Cataclysm. Noun. A large-scale and violent event in the natural world.
You can’t find this in those dusty old tomes scholars paw over, nor the scrolls bandied about by intellectuals or historians. You don’t know weight, you don’t know energy, you don’t know raw feeling until you feel the sensation of shrinking and expanding all at once. Pores tearing open. A vibration felt down to the marrow. And I don’t know if one can call it pain. That’s the strange part.
It was more like an awakening.
I had hardly stated my choice when all of this hit me. It was an unseen force, pushing and pulling at me. I gasped, not able to breath, and felt invisible hands lift me up from my insides. Argos cantered back, his ears drawn against his head and his tail tucked. He started to bark anxiously at me, but he sounded far away. Every inch of me was flushed and sweating profusely.
Then the pressure and the energy was gone. I fell to the ground in a crumple and my eyes rolled into the back of my head.
When I came to, I had not been moved like last time. Argos had lain out next to me and jerked up, his ears perked as I groaned and touched a hand to my head. Whining, he lounged across my chest and started licking at my face eagerly. Even when he tried not to put all of his weight over me, he still squeezed some of the air from my lungs.
And sweet Aelurus, he needed a wash!
“Argos, stop it, stop! You’re going to make me sick!” I said weakly, pushing at him.
That was when I saw Lacertli in the form of the fiery lizard appear on the dog’s head. Argos turned still, conscious of the fact that throwing this creature off of him was probably a horrible mistake. The god’s tongue flicked, and he turned his head to the side to fix its yellow gaze on me. “Ah. Nyx. Thou hast risen,” Lacertli said. “You are of sturdy make to be conscious so soon! Others like you either remained recumbent for weeks or died outright. But this is fitting. You must be strong to represent me.”
“Lacertli?” I blinked at him. My voice sounded reedy. “What happened?”
“Mm…it is hard to explain to you. The best a mortal like yourself may understand it is that a contract has just been sealed. Thou art now my champion. A level of my power and a certain control over my domain hath been bestowed to thee.”
I rubbed my forehead, then stared at my hand. I clenched my fist. “I feel so heavy.”
The lizard let out a brief hiss as it nodded. “Aye. Your animus has been laced with my being, and this gives you a greater spiritual weight. You are still your petite size, in terms of matter–but walk into a crowded room, and all that laid eyes on you would know the ethereal presence of you. We are connected now, you and I.”
I moved to sit up, and Argos shifted back, still conscious of Lacertli on his head so that he tried not to disturb him at all. If I’d been of a mind to take note of it, I would’ve found it comical. “Sir, why are you a lizard?” I asked, scratching Argos under the chin. I seemed locked in an eternal series of questions. I was trying to understand this phenomenal event, even down to the mundane details–things that I could’ve figured out if I had tried. But everything felt so beyond me that I was afraid to make such assumptions.
“It is my chosen standard,” Lacertli replied. “This humble creature embodies the principles that I find paramount.”
“Um…no, I’m sorry. What I meant was, why are you currently in that form?”
“Take care in wording your queries and anything else that takes flight from thine mouth, vermagus. For your kind, speech is a potent thing, and in this place, a being’s word can be as good as currency.” He swiped his arm against the side of his face where he brushed off a small parasite crawling over his rough skin. “This lizard is one of my avatars. The elf merchant is but one of my skins, and I can only assume it when in the shadows of dreams. In this form, however, I may accompany thee, anywhere. It shall be my usual relation with thee once we have left this realm.”
“That’ll be odd, having a god on my shoulder,” I mumbled with dubiety. “What if something happens to you, sir?”
Lacertli shrugged, his eyes slipping closed. It was an unusual mannerism to see on this little lizard body. “It is but an avatar. I can make another. You will find that, unless I care to occupy it, this creature will be like any other of its kind…but perhaps a bit smarter. Much like your companion here.” The god careful leaned over to peer into one of Argos’ eyes. “Thank you. You may set me down now.”
The dog panted, his tail wagging, and lowered himself to the ground, laying his head down on the stone. Lacertli clambered off of him and onto my lap. His claws made me wince, but mostly because I wasn’t used to it. “Come now,” He hissed. “We’ve work to do!”
I took the hint and held my hand to him, carefully, he climbed on. I raised him to my shoulder, hunching a little, and he slithered to the other side. His smooth belly felt cold against me. Taking his long tail, he wrapped it around my throat–not tight, but firmly enough to give him anchor.
