The dwarves were of two groups. There were the civilians, who were led by the blacksmith that had first approached them, then the warriors that had once comprised the volunteer army, led by the woman dwarf. With the extempore ceremony done with, the blacksmith introduced himself as Madreg. He was the finest of his craft and through his work had excelled as far as his station could go, making the best weapons and tools for the leaders and upper-clansmen. The constant contact with the more refined and honor-bound dwarves made a gentleman of him. His female companion, however, was of a rougher cloth. Henriette was an orphan girl who had traveled to Albias from the dwarven colonies of the West, a harsh journey that had tempered her into a hard soul before even setting foot inside the Albian colony. She had been quick to sign on to the militia, and as she put it, she was one of the last to perish at the hands of the marshal’s men.
“Aye,” she growled. “And I took down ten of them with me, the dogs!”
Elmiryn, Quincy, and Sedwick followed Henriette and Madreg through the city, which turned out to be quite vast. They were at the head of a long train of dwarven ghosts, all who sang and hooted behind them.
O’ look, ye braves!
The sun has gone.
The heavens blood,
Has rained so long,
So painted our souls
And belayed our song,
O’ braves, assay, assay.
The wicked snag
Of Night’s long smile
Has shrouded us in
Our sad exile.
Take up your arms,
We rise or sile!
O’ braves, assay, assay.
We’ll sow our rest,
With spent of mercy.
Our graves shall
Gleam in red.
But for those tots,
Whose eyes still shine,
We’d do it all again!
Braves, assay, assay, you lot!
Time hath withered,
We miss it not.
Braves, assay, assay, you lot,
For the darkness
Grows heavier still!
“If it were not for the fact that we were on the move from one task to the other, this could almost be mistaken for a wake,” Quincy mused. Her eyes had a distant look about them and Elmiryn was wary to comment directly on that. The wizard was clearly still given to sudden passionate outbursts, however silly and selfish, and the warrior wanted to bring her thoughts to other things. So, she said instead, “They sure seem in high spirits.” She then hummed to the tune and tried to commit it to memory. It was better than that cursed melody which had so raped her life and fortune. Meznik, you won’t take away my love of music, however vile you make it.
“It is a sad song, I think,” Sedwick commented.
“Everything is sad when you feel as though eternity has folded over on you a thousand times, sir,” Madreg said quietly. It wasn’t accusing or resentful…but his subdued voice made the warrior gaze at him solemnly. What was it like to be barred from the natural cycle, be that an eternal afterlife or rebirth? The dwarves had perished but a few years ago, but stuck in limbo, it must have seemed an age. The blacksmith went on, and Elmiryn came up near him to hear him better over the singing. “What they sing now is a song before the battle. A thousand years ago, when our people had a proper kingdom, the rebels sang it before rising up against their noble oppressors,” Madreg explained. “Though it was that war that reduced our people to colonies sprinkled throughout the world, taking our glory and our power with it, we have taken comfort in its meaning.”
“Speaks to our situation, like,” Henriette added.
The dwarves behind them finished the song for the second time and were starting it over again. Elmiryn didn’t mind. It shook her down to the marrow to hear so many spirits singing as one. “Where are we headed?”
“To where our remains lay open for molestation, no thanks to that bastard marshal!” Henriette snarled. “It is such a curse to know that of all the things we can move, either as one or as a whole, that we cannot tend to our remains. We cannot even help our fellows in death, for we perished under the same hands, on the same soil, on the same day.”
“And so, that dark day binds us,” Madreg said with a grim nod. “What we could do for you friend, we cannot do for ourselves.”
Elmiryn nodded and looked over to the others. She strained her eyes–a bit out of habit, for she had gotten used to seeing illusions before truth whenever she sought to inspect something in detail. But to her mind she could find nothing amiss in the quiet determination set into Quincy’s face, nor the pensive shadow that came over Sedwick’s. She nudged the water elemental in the ribs and felt her elbow come away damp. “What’re you thinking?” she breathed. Madreg and Henriette tromped on a little ahead as she matched the man’s step.
He glanced at her and folded his hands behind his back. “You spoke quite well back there,” he said quietly. “I’m certain Graziano appreciated it.” The wizard, lost in her own thoughts, and no doubt unable to hear due to the din of the dwarves, did not look their way.
Elmiryn shrugged. “I have been known to suffer a bout of eloquence now and again. While it was short lived, I grew up in high society for a time.”
“You? In high society?”
The woman smirked. “Is that so surprising?”
Sedwick gazed at her. Then he shook his head slowly. “Mmm…no. Not really. You’ve certainly got the looks of a noble.”
“I’ve met prettier prostitutes.”
The man frowned at her. “That’s an odd thing to say.”
