of the trees bent and waved in a gust of wind, as if bidding me farewell. In the whispering winds I was sure I heard my mother's voice.
Marlia, do not be afraid.
I did not look back again.
Walking on land was a very strange experience. It felt awkward not feeling any swaying motions as my feet followed the path, to not hear the normal creaking of wood or vibrations underfoot. I cut my feet so many times on sharp rocks and small stones that I stopped and opened my bag to see if there was anything I could use as shoes. To my surprise, a pair of sandals was resting on the top. Daegan must have put them there. I smiled as I slid them on, then had to fight tears as they threatened to fall. I scrubbed at my hot eyes furiously.
“I will not cry.” I scolded my self. “I will not cry because I will come back, and there is no need for tears.”
It was hard to believe my words. To trust in my aunt and the gods. But I had to. It was the only thing keeping my legs from giving out, or running back home. I repeated my mothers words as I walked down the path. I tried to look around at my strange new world, but seeing land and large, strange, cracked rocks tower above me made me feel as if the earth was about to swallow me whole. I kept my eyes on only the road, seeing only the occasional flower or clumps of grass and shrubs. I wondered if Daegan had come down this road. How brave he was to live in such a world.
When the sun was nearing the top of the sky I came to the split in the road. I took the one to the right, as Daegan had told me to do. I ate bread when the sun was high in the sky, drank water as the heat beat down on me. Never had I realized how hot the sun was. I wished I were in the cool shade of the trees. The sun was near setting when I realized the world around me had changed. Where once there had been long grass and flowers on the sides of the road, now there was only pebbles and red dirt. Large grey rocks that stuck out of the earth like knives had writing on them in white paint, but I could not understand them. Perhaps they were written by the sacrifices that went before me. It did not bring comfort.
The sun's rays were in my eyes when I came to the home of the God Tsitsi and his children. It was not hard to miss. The road led to large pillars of stone that were carved to take the form of women. They stood on each side of a gaping hole in the side of something much larger than a hill. I did not know what it was called. It was pitch black inside the entrance of the home, and as I neared it I could feel a cold breeze coming from it.
I froze, my heart stopping as Trigri's voice went through my mind. It was faint, as if he was calling from the other side of the forest, or a thick blanket. I closed me eyes, trying to catch it again.
---are you!? Marlia! Where are you!?
I am here! I nearly wept with relief. His voice was so far away, hard to hear. But I heard it. Never had I been more happy to have my brothers voice in my mind, or more saddened. It had broken my heart into a thousand pieces when I left him in Daegan's care, and hearing his voice made this moment all the harder.
You left me! Why---
It was too hard to say goodbye to you. I must go Trigri, the sun is almost gone.
Marlia? Answer me! Marlia!
He could not hear me. I closed me eyes and took a deep breath. As Trigri's voice grew more desperate, I walked to the entrance. Cold air hit me. I could hear the echo of dripping water hitting rock. When I stepped into the home Trigri's frantic cries stopped. I felt as if the string that kept our thoughts together had snapped. I was alone in a way I had never felt alone before. There was nothing to do but go forward.
It was a long, cavernous entrance, and the darkness was so complete I could barely see my hand in front of me when I held it out. Several times I bumped into smooth, wet stones that protruded from the ground, and the further I went in, the damper it became. My skin tingled from the cold, and there was a strange scent in the air. It was a putrid mix of wet leaves and eggs that had been left in the sun for too long. And something else. Something sour. I paused in my walk, wondering why a god such as Tsitsi would live and raise his children in this dark, cold place?
The moment I stopped walking to get my bearings I heard something I had not heard before. It was a scraping, scratching sound. Like that of large sticks being tapped across the stone. I whirled around. In the distance I could make out just the tiniest pinpoint of light that marked the entrance. I heard the skittering sound again. The home was massive, and the sounds echoed against the walls, making it impossible to locate where it was coming from. I turned away from the tiny bit of light and stared once more into darkness. Darkness that suddenly felt...alive.
My hands shook, my breath shook. I think even my soul shook. Hesitantly I moved deeper into the God Tsitsi's home. I do not know how far I walked, or how much time passed, only that eventually my feet came in contact with something soft and incredibly sticky, like the glue we got from our gum trees. I backed away and felt for a rock to steady myself on so that I could scrape off whatever was on my sandal. The same substance was on the wall, and I snatched my had away, though it took effort.
The strange scraping sound that had been hard to find was become louder now. Closer. I could feel my body grow hot then cold. I was not alone.
A girl this time....
Stop moving! The human can hear you!
I'm so hungry......
Every muscle in me stopped moving. My very breath froze on my lips. Words, cold, foreign feeling, invaded my mind. They were all different, but sharp and clipped sounding. These words, these voices, were not Trigri's. I reached behind myself into my bag for the slender wooden torch that had been packed in it. Two stones that created sparks were tied to it, and I fumbled for several terrifying moments until I felt the stones in my hand. Who were these people that spoke as Trigri and I did?