“Sir, how am I going to get off this shard?” I asked as I rose.
The lizard hissed at me. “It is as I said before. There is a way, but the obstacles must be cleared from your path. They not only bar your leave, but the usual manner of Travel here. As my champion, your first task is to rectify this.”
“By killing them? How does one go about killing spirits?” I couldn’t help but sound skeptical.
Lacertli nipped me on the shoulder and I flinched. “Did that hurt?” he asked.
I looked at him, scandalized. “Yes! Yes, sir, it did!”
“Then the same will work on these spirits,” he snapped. “They are as I–beings tied closely to the physical realm. You can strike their flesh. They are not ghosts. So cease your doubts.”
“Y-Yes sir…” I turned and looked out over the desolate forest. “I won’t have to go far, will I…? To find those dogs, I mean.”
“Nay,” Lacertli said, his voice quiet as he raised his head to see farther. “And they are not the only things to be found in this forest. But thou art a champion now. The occasion must be marked. Proclaim.”
“Um…Sorry?” I twisted my head to gaze at the god. I was afraid he’d bite my ear next for my uncertainty.
“Proclaim to this sickened forest your new station. Use the power within you.”
I frowned anxiously. “I don’t know how to do that!”
“You’re doing it now. All that is needed is a bit more conviction.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I just sighed and walked forward several paces. Argos padded after me, his tongue lolling. I scratched at my head. “How should I word it…?”
“Your name is a good start.” The god offered dryly.
I blushed and gave him a resentful glare, only to remember who it was I was glaring at, and had the expression replaced immediately with alarm. “Of course, sir! My apologies.” I bowed my head and let out another breath. When I raised it again I took a deep inhalation from my diaphragm and shouted as loud as I could. “I am Nyx, the–” I stopped short, my expression faltering.
“What is it?” Lacertli asked with a sigh.
I scratched my head. “That didn’t sound like a good start…” I mumbled. I could feel my stomach cramp up and shivers set in. It was like giving a report in front of Leander. Thinking of my old Navi didn’t help, of course.
“I didn’t choose you because you were a poet, girl.”
“Apologies…” I kneaded my brow. One might wonder why it was I was so particular about this. What more was there to say?
I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli! Like a hello and a goodbye–hardly leaving room for chatter. But I couldn’t do that. It didn’t feel right. And there was, of course, the hidden fear that if I said something wrong, like–I am Nyx, champion of Lacertli…and I will defeat you all! I could very well find myself up to the ears in spiritual reckoning.
I wanted to say something that felt…true to me. Lacertli said I needed to proclaim, to mark the occasion, and if it was to be marked by my Words then it had to be right. I needed it to sound right. I cast about my thoughts and memories, looking for something, anything, to draw inspiration from. My eyes slipped closed. The indefinite security, the darkness, the inward sea found behind my eyelids spared me the sharper twinges of panic that blocked my expression. I tried to think of something that made me feel…
…I thought of Gamath, when the rains had returned and Elmiryn and I came in from the downpour. I remembered firelight–the heat of those flames rivaled by the heat that overcame me. The warrior so close to me. My hands so close to her. The redhead, mumbling her quiet insanities…Which felt unfair to say. Terribly unfair to say. Because I understood her. It made me nervous then, but now it only made me feel…warm. Not in a way that made one think of wellness or illness, good or bad, light or dark–just a reality set in between. An understanding. A kinship. And maybe that explained our relationship, despite our differences?
“Haven’t you ever felt like your insides were cold?” Elmiryn said suddenly, like a machine startled to life. ”As if the heat of the world can’t penetrate the shallow layers of your skin?”
“Yes,” I thought.
We were a madness in kind.
Fresh tears clung to my eyelashes and a lump appeared in my throat, but I raised my head. I spoke, letting my feelings guide me. “Spirits! Hear me…” I took a step forward and clenched my fists. “Hear me! I am Nyx! Daughter of Fotini! Sister to the warrior hero Thaddeus! I have come here, not of my own volition, but I will leave here of it! I am Marked. I am scourge to the living as you are, but I will leave here. I have always been of the night and the shadows and the darkness. I know your pain! I know it and I share in it, spirits–!” I sobbed and wiped at my eyes. “If you…you hurt…if you ache. If you know anger. Come to me. And I will relieve you of it!” I bared my teeth. I tried to steel myself and ended up screaming, my hands slashing through the air in my fierceness. “I am Nyx, the champion of Lacertli, and I will take your debts! I will give you passage onto something better! Spirits, hear me! Come and find your peace!”