“Don’t mistake it for insecurity. I’m just of the opinion that nobility hasn’t got anything special aside from their gold, and that’s a finite thing.” Elmiryn shrugged one shoulder. “Even as a kid, I never really was taken by the pomp and performance.”
At this, Sedwick raised a bald eyebrow. “For one who doesn’t care much for performance…”
“What?” the warrior asked, perhaps a bit sharply. The man was getting a bit too familiar with her and she found she didn’t like it. You haven’t got me figured out, Sedwick. You aren’t going to catch me out and get me blubbering like Quincy.
Sedwick turned his face forward. Then instead of answering her question, he asked, “Back to what we were talking about before. You spoke very well for Graziano. Were you made the speaker for your fallen comrades back in–?” the warrior nudged him, her eyes flashing. She glanced at Quincy, but the wizard had drifted away from them a few feet and was still deep in her own thoughts.
She glared at the blacksmith. “I don’t know how much she knows about me, and I don’t want to make it easy for her! If she learns where I come from it could be a great big headache!” she hissed. Then she sighed and looked forward, arms crossing over her chest. “Anyway, to answer you…Yes, I usually was the speaker for my men. Away from home, we had to cremate those lost whilst still on the move. When were lucky enough to find their remains, we committed them to the fire, and I would say a few words.” Her face grew hard. “I don’t like funerals. I don’t like the ceremony. I’ve been through it too many times to find any real comfort in it anymore. I always found consolation in action,” she reached behind her and patted the pistol in the seat of her pants as if to drive home her point.
“Hrm. You truly can say that you can’t find any real solace in the idea that Graziano’s remains have been treated with respect, instead of rotting away, forgotten, where beasts and monsters would molest them?”
Elmiryn sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “Damn it. Of course. I’m not saying funerals aren’t necessary. But what does that matter if nothing is done to serve the lost one’s life? Not his death, but his life. I find that to be more imperative. So many people get caught up in death that they forget the life that came before it.” She scowled and glared at the passing ground. Then she raised her head, eyes narrowed. “Can we not talk about this?”
Sedwick glanced at her. Then nodded. Instead, he gestured forward at Henriette and Madreg’s backs. “Y’know, I’m thinking perhaps Quincy was right in some ways,” he breathed.
“How do you mean?” Elmiryn asked, though she thought she could chance a guess…
“Why a battle song as a prelude to a burial?”
The warrior decided to play devil’s advocate. “A mass burial, as brought on by a battle. It isn’t entirely unrelated.”
The man snorted, his pale eyes narrowing. “While the ghosts may not be able to handle their own remains, they can certainly push about the soil and earth. No. Something is keeping them away from their final resting place.”
“Do you regret our decision?”
The man thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. “It’s as Henriette stated. This is the way of things. And while it will be hard, I believe the rewards will make up for our troubles.”
“Me too,” Elmiryn said with a nod. Then she grinned. “That, and for once, I’d like something I can face head on.”
Sedwick gave a wry smile. “Tired of dealing with spirits and elementals who rise above the answer of violence on flesh?”
“My sword is thirsty. It’s like any horse. I can’t leave it wanting! I’ve crossed blades with a few, Quincy being one, but those battles were short and without a true ending. I want a little satisfaction.” She’d have very much liked to have Meznik’s head in her hands as a way for that, if only she could be sure the bastard had a head…
“Still,” Sedwick said, rubbing the side of his face. “I worry just what we will face. We could very well be dealing with more of the same.”
“I feel that I’m growing into an expert of the irregular, Sedwick my friend,” she clapped him on the back with a jaunty grin. “Whatever we face, we’ll have it on its knees!”
The man looked at her funny, and she raised an eyebrow at him. “What?” she asked.
“A friend, am I?”
Elmiryn rolled her eyes, but her smile remained in place. “Halward’s breath! I cannot bring a name to a relationship without people giving me a strange look–”
“And I imagine all have given you a strange look, at one point, or other ,” Quincy interjected. She had come out of her reverie and was now leaning in to hear them. “At least I know where I stand with you. But poor Sedwick! To not know what to make of you!” The redhead got the sense that the wizard was perhaps using the conversation as a means of distraction. She didn’t mind. If it meant she wouldn’t go on blubbering like she had before, then all the better. For some reason, seeing Quincy cry really bothered her.
“Now, now! That isn’t fair!” Elmiryn pouted. “I am not beyond making certain permanent relations.”
“Your mother doesn’t count,” Quincy said, looking at the warrior sideways.
To Elmiryn’s annoyance, she blushed. Her smile gone, she bit out, “Of course my mother doesn’t count!”
“Ah! You are a mama’s girl. You Sibesonans and your mothers, I swear.” Quincy tutted. “At least it explains your queerness.”
This incited the warrior further and she raised a fist, a curse on her lips when Sedwick said loudly between them. “Ladies, please. Spare a man the cost of being caught between two harpies!” Now both women lighted eyes on him, and he faltered. “Ah…now, I meant that in all good humor!” His shoulders hunched up.
