Karu struggled to move in the giant’s hand. He’d grabbed her around the waist so that her arms were over the top of his hand. But no matter how frightened she was, she couldn’t do much more than wriggle. The heat at least was no longer so bad though her whole body stung with pins and needles.
The giant didn’t fall when he passed through the purple light. He just kept walking, his strides long and smooth. They emerged on the top of a mountain butte covered in soft green grass. The full moon was higher in the sky, somewhat smaller now, but just as bright. Stars shone like pinpricks of diamonds and silver, a few more blue than white. Night song thrummed here from autumn peepers and night crooners. But Karu did not find it relaxing.
“What do you want?” Karu cried hoarsely.
The giant continued on. He held her steadily out front, his grip firm but not too tight. “You’re safe.”
“Safe for what?” Karu demanded. Another coughing fit seized her. She collapsed against the blade of his hand as it subsided.
“Just rest. You’ll be fine.”
The aquatic rats on his shoulder and pocket continued peeping and squeaking. One scrambled down his arm to sit beside her. It groomed her messy braid.
Karu flinched as its tongue caught her ear. Then she glimpsed a distinctive black band around its foreleg. “Wait…wait…” This was one of the aquatic rats from Lady Elspa’s basement. She swallowed hard. “I remember you.”
“You saved my raskas. They are grateful for your aid and so am I.” The giant smiled at her.
“Your raskas?” Karu wheezed.
“Yes. Raskas. They are rats who swim like skates.” The giant rubbed the throat of the largest rat on his shoulder. The rat sat up on its haunches, and he ran his finger along the excess skin. Their tails are like skates too. Helps to balance. And fish.”
Karu nodded, stunned. “You’ve been looking for them all this time.”
“The floods washed them from our home all the way through the barrier,” the giant continued. He started down the mountain. His arm swayed a bit now as he walked. A large cedar forest rose up to greet them as they came closer and closer. He chuckled, the sound reverberating through Karu like a close peal of thunder. “They love the rivers, but sometimes it’s too strong for them. Even though I made them a beautiful pool. But no, no, you cannot keep raskas contained.”
The shoulder raska groomed the giant’s beard, snuggling down for the ride.
Karu drew in the deepest breaths she could. Though more coughing spasms came, they slowed in their intensity. “How did you know? You weren’t there. When you appeared, the rats — I mean the raskas, disappeared. They went in the opposite direction.”
“Raskas are very smart. They know that when I’m in Welnaru, it isn’t for long, so they go to where I will be. They also speak with the mind.” The giant tapped his forehead. “If you know how to listen, it’s very easy to see. Just pictures. Bright pictures. And if they want to make a point, they make the picture in a circle, like this.” He used his finger to form a circle and peered at her through it. “That’s why they let you help them. They knew after a bit. Though they said you were afraid of them at first.”
Karu nodded. She stared at the raska beside her. How much was it thinking? She couldn’t read its expression well.
“And they could not tell me your name. Only images, of course. So they show me a picture of this girl in dirty hunting clothes with long dark braids and an indigo cloak and stained bag. They showed it to me over and over. I still don’t know all the why. And when Shishiko found you in the river, well, he knew you needed help. So he started sending messages. Big circle messages with you in the river. But which river exactly? It took several images to show me, and then I had to prepare the portal. But we got there in time, it seems.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Now be quiet,” the giant said. “We’ll talk more later.”
“What’s your name?” Karu asked.
“Draoki.” The giant smiled. He had a pleasant smile, and his voice was almost soothing now that he was no longer so sad. Oddly he wasn’t nearly so terrifying in appearance now. “Yours?”
“That is a nice name.” He nodded as if pleased. “Now no more talking.”
Karu didn’t find it hard to obey. The last of her strength had faded with the adrenaline, and she didn’t even try to hold herself up. Even with her legs dangling down and hanging like a puppet, she found herself drifting to sleep. Her awareness of time faded in and out.
Draoki hummed. Sometimes he sang a few words, often a rhyming phrase or two. Shishoko remained by Karu’s head. He sometimes groomed her cheek or her shoulder. Each time Karu dozed and woke again, he’d cleared more mud her with his webbed but dexterous paws.
Then, when the moon had slid past its zenith and kissed the tops of the mountains, Draoki stopped in front of a sheer cliff and pressed upon a boulder. A door slid back and in, revealing the warm glow of a fire and savory scents of soup, tea, and bread. “This is my home,” he said. He placed Karu on the table near the fire. “You should eat and drink, but drinking first.”
Karu sat on the edge of the table, still in awe of what had happened. This cottage, though massive from her perspective, was really quite cozy. There were at least three rooms here from what she could see with this room serving as both kitchen and main dining room. Draoki pulled the large black kettle off the fire and dipped a spoon into it. He then set it beside her. “I don’t have cups for people your size,” he said. “You’ll probably have to kneel to drink it.”
“That’s all right.” Karu inhaled the fragrant steam, then took a little sip. It felt even better sliding down her throat, a mixture of elderberries, comberries, and sassafras and honey. It tasted like the pleasant sort of elixir, and its effects were almost immediate. “How did you know to make this?”
“Ah.” Draoki grinned. His teeth were mostly straight except for two teeth that overlapped his canines a bit, one on each side. “See, there’s someone else who wanted to see you. And she’s one who can see the future a bit. As much as one like her can, of course. Isn’t as easy for her as some of her own kind, but she knew you’d need this.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, she’ll be here soon enough, and then I imagine she’ll have more to say to you. She always has much to say though she does pictures like the raskas. Always pictures, all of them. Of course, words aren’t what make them strong. Sometimes I forget how nice it is to use words and have someone understand just as well. They like it best when I use pictures too.” Draoki prepared the meal. He served her the soup and bread in a similar way.
Karu dipped the bread in the spoon. The vegetables in here were all proportional to him, significantly larger than the ones from her home. “I’m going to guess we’re not in Welnaru then.” She took another sip of tea. Her chest relaxed even further.
“No. Elsiba.” Draoki sat at place beside her, his large steaming bowl of soup filled almost to the brim with broth and vegetables. “Twenty miles north of your northernmost city.”
“And there are others here…like you?” Karu asked.
“Oh.” Karu stopped as Shishoko came alongside her. He picked up one of the peas from her soup, then scurried away. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “It is no harm.”
Karu sipped the tea again. “Do you know about Cynaco?”
“Yes.” He nodded, his voice rumbling deeper. “Spiteful little man who doesn’t listen.”
That sounded about right, but Karu didn’t want to make assumptions. Especially not after what happened with Cynaco earlier. “You aren’t friends with him.”
“No. But only because he chose to make me his enemy first. All I have ever wanted is peace,” Draoki said. He clenched his fist, his brow furrowing so tight that his eyebrows formed a single brow. “He doesn’t listen though. Small wrongs are made big, and he doesn’t let go or forget.” He scoffed. “It’s no way to live, but he won’t die, so he lives that way.”
“What about my people? The people of Welnaru?”
“Not much. I stay away because I frighten you even though I’m careful.”
Karu hesitated, wondering if he knew about the deaths he’d caused. He seemed so kind and gentle sitting here now. Telling him any such thing was sure to break his heart. “You seem very kind,” she said.
“I try.” Draoki tore off a piece of bread and sighed. He offered a piece to the raskas who clustered about him. When they eagerly took