My voice echoed through the forest.
I fell to my knees, breath shuddering past my lips.
Lacertli looked at me. “Mmm…that was good, Vermagus. The occasion is well marked.”
“Thank you, Lacertli,” I whispered. I panted and leaned over onto my knees.
Argos came near, his wet nose against my ear when he snorted softly. When I was down on my knees and hunched over, he easily towered over me, even when sitting. I looked at him and pet his fur. “Was that good, Argos?” I asked, smiling shakily. The expression was short lived. “Gods, but what am I going to do about those dogs when they come? …I hate dogs.”
Argos let out a growl, his dark eyes blinking at me.
I looked at him, nonplussed.
“Huh?” Then my face drew long and I shook my head. “Oh, no, no, no! I’m sorry! I don’t hate you!” Then I paused and scrunched my nose up. “Sweet Aelurus, I’m falling over myself to apologize to a–!” Argos let out a loud growl and shifted to turn his back to me. I slapped a hand to my head. “Ah! No! That–Argos, that isn’t to say you aren’t worth apologizing to–!”
“Vermagus. Pay attention,” Lacertli hissed on my shoulder.
I jerked and gazed at the god on my shoulder. There was something sharp of his voice. It was the same weight that had been leveled at me before, and it set me rigid. “Yes, sir?” I breathed.
He gestured with his snout off to the left, and my eyes turned that way. My breath caught. Shifting through the gray trees was a figure. It shambled along the ground, like it were on crippled limbs. I couldn’t make out its head, the thing was so misshapen. As it neared, clearing the mist and the assailing ash that seemed to float and drift aimless in this place, I saw it was a gray thing–like the trees about us. Its legs were short, but the flesh about its hips bulged, wrinkled and suffered from cellulite. Disformed feet could be seen at the ends of these grotesque things, like its legs had been stuffed in like accordions. Its stomach was like a round pale ball, barely quivering like it were so dense that it could hardly consider it. Its arms were not symmetrical–for the left was skinny and had four elbows where it bent, and the right was a thick stick that stubbed into the dirt. Its head, like its feet, seemed stuffed into its neck, and large dark eyes with long lashes fluttered at me as it came near.
It stopped yards away. Then, laboriously….it laid itself onto the ground face down.
I stared at it. “Sir…what is it doing?”
“It supplicates,” The being hissed on my shoulder. His tail tightened a little on my throat as he turned and raised himself to gaze off in a different direction. I followed his eyes and saw, with a start, that more were coming.
They were of different shapes and sizes. Most were gray, naked creatures like the one that lay before me, but still others had coats of black fur. Hard shells, and scaly skin. Some seemed made of stone.
Each came, and without words, they knelt, or if they couldn’t, laid themselves before me. I guessed them to be at about a hundred.
I was flabbergasted. My heart pounded at this show and I took a step back. Lacertli spat at me, making me jump. “Nay! Thou hast promised them peace under my name! I would have thee keep your promise. Steel your resolve.”
“B-But how, sir? What am I supposed to…?”
“Listen, and I shall tell thee.” Lacertli shifted on my shoulder, pressing forward so that he hung by his tail practically. Paws against my right breast he gestured with his snout at the crowd of spirits. “Look inward, as when thou spoke with thine Twin.”
I nodded and closed my eyes. Turning inward was jarring. It illustrated, in a way that words couldn’t, the gravity of my Twin’s absence. Because in truth…I felt no different. I still felt like me, still felt like everything that was ever mine was in my possession. But that was the problem wasn’t it? We were disjointed, disconnected, continually at odds. That sort of intuition was lost to me. We truly were like two beings apart, but now literally so.
My mindscape felt smaller, even as I pushed, peering with my inner eye to where Her sanctuary was supposed to be. Nothing.
Lacertli’s voice was in my head, and it hardly startled me. Now that we were “joined” his presence already felt at home in my head.
“Do not waste time seeking out thine Twin. I have stated that she is not here. Instead, follow me. Your first lesson as my champion is to learn the ways of the Dreamwalker.”
I was scared. Naturally. “What–”
“Listen. Follow me. Deep. To the places where your memories lurk. Where dreams are born. Here is the misty place that will give you entry to the shadows.”