The dwarves’ song carried on, roaring about them…
Braves, assay, assay, you lot!
Time hath withered,
We miss it not.
Braves, assay, assay, you lot,
For the darkness
Grows heavier still!
We were back. But even then, I was having trouble understanding what I was going “back” to. I suppose I had gained a bit of confidence in my situation–enough at least to risk a few assumptions here and there before I set about asking Lacertli bothersome questions. I didn’t want to give him any more reason to call me “Knave”. So upon thinking of the half-world, the Somnium, and the Umbralands, I came to a rough but otherwise satisfying conclusion.
While this shard and this half-world as a whole was but a reflection of my world, it still shared the same Somnium. The only difference was in the borders, as the Umbralands depicted the same twisted shadows that this shard held. Light here was just an illusion. There were no suns. No moon. No stars. But the shadows remained because so long as there was matter, there was an absence of light, and if anything, this shard in its limited recognition of natural law and order, understood that.
I was seeing a correlation with darkness and dreaming, and I began to understand what Lacertli had meant when he called himself the Dreamwalker. What he meant when he said he couldn’t assume Marq’s form unless he were in shadows. He was the master of dreams, where the indefinite night could breed wild and fantastic things in the mind. And it was from my mind that I could circumvent the Umbralands altogether to reach the Somnium.
Survival, as Lacertli described it, was not about base instinct. It required endurance, wit, and imagination. All things within the domain of the Dreamwalker.
So the layers seemed to work as follows–The mind was the lowest, and from it one could directly reach the Somnium. Of course, from the mind, I could reach the Real World as well. (That was term I came up with myself, even though at the time I was using it to refer to the broken half-world) The Real World, with its physical weight and matter and light and Life, bred the Umbralands. The Umbralands was but a border that hedged the Somnium. This upper-most layer was the dream of the universe. There were only two ways to and from that dimension. The mind, or the Umbralands…
There were still things I didn’t understand. Like how broad the Umbralands truly were, why I could connect my dreams with those of the universe, and how the universe could possibly have a dream to begin with. But being able to orient myself in the ways I traversed these layers made the travel less dizzying. I had done quite a bit of it in the last few hours or so.
Even as these musings quieted to nothing, there was something about the forest that seemed livened. The air made my hairs stand on end. Or they would have if my entire body wasn’t a virtual scab. The blood was drying and flaking in some places. My bandages and my pants were stiff from it. My hair was clumped as the dark blood clotted on the locks of hair, turning my free mane into something resembling gruesome dreadlocks.
Lacertli had once more assumed a place on my shoulder, his tail around my neck, his claws tight on my skin. As we moved through the trees, I watched with wonder as the shadows seemed to curve and follow us. Since my battle began with the nymphs, I had not been in the half-world at all. Upon returning to it, I saw that their defeat had brought about a change in the environment. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt…more welcoming somehow. Argos, trotted next to me, ears perked, his shoulder sometimes bumping my thigh as if determined not to be separated from me again. Poor fellow. I had left him alone quite a few times. Apparently, Lacertli had put him in a tree. I was still jittery from my recent battle, and so the idea of the cat fetching the dog from the tree had me giggling hysterically. A stern look from Lacertli silenced me. He was right of course. I had to keep it together. From what I understood, there was but one other obstacle keeping me from finding Elmiryn, and damned if I was going to be kept from her side any longer. I was tired of all these troubles.
“Be wary, Knave,” Lacertli hissed into my ear. “Not all shadows court thy brilliance.”
I was going to ask him what he meant when up ahead I saw something dark flit through the trees. My walk slowed, but I didn’t stop. Off at the corner of my eye, another shadow there and gone. I laid a hand on Argos’ head and whispered. “We’re not alone…”
Then I heard it. That damned giggling.
I stopped cold, my eyes going large as I swept my gaze all around me. The shadows of the trees, which had shifted to follow our passing now wavered and turned away, like a presence was disrupting the gravity my soul had for these things. The pretas cooed and laughed like young children, delighted by the sight of me. They were demons of hunger. My hand and arm would not sate their gluttony again.
They circled around us, just as sharks in the water. The circle grew tighter and tighter, and as they neared, I could smell their rank bodies. Their mandible-like jaws snapped, and their forms were like rottweilers covered in fungus and bold with muscle. Their paws moved unburdened over the ashen ground, and it was all I could do not to pee my pants again.
“S-Sir?” I trembled out.
“Mmm?” Damn his ease!
“Please, sir. A word of advice, if you would be so kind?” I was turning on the spot now, hands clenched at my sides.
Lacertli bowed his head, both eyes closing. “Surely you do not need me to walk you through this step for step? You managed to defeat the nymph’s abomination quite well on your own. But if you insist…” He opened one eye and fixed it on me. “The pretas will encircle both you and your companion, coming from all sides. Why not turn this around?”