With one smack of the rocks, sparks fell onto the small torch I laid on the ground. In my mind more voices gathered, and I was sure I would go mad. The torch flared to life, and in that instant I wished I had not lit it. Light cast itself high up the walls of stone revealing that nearly every surface in front of me was covered in thick milky strands of webs. Many crisscrossed over a cavern whose roof I could not see. On them dangled spiders so large that I could easily have ridden one. The smallest one was the size of our largest goat. Several that had been on the wall next to me quickly shrunk away from the light, clicking angrily.
Fire! She brought fire!
We should have eaten her sooner....
One of the spiders, larger than most of them, jumped down from its perch on the web and I stumbled back, too afraid to utter even a scream. These were the children of Tsitsi? This is what our people saw before they died? I bumped into a large stone column, my legs shaking too badly to keep me standing as the spider came closer to me. Its body was black and smooth, shining dully where the light hit it. It's legs bent high above its body in odd angles, and as its spindly, knobby jointed legs clicked along the ground I heard it speak.
Look at her tremble. She fears us. How weak humans are. Brothers, sisters, be not afraid of her fire.
The spider's eyes, eight in total, reflected the dancing flame of the torch, and in it I saw death staring back at me. I lowered my torch and kept in my mind, images of my mother. I had met death before. I did not look away, though I wanted to.
I am not afraid of you.
There was silence for a moment. The voices of the children of Tsitsi stopped, not a single one of their many legs moved. The one that stood only a few feet away from me gnashed a pair of pinchers.
Human girl, you hear us?
Their voices all chattered at once, I could not understand anything they said, but I could tell they were confused. Angry. Hungry.
The voice that resonated in my mind brought me to my knees in its force. It rattled from the back of my skull to the front, like an echo. It was a deep voice, old. Powerful. Beneath my legs I felt the ground vibrate slightly. The spiders quickly retreated upwards, lowering their bodies and tucking their legs in close, but I could see their eyes staring at me in the dim light. Their voices had stopped.
Child of Man, do you speak to my children?
I gasped as I forced myself to think the words. The voice pounded down on my head and set my teeth to rattling. I heard a thud, and small pebbles beneath me jumped slightly as ones above me fell. A slow, methodical beat began, like a drum. In front of me, deeper in the cave, I saw what I had thought was a rock column move. It picked itself up and then set it self down several feet away right before I saw the face of the God Tsitsi.
He was so large that I was sure the tips of his jointed legs brushed the tops of the ceiling I could not see. Silky strands of web were pushed out of his way easily, and his legs scooped away the webs that had been on the ground. I saw one leg crush the remains of a human skeleton, and the head rolled towards me. How did the gods expect me to live through this? The God Tsitsi was truly a terror to behold. It was no wonder people feared his wrath. His black body was so large I could not see even half of it. Only his face, if I could call it that. Eight eyes three times the size of my head stared at me, and that was all I saw.
Child of Man, tell me your name.
Marlia.... Tsitsi's eyes closed partially. It has been many hundreds of years since I have spoken to a Bright One.
His voice was like a band of fire around my head, and every word he spoke made the band tighten. I could barely concentrate on his words. But this was my chance. If he could hear me, and I him, perhaps I could escape. Bargain for my life in some way.
One who sees and speaks with the mind. One who can see the truth when others do not. Come child, we have much to discuss.
He made to turn, then paused when he realized I was not following.
I do not wish to, but...if I am to be sacrificed why do you not kill me now? I do not wish to die slowly.
For long moments the God Tsitsi stared at me, and behind him I could see his children starting to gather closer. When he moved one of his great legs they quickly skittered back to the ceiling.
You will not be harmed. You are our guest of honor. Come.
I did not dare ignore his command. If he was lying, I would know soon enough. I picked up the torch from the floor and forced myself to stand. Tsitsi's long legs scrapped against the side of his home as I followed after him, and his children trailed behind me. My hands shook as I heard the sounds of their feet, and more than once one of them touched me with their legs. We went down winding passage after passage, each filled with the remains of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sacrifices who had gone before me. They were stuck to the walls in white webbed cocoons, stacked on top of or across each other in a jumble of bones and decayed flesh. I looked to the ground. Tears had blurred my vision, and my stomach felt ready to empty itself.
We stopped only when we reached a room that was so large not even my torch light could find the ceiling. Here Tsitsi turned to face me in all his height. He was as tall as our trees. If I had not come our village would have easily been destroyed. Around me his children hurried into the room, taking space in every available nook and cranny. They disappeared into the darkness where I could not see them, leaving me only with the God Tsitsi.
Marlia, I sense your fear. I will not harm you. We will speak. Tell me of your home.
What could I do? I spoke to him of my trees, my home, of my father and mother. Of Daegan. I spoke lastly of Trigri, because he was the hardest to speak of without crying. Tsitsi listened to all of this patiently, moving not even an eye, until I told him of Trigri. He rose up slightly, and the sudden movement startled me.