I pressed, down into myself. I followed Lacertli’s voice, like it were leading me through a vast labyrinth. Going into one’s head, as I’ve understood it, was never a literal thing for most. Even my race of therians knew it was just metaphorical in nature–the idea of going “inside” and facing down their bestial self. But I have stood in the dead soil that was Her world. Saw the lonely canyons that my Twin stalked, where ghosts pulsed in the rock from memories of painful transformations and heartbreak. There was weight and feeling in that secret place. And it was all in my head.
…Putting it that way, I didn’t sound much better than Elmiryn, did I?
Irregardless, I followed Lacertli into this scary world–My world, as of yet explored, because the emotions here were like noxious gases trying to choke the life from me. I couldn’t breathe. I clutched at my throat as I stumbled, following the god’s disembodied voice through a gray and black valley that whistled gloomily.
And as we crested a sandy slope, I felt something come over me. A breath. And with that, a pressure I hadn’t been aware of was gone, like the universe expanded, and before me was the very scene I knew myself to be present at in the real world. But…
The trees were crooked, twisting to unnatural dimensions. The sky was pulsing blood red. Strangely, the trees lacked shadows. And all those poor spirits, bedraggled and rueful and miserable in appearance were not the monstrosities that they were in the real world. “Nymphs,” I whispered. My voice choking as I took them all in. “Ailurans. Elves. Deers, foxes, rabbits, bears…ah gods, what had they become!?”
And then there was Lacertli, once more in the guise of Marquis, his sharp eyes lighting my way. He gazed at the spirits, whose forms trailed with smoke, and whose shadows clawed at the ground despite their owners stillness, their white eyes screaming. “They are trapped. Each of them came here, and in some way perished here. The misery and the evil of this place have twisted them, leaving them as beasts and horrors to wander lonely and shunned by the natural world. All they wish is to be returned to that which they have been cast out of. They wish for release…” The god pointed with a clawed hand as he crouched. I crouched with him, squinting my eyes as I followed his gaze. “There, Nyx. What chains them are these shadows, who howl and screech in silence. They have anchored them to the physical world, tying them to the Kreut forest.” He looked at me, his eyes turned to slits. “A being cannot exist without shadow. Destroy these abominations and the spirits they are tied to shall be freed. They will be unraveled, down to their basest of energies and returned to Life.”
I turned and stared at him. Slaying shadows?
He closed his eyes and held up a hand. “Before you ask. What you must do is reach down and grab the shadows. Separate them from their hosts. They will fight you, and it will be a violent process, but you are a dreamwalker now. The line between the shadows and light, real and imagined, is yours to command. The shadows may be taken up like any other object, should you wish it.” He jerked his head. “Forward, Night Child. The spirits await thee.”
I swallowed hard. Wondered briefly what Argos would think of all this commotion–or if any of this would manifest itself in the real world at all. I moved forward, eyes wide, to the first spirit. It was an elf woman, with her forehead pressed to the dirt. I couldn’t see her face. Just the black phantom that gnashed its black teeth my way, its blank eyes narrowed in hate.
Had she a family in life? Was she a merchant, an artist, a beggar?
I trembled, but my jaw set tight. I reached down and grabbed her squirming shadow.
It felt like a strong cold stream of air were being blown against my hands. The thing seemed weightless, but as I squeezed my hands, I found that my grip stopped at about an inch. There was a low moan as the shadow looked at me in fear. With all my body I pulled backward, my eyes squeezed shut and my teeth bared. I heard the elf spirit scream. Startled, I opened my eyes again to see the spirit reared back, her pale face drawn long as she screamed open into the air, her eyes glazed in an intense pain. I let out a gasp, startled at how the shadow literally lifted from the ground, like a thin blanket. It looked pinned at the elf’s knees. The shadow batted at me, and I nearly lost my grip of it, but with a hoarse yell I wrapped my arms around it and wrenched back.
The shadow came free, blasting apart in a hiss and a rush of cold air. The elf woman was gone. I lay panting on my back where I had fallen, propped up on my elbows. I looked to Lacertli, who watched me with his fist in his cheek. “That was one. Now the others.” He said, pointing with a lax finger.
I frowned, but took a breath and wiped the sweat from my brow.