I frowned. “But sir, how–”
Only all conversation stopped when, the pretas closed in on us as one.
They followed a road that led up a small cliff-face. The city grew small as they ascended, and when they reached the top and the road twisted still further onward, they saw very little of the dead civilization. Elmiryn could only hear the stale mountain wind whistle through the streets as it clawed up the cliffs to chill the sweat on her back. The procession of ghosts had dwindled, leaving mostly just warriors and a few brave-looking dwarf commoners. Young men cut down in their prime. They carried on singing, but they had ceased the rebel ballad and this time sang a wordless song–a hymn more like. Elmiryn didn’t like it as much as the other one.
With their backs to the abandoned colony, they approached the mountain wall, where there yawned a wide and jagged tunnel entrance. The warrior whistled as they crossed into the tunnel’s shadow. “My! Now what terrible contraption would have warranted this great big hole?”
“When we’d harvested all the stone we could from this chamber, we had to get more from a nearby source,” Madreg explained. “The problem was that the machine we had made to do this was far too large for all of our usual tunnels–so we had to find a way to get our contraption through without bringing the world down on our heads. It was our ancestor’s genius that saw us through.”
“And so explains the great big hole, and the transportation of things in and out of it,” Elmiryn said with a snicker. Sedwick sighed next to her. After dodging the heat of both women for his earlier comment, the man had migrated so that the warrior was now the one in the middle.
“I’m growing more and more alarmed over the fact that I seem to immediately get your crude meanings…” Quincy said with a trenchant voice. The dark was beginning to close about them. It was getting harder to see things in full detail, but thankfully they still had some light. The ghosts in their company were a blessing, because they had a luminescent glow to them that lit up their surroundings. Madreg and Henriette drifted on a ways ahead while the ghosts that remained–a scant fifteen now, as some had just vanished–gathered about them.
Elmiryn turned to look at one over her shoulder, a young dwarf with the starting of a beard and long frizzy hair. He was the last commoner to stay. All that remained with him were warriors. “What is your name?” she asked.
“Físí,” he said, turning his head to look at her sideways.
“I’m Elmiryn,” she said, though she was certain he already knew, having witnessed all that he did.
The warrior thought this a strange response, and he kept fixing her with that funny look. “What is it, Físí?”
“Ye aren’t like your lady friend. Nor your friend of the river.”
Elmiryn’s lips twitched and she thought she could feel Sedwick tighten next to her. Quietly, she bumped him with her elbow and said to the dwarf. “Nope! As they’d put it, I’m something of a rogue.” She expected Quincy to take this up with little pause, but the wizard was silent, leaving Elmiryn’s jubilant statement to feel flat and contrived. Sedwick refrained from comment also, and the warrior let her smile fade in the dark.
“Ah, I just wanted to say, miss,” Físí went on. “That…I’d be careful, for what’s ahead. As I said, ye aren’t like your lady friend, nor your friend of the river.” And here he vanished, his voice a lingering hiss of smoke, “Nay, miss, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were like kin to us poor souls!”
Elmiryn had little time to think on that, let alone respond to it, when up ahead Henriette and Madreg came running back. Henriette looked furious, while Madreg looked fearful for the first time since he’d been in their company.
“The damn things are in a tizzy!” the female dwarf snarled, her axe pointed up ahead. “They’ve passed the barriers we used to block them. Something has riled them up!”
“Riled what up?” Sedwick asked.
Henriette sobered, her brows pressing up instead of down. It made her look a great deal more gentle. “Aye…perhaps we neglected a few things. The payment is fair, I’ll not deny that, but the dealings…they were…were not.”
“We pressed you when you were most vulnerable,” Madreg added, now looking equally sorry. “We knew you all to be formidable, and your grief presented an opening for us. In death…things are slowly lost. Memories. Compassion–”
“–And the funny thing is,” Henriette added with a scornful spit. “Is that the more you lose, the stronger you get!”
Madreg held up his hands. “At first, it took over a thousand of our ghostly hands just to move a single pebble along the length of a brick. Now it only takes a hundred of us. That’s what we mean by ‘strength’.”
Quincy groaned and slapped a hand to her forehead. “Oh…of course…”
“Aye miss,” Madreg said gravely. “When all of our memories are gone, and our basic decency with it, we’ll not need more than one ghost to move that pebble. No, he’ll be able to move his very own corpse by then…but at that point he isn’t a humble grieving spirit anymore, oh no…”
“He’ll have become an undead monster,” Quincy finished with a sigh.
“Aye! And that’s just what those Belfliff beasts became, those what fell here by our hands.” Henriette let loose a sardonic smile. “See, apparently, that whole loss of compassion and i-den-ti-ty goes away ‘lot quicker when ye’ve snapped the gold necklace off a dead child’s neck a’fore dyin’!”
“But there it is for you. We hide nothing else,” Madreg said. “Coming up to this tunnel at this very moment is a horde of undead creatures, and beyond them lies our remains. We hadn’t fought them because they have the capacity to turn us into one of them, and we…already lost many of our brave men in this cold afterlife.” Here he glanced at Henriette sadly.
Henriette drew herself up, her face going hard in the way Elmiryn had seen soldiers do when their honor and skill were in some way cast into doubt. “My men and I have suffered and given our very lives to see our people protected! Our eternal existence is at stake, and I won’t be shamed for my caution. Especially not after losing many of my friends to that evil. But if you draw those devils to the far edge of the chamber, we shall catch them unawares in one last battle. It’s all or nothing at this point.”
Sounds started to drift from up ahead in the tunnel, and Elmiryn thought she saw the dance of torchlights on the rock walls.
“And here is where we take our leave. Remember,” Henriette started before she vanished. Madreg and the other dwarves vanished too, leaving them in the dark. “Break through, then draw them as far as you can to the other end of the chamber!”
Elmiryn heard Quincy kneel and begin muttering under her breath. She drew her sword and said, “Damn, they couldn’t give us a torch for our trouble?”
“I have something here,” The wizard said. There was the sound of items being bounced around in a bag. “I had forgotten about it–I have far too many odds and ends here, but…tai’undu, where is it…?” Elmriyn didn’t know what Quincy was fiddling with, as she hadn’t seen the woman with all that much in her pouches. Then she remembered the drawstring bag that had appeared empty– “Ah-ha!” and without warning a warm glow lit up their surroundings, and the source of this light came from Quincy’s right hand, where flames danced gaily. She had put on a curious piece of jewelry. On each finger gleamed a silver ring, and they were studded with what appeared to be rubies. From the back of these rings, a chain trailed to hook onto a wide wrist bracelet of similar fashion. The flames didn’t seem to hurt the woman, and she stood with a look of relief on her face. “There we are! If those silly dwarves had just been up front about everything, I would have had this out sooner. Fire does not agree with the undead.”
The sounds were coming closer. Elmiryn could hear the chink and clamor of armor and weapons. Despite what Henriette had said, the redhead felt that most of the work would be done right here, where they could more easily meet the flow of enemies. “What is that thing?” she asked the wizard.
“Just some jewelry,” Quincy said archly as she moved ahead of them, flaming hand held up. “…From an afrit.” She added next.
“A djinn?” Sedwick exclaimed. He had changed so that his whole body was once more water, and the light played off of his form in a strange way.
“A long story,” the brunette replied.
“So…you aren’t all that helpless after all.” Elmiryn twirled her sword as she stepped forward a bit, but not next to the wizard. A little behind her, rather. Something told her not to stand quite so close to Quincy. Sedwick did the same, his arms turning to long tentacle-like whips.
The wizard glanced at her. “Never was. Never will be.”
The sound of the approaching undead reverberated around them. Some dust fell from the ceiling as the ground shook from their spirited march.
“Soooo,” Elmiryn said, a smile blossoming on her face. “Since you aren’t helpless and clearly are equipped with something better suited to this situation, it’s fair to say that I get first dibs on whatever the dwarves have to offer us in the way of equipment?”
Here Quincy turned and stared at the woman as if she were stupid.
Elmiryn giggled. “Okay, okay. How’s this? Whoever kills the most enemies earns the right to first pick?”
The wizard looked forward again, but not before the smirk showed on her face. “You know you’ll start at a disadvantage, right? I’m in front, and with this fire I’ll burn most of the beasts that come at us!”
The way ahead finally birthed the sight of the horrible enemy–brown, sunken faces with lips rotted away and eyes turned milky if not gone all together. All of them were dressed as Belcliff militia. They shouted things upon seeing the three of them standing there, but without their tongues they made little sense. The undead broke out of their march and stampeded towards them.
Elmiryn’s smile broadened as she fell into her fighting stance. “…I figured I’d give you a head start. It’s only fair!”
Then Quincy let loose the fire and the warrior’s eyes saw nothing but brilliance.
It wasn’t entirely correct to call pretas demons, monsters, or animals. They were hungry ghosts–a sort of poltergeist–that rode on the waves of frost and chill to devour the Life that had been born in the spring. During the winter, Ailuran citizens would burn ashes near their doors to keep them at bay. Newborns, during that time, would have ashes sprinkled on their hair. As a child, my brother Thaddeus used to scare Atalo and I with horrible tales of humanoids with tear drop heads and tiny throats, who tried vainly to fulfill their hunger. Folklore said the spirits were made from the greedy and the selfish. That they were the remnants of an unhappy soul.
…In the end, aren’t all monsters born from discontent and disharmony? But there you have it. The pretas were a hell of their own making.
I’m not sure how the beasts I faced came to manifest themselves as perverse Rottweilers covered in predaceous fungi. Their side-set eyes winked at me, crusted and weeping as they jawed their mouths in their twisted humor.
When they closed in, their determination shown by taut muscles and spread jaws, one managed to bite into my left thigh while another slammed into me from the other side with a jump. My scream was swallowed as my initial shock collided into another. I would’ve been toppled to the ground if not for the ironic support provided by the beast on my left. He refused to let go of my thigh and I leaned over onto his shifting back. I could feel his fangs working into the muscles of my leg. I choked back another cry as the confusion mounted. My fingers buried into dirty fur and moss, with shoots of fungi quivering between them. My attacker on the right pressed on me again, this time rearing back on his hind legs to fix his mandible jaws onto my shoulder. Or he tried to. I shoved at him with all the strength I had, then slammed my elbow into the head of the preta on my left. It just kept getting worse. Another beast came at me from behind, his jaws fixing around my right calf. Now both my legs were being held fast. If another preta jumped on me, I would go down and all would be lost.
In the chaos, there were some dozen or so beasts around us–and they quarreled with their peers over whom would have the right of tasting our flesh. I can’t say if that number was exact, but given how crowded this violent meeting was becoming, there were some left only with the option of looking on from a distance. More still snapped at the heels of our shifting circle of conflict, looking for a way to join into the fray. Well, not much a fray so much as a massacre.
Blood flowed thick down my thigh and calf where it pooled into my boots. The horrifying thing was that the pretas were all around me. Literally. The pressed on my sides. Even as my legs gave out under me, I slumped over unto the back of the beasts. They were claiming everything beneath my waist. I could feel them biting and tearing. My body seized up and the pain was getting to be…honestly, how many times can I say, “It was bad?” I’ve had my achilles tendon sliced through, been penetrated by a spiritual being on an unseen level, had the flesh of my hand burned away to the bone, and lost my limbs in a situation much like this. I’ve known pain.
…But sweet Aelurus, it was bad. I was being eaten alive, and I couldn’t pull the same trick I had before. I couldn’t just “reject” both my legs.
There were one or two who tried to clamor over their peers to get at my upper body but I swatted them away like an animal–palms rigid, fingers like claws. I let out unintelligible sounds–things between moans and screams. My eyes rolled in their sockets. Lacertli, still indifferent to my situation, took to sitting at the nape of my neck as my hunched figure made this the steadiest place for him to rest.
My thoughts were reduced to broken ideas.
Get away. It hurts. Nightmare! Damnit. My legs! Help, help, help–
He was not so far from me, and through sheer strength had resisted being submerged beneath the attacking pack of devils. Being the size of a small bear had its advantages, but even that would not last. His white fur was stained red. His growls turned to cries of agony. One of the pretas got him by the throat…
The beasts swarmed over him till he was out of sight.
Gods, it was happening all over again.
I screamed. Screamed not out of pain, but a livid sort of desperation. Argos could not fall. I could not fall. I put all I had in the sound. I needed the dog to drag up his will to survive. It was a primal, basic, mindless drive that made my own voice tremble in my skull and ear drums. I could feel it down to my feet.
Through the laughter of the pretas–almost smug in their assurance of victory–I heard a growl. Then, the pretas that had covered Argos were flung away as the dog, with a miraculous surge of strength, bucked them off his body. He was unrecognizable now beneath the blood and gore–with his shaggy fur damp and dark from his own life staining him. In the brief second of freedom, he turned his massive head my way, his breath a thick fog, and I could see his dark eyes shining. He wasn’t giving up.
Emboldened, I looked down at my attackers, still jostling over the right to devour me. Between their shifting bodies, I could see the stained ground. With all the pretas gathered so near, they made an awfully big shadow…
I squeezed my eyes shut and with a yell I willed the darkness beneath us to swallow us whole. It did, and I felt the breath leave me. With a rush the ground swallowed us, plunging us into that dark inky world that, until now, had never seemed so beautiful to me.
The pretas squealed and cried like frightened children–and to my surprise Argos had been taken over too, and he barked and whined, his massive paws stumbling as he wheeled on the spot. As I disentangled myself from the now disoriented mass with shaking arms, I shouted at him, “Argos, tear out their throats!” I put in as much urgency as I could into the Words. This got him going. He moved with a bad limp–but considering the damage to his body it was incredible he moved at all.
“The power of inspiration…your voice has moved him even when his body would deny him this,” Lacertli hissed into my ear. He probably heard my thoughts.
The ground, in this borderland, shifted beneath our feet like an unsteady sea. The pretas, though spirits, were not accustomed to this place. Unlike the nymph abomination, I had taken the pretas with me in my journey between realms. Later reflection lead me to believe that, while I could see these spirits from the Umbralands, that didn’t mean they were a part of it. It was like looking at something through a window. I could see them, but they weren’t on the side I was. Now I had brought the pretas with me to the other side of the window, so to speak, and they didn’t know what to do.
Lacertli had shifted to my shoulder again, and his claws buried into my skin. The pretas around me squealed like unhappy children as their limbs flailed and their disgusting heads thrashed. I was finally allowed to see the damage they had wrought on me. Large chunks were gone from my thighs and upper calfs. My rear and my hips also knew a terrible pain. My pants were ripped and reduced to bloody tatters. My boots clearly showed the beasts efforts in getting at my ankles and feet. Thankfully they hadn’t, because at this rate I was going to be left destitute of clothing. A silly thing to think, perhaps, but I’ve already shown a propensity towards hysterical thinking.
…I may have passed out for a minute or two. Perhaps longer. I can’t recall. Sorry. I can say without any conceit that my memory is quite exceptional, but this was one of the few times of my life that saw my recollection lacking. Maybe because I try my best not to think of it? Would you like to think of the time your legs were half-eaten and you were in a black, cold world, that was on the cusp of the Great Dream, with monstrosities squirming and crying about you?
I came to again, and as I did so, I saw that the pretas were also regaining their senses. The charm of my initial surprise was quickly wearing off. My limbs was having trouble responding to my commands, but I rolled over onto my hands and knees. I shouted at Argos, “Brace yourself!”
The dog, having ripped off one of the pretas legs with his jaws, glanced my way, then crouched down, his ears perked.
The beasts around me were now on their feet, with their heads turned to the side so that their eyes could fix on me. Argos had taken out two of them, and I could see their prone forms behind their brethren who circled around me. They were wary now. A brave one came at me, its jaws ready to bite off my face. Ignited by this first move, another still took me by the shoulder. Lacertli bit the latter in his eyes, and the thing drew back with a snarl. I punched the former in the side of the head. Then I willed an exit to appear beneath us, a great white hole, and I felt my breath suck out from my chest as I felt a resistance to my command. We fell through, back to the Real World where we were lightly tossed into the air. The pretas, unprepared yet again, were left bewildered and staggered about.
I could have remained in the Umbralands, or even shifted over to the Somnium, but the pretas seemed an adaptable bunch, and I feared their true form in the Somnium. I wanted to keep them disoriented. While Argos resumed the fight, I tried to shift alone into my own shadow, and I found this much easier. Moving a whole group took a lot out of me. Once in the Umbralands, I moved so that when I came back to the Real World I emerged from the dark of a tree instead, well behind my enemies. I was getting faster about this movement, and I found I enjoyed it, however reviling the purpose was.
With those Argos dispatched, we were down to eleven of the beasts. Immediate danger wasn’t a pressure on me, so I can be sure of that number.
I leapt back into the fray from my new vantage point. A preta was slinking behind Argos, who was fending off three of the quicker-witted pretas in front of him. The rest were still dazed. I could see the thing’s intent–from behind, the monster could get in close enough to flank the dog and finish the work started on his throat.
“You now know that with effort thou may take others with you between realms. But dost thou need to take them whole and complete?” Lacertli said quietly on my shoulder. It was the most he’d given me since this nightmarish battle had started, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.
With a sprint and a jump, I descended on the wily preta, taking him around the neck and bidding the shadow to take us…
But as I fell through the ground and the preta’s body fell in head over heels, I closed the way.
When I stood in the Umbralands, what was left in my hands was a severed torso. I dropped it quick, trying to steel my mind from thinking about the reality of my situation too much–because through the lens of the Umbralands, I could see that the battle raged on back in the Real World. The pretas had recovered faster than last time from the shift over, and now Argos was facing the threat of being overcome again, despite ripping out the throat of yet another beast. With my kill and his, we were down to nine.
I returned to the Real World through a tree. I didn’t pause much. With a running front kick, I slammed my heel into the head of a small preta that was looking on from afar. Argos slammed one of the beasts down beneath his great paws, even as six more around him tried to topple him over. The preta I had attacked whined and shook the stars from its head, but I took up a rock, and like I had the first time, I used it to bludgeon the creature into silence. Its life sprayed my face, and I clamped my mouth shut in an attempt to keep the poison out.
I looked to Argos to see him rear back, with his front legs stiff and his paws held close together, before he slammed down onto the preta beneath him. There was a nasty crack, and I saw the beasts torso deflate as his rib cage collapsed beneath the dog’s great weight.
Only this movement cost him. His stability was compromised, and I realized his monstrous stomp had exacerbated the limp he had gained. The pretas, cooing at one another as though realizing the dog’s mistake, shifted so that three of them were on one side. Then as one, they knocked him over. He had reached his limit, and I turned sick to think that he could already be dead. Once on the ground, he didn’t move.
This frightened and repulsed me so much that I screamed, “Get away from him!” I put my whole body into it–straining my neck muscles, curving my back, clenching my arms and digging the balls of my feet into the ground. Argos had to be ok, because I couldn’t leave him behind here. He had to be ok, because I didn’t want to be left alone. He had to be ok, because he had to be with Lethia again. I had to believe that he could regain what he’d lost–because if he couldn’t find it…what hope did I have to…
…So I screamed.
To say that the sound was greater than I expected would be an understatement. The air stirred and the trees rocked. The ashen ground shifted. The shadows grew starker. The pretas recoiled from the dog, their childlike voices letting out frightened whimpers. They hunched low to the ground and fixed their sideways gaze on me.
They hesitated. I didn’t.
I launched at the monsters, and they tried to scatter. With a wild dive, I caught one by the leg, and just as before, I shifted into the shadows, then closed the way behind me. I had a severed leg in my hand when all was still. I dropped it with tense hands. From that dark place, I saw the others flee.
They squealed and cried like children throwing tantrums.
“After them!” Lacertli spat, and I gave chase, leaving Argos for the time being. I created an exit and charged through the white opening, back into the Real World. Though I found this to be a bit ruthless, I had to remind myself that the pretas were ghosts who existed to prey on the good and living. But the damned things were escaping me. They were pulling on ahead.
Then I saw that the shadows were bending in my direction again.
I let out a fierce yell, outstretched both my arms, and with feet skidding in the dirt, pulled backward on what I hoped were the pretas shadows.
There were screams, pops, and then…nothing. Just ashes drifting onto more ashes.
I slowed to a stop. Stillness gave a way for exhaustion to claim me, and I leaned over onto my knees. I swayed and nearly fell over. I took several slow, deep breaths.
Lacertli gave a nod of his head. “Very good knave. I’m surprised you didn’t think to do that sooner.”
Now that I wasn’t running, punching, kicking, or clawing, I felt the trembles return to me in full. All of a sudden the world felt heavy on me. With effort, I straightened and walked back to where Argos lay. I dropped to my knees next to him, my eyes clouding with tears at the sight of his once white fur now turned a filthy crimson.
Then something came rattling out of my mouth, unbidden.
“Still, sir?” I rasped. My face drew long, and I knew I was pale from all of my exertions. “Still, sir? You call me knave?” I could feel Lacertli look at me, but I pressed on, feeling a hole in me, and from it squirmed something awful. Perhaps Nyx was gone, finally snapped from all this, and now her damned Twin could finally have her way. What did anything matter? “Still, sir? You would call me knave?” I stood to my feet, swaying, my arms held out before me as my throat clenched, and I thought fiercely. No, do not cry. But the tears still came to blur my sight. I bared my teeth and shook my clenched fists where blood dripped from them. “Still, sir!? Still, you call me knave!?” and I just kept saying this over and over, perhaps not making sense anymore, but I was worked up into a fine froth now, and was beyond caring.
Finally, Lacertli slipped from my shoulder where he landed on Argos chest before he moved to the ground on the other side. He looked up at me, and though I flinched, I stood with straight back and glared at him openly. There was a hole in me, and something awful squirmed from it. Perhaps Nyx was dead. “Still sir? With my payment of flesh, and my friend hurt before me, still you would call me a knave!?”
Then the god was not a small lizard anymore. In the blink of an eye he was the lizard man, standing at his tremendous height, skin turned to scales, and his head long and serpentine. My redundant rant sputtered to nothing. I thought for certain he was going to smite me. But then he bared his teeth at me–or maybe he was smiling–and said, “Nyx.”
“Look at thy feet.”
I did, and gasped. Breaking through the ashen ground were small budding plants. They fanned out around me, covering the dismal gray in all their bright splendor. Around us, the trees groaned and murmured as color came to their dry trunks, and overhead, leaves blossomed and cast us into a wondrous shade. I stood, gobsmacked, hardly recognizing the scene around me. The Kreut Forest was…
“Things move faster here. It will take a while yet for this change to take hold in your resident world, but count on it, vermagus. Through thine efforts, this forest may yet again thrive.” He smiled at me. Then he knelt down, and with a slow wave of his hand, Argos sank out of sight, into the ground like a ghost. Flowers sprang up in his stead.
I gave a start. “Argos!?” My chin crumpled. “Sir, is he–!?”
Lacertli fixed his yellow gaze on me. “Calm yourself, Night Child. The dog still lives. Argos has earned respite from me. You shall see him again soon enough.”
I stared at him as he stood and pointed somewhere off to the side. I looked in that direction and saw that the air wavered up ahead like something was there. “Come. The way is open. Let us find thy Ghost.”
…It was only after he led me to the strange portal and our forms slipped through it that I realized…
Lacertli didn’t call me a knave anymore.