Your brother is also a Bright One?
Yes, God Tsitsi.
For several minutes Tsitsi said nothing, and I could hear the whispers of his children in my mind. Something had disturbed them.
Two Bright Ones...That is uncommon. The God Tsitsi quieted his children. Marlia, the last Bright One to enter this home was four hundred of your human years go. You are a gift to your people...and to me. Perhaps it is time....
The God Tsitsi tapped one of his legs, and it shook the floor beneath me.
You are different than the last Bright One. Wiser.
Without warning Tsitsi lowered himself down, until his legs were high above his body and his eyes stared into mine. His pinchers were as thick as a trees trunk, and I could see the fine hair around his eyes and mouth.
Do you know where you come from, Marlia?
F-from the trees, of the village Naireef.
That is not my meaning. Do you know where humans come from?
The...the gods created us when they made this world. They...they created us from the leaves and plants and streams, so that we could live in harmony with that which sustains us.
Your kind did not always think so. Once, child of Man, your kind thought very differently. Listen well, for I will say this story only once. Commit it to memory, every word.
I nodded my head, eyes wide. Despite his size, his power, and his pounding voice, I realized he was a kind god. His voice sounded....sad. Weary. As my father's so often did over the past year.
Long ago, so long that your kind has forgotten, you were a mighty people who ruled over your world with violence and fear. You were superior to everything on this planet, even our kind. You had created ways to cross the sky and mountains as easily as you run across the field. You could speak to others on the other side of the world as easily and clearly as I speak to you. You had wondrous things.
I felt as Trigri must when Aunt Reya would tell him stories of our ancestors. She had been right all along. Even the god Tsitsi knew of them.
But God Tsitsi, can we not make them again?
No. The world you live in is no longer what it once was. Your ancestors saw to that. As did mine.
Wh...what do you mean?
God Tsitsi blinked a few of his eyes and clicked his pinchers together.
Your ancestors were intelligent in many ways Marlia, but stupid in others, and very greedy. They used everything the world could offer and when they ran out, they looked beyond the stars. They did not find anything, for our kind well remembers when your race turned on each other, more fiercely than before. They were destroying things when they had no need to destroy. And then came the Dawn that was not Dawn. It was when our race was created, and yours nearly destroyed.
Never had I heard this story. My head hurt trying to accept and understand all that was being told to me. How had we reached beyond the stars? Or created things that made us fly? How could we use up everything? Were there truly that many people? Why would we destroy ourselves? I closed my eyes to calm my thoughts. The God Tsitsi was silent, as if he understood my need for quiet. When I felt a bit more steady I took a deep breath, bracing for the pain my mind received when listening to him.
What was the Dawn that was not Dawn?
It was a weapon that your race's ancestors created. When it was used, it was brighter than all the fires you have ever seen. It was said that it looked much like Dawn, but it was evening when it arrived. When the light touched things, all was destroyed. But from it my race grew. We had once been much like the spiders you see in your homes. Small, insignificant. But the light, or something in it, changed us.
Around me I could hear the children of Tsitsi moving around. The torch I had placed on the ground was growing dangerously low, and soon I would be completely without light. The thought brought a shiver to me.
My ancestors watched as your people died, then grew once more. Our kind stayed in caves and deep woods, away from them. But when they saw that man was once more building things to harm, they took action. Man had ruined our world a dozen times over. We would not let it happen again.
Rising slightly on his legs, I could hear anger in his voice. In my mind his children chattered in excitement, and he silenced them quickly.I grabbed my head as his words thrummed in my mind and set my teeth to rattling. Settling back down he gentled his tone. It did not help my already pounding skull.
They were not able to defend themselves from us, for we were too large and too many. One of your kind Marlia, a Bright One, could hear us. For us, she spoke our words. We placed into law that every year there must be a sacrifice.
But we sacrifice only once every seven years. And there are...you have many children, God Tsitsi, more than there are people in my village.
Yes. He blinked his many eyes at me. We take from each and every village and city. The larger the village the more often you must sacrifice. And the more people you must give us.
My body was shaking despite myself. How could people live in villages so large that more than one sacrifice must be given? And so often? God Tsitsi must have seen or sensed my confusion and when he spoke I could hear amusement.
You come from a small place, Bright One, but your world is vast. There are places with so many humans it would be impossible for you to walk without bumping into one another. From them we take the most. But you have learned much, and you are in pain. Rest now. We will speak more later.
He rose then, to his full height, and left me. My torch was nearing the end of its life, and I used what little light I had to find a wall that was not covered in thick webs to rest against. All too soon I was in darkness. For a long time time sleep eluded me. Every few minutes the skittering sound of Tsitsi's children as they ran about their home awoke me, every drop of water as it fell against stone made the ache in my head worse. I am not sure when I fell asleep, only that the sounds had stopped, and I welcomed it.