The work was long and terrible. The first had turned out to be easy. The shadows came away one at a time, and some were stronger than others. One was so strong as to punch me in the mouth and leave me bleeding. Some of the spirits too, either driven mad by the pain of being essentially ripped apart, tried to fend me off. But I freed them. One by one, I freed them, and when the work was done, I thought I was ready to pass out.
I stared glassy-eyed to the forest around me. All was quiet. The spirits were all gone. I let my eyes slip shut.
“Nyx,” Lacertli said over me. I looked up at him. His eyes glowed in the darkness, piercing into me. He gestured with his arm and said, “Look.”
I frowned and stood to my feet, limbs shaking. I looked around me. “I don’t see.”
The god snorted. “Then you aren’t paying attention. What is different, young one?”
I blinked at him, and looked again. My eyes widened. “The trees…are straight. They were crooked before, but now they’ve straightened. And they have shadows now.”
“Aye. The shadows that plagued those poor souls once belonged to these trees. They fled their homes in search of life, and in doing so carried the taint of the forest to those mortals. Now that the shadows are returned, balance in this part of the forest is returned. But there is still work to be done. Come, let us return.” He walked, bare feet leaving reptilian prints along the dirt. He went to the nearest tree, and without a backward glance at me, vanished in its shadow. I stared after him.
“Lacertli?” I breathed.
I looked over my shoulder, then hurried forward to where he had disappeared. But I stopped and stared at the bark. Hesitatingly I reached forward. My arm went through the tree. It felt cold. I pulled it back with a jerk. I looked over my shoulder one more time. Then with a deep breath, I stepped through.
I was in a black world. A place of shifting white lines, like it were a chalk illustration on a black rock. I covered my mouth with both hands to contain my shout of surprise. Ahead of me stood Lacertli. He gestured silently for me to follow him, and I did. The ground shifted beneath us and for a moment I had trouble keeping my balance. Then we came to a wall, and he stepped through this. Unlike last time, I followed him quickly. I didn’t want to linger in that strange place.
…And we were back. I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the partial light, and I stared down at my feet, which still felt cold. They were in the shadow of a tree–one with it. Up to my shins they were gray and transparent. I cried out and jumped to the side. My feet turned solid again, smoke trailing back the way they’d come as though the shadows loathed to be separated.
Then I was knocked to the ground.
Argos was over me, whining and woofing as he licked at my face. Gasping, I shoved at him with both of my hands. “Argos, no! Okay! Yes, I’m back! Get off!” He climbed off me, his tail still wagging. Scuttling out from behind one of his great paws was Lacertli, once more like a lizard.
“That, vermagus,” he said, “Is the way of the dreamwalker. What you have just done was travel into the subconscious, and from the subconscious, used the shadows to reemerge into this realm.”
“Sir,” I said, as I pet Argos on the head. “Did we just…vanish? I thought we were in the same place the whole time, but appearing out of the shadows as we did, and Argos’ reaction, leads me to think that we had actually disappeared.”
“Aye. You had traversed from your subconscious into that of the world’s. Doing so lead you to vanish from where you stood.”
“The world has a subconscious?”
The god chuckled. “Girl, the universe is a living thing, as much as you are. Of course it has a subconscious. How else might this realm exist?”
My brow wrinkled. Was that all we were? Dreams within dreams? “I don’t understand, sir.”
“And that is fine. You need only understand how to use this method of Travel. Come. We’ve still work to do. If you hadn’t noticed, not all the spirits answered your call. But now that you have returned the shadows to their rightful places, they are at your full command. You will need that when facing the black nymphs and the pretas.”
I shivered, standing. “The pretas…” I swallowed hard. “You mean those dogs, don’t you?”
“What other things would I speak of?”
“It’s just…in my culture, pretas were like…humanoids. But with tiny throats.”
“And I suppose all Ailurans are cute kittens with black fur and orange eyes?”
I blushed but I couldn’t help but pout too. I may not have found it as interesting as other cultures, but I thought myself to be well read in the matters of my people. Apparently, they had a few things wrong. “So the dogs are pretas,” I pressed, feeling a bit stubborn.
“Aye.” The lizard chuckled, and he looked at me with a homodont grin. It looked unnatural. “Ah, forgive me. Your recent victory leaves me in good humor. What is it you Ailurans say? …Oh yes,” His grin, if possible, broadened. It made me flinch. “Draw up your pride, Night Child! For it is time to remind these ghosts who is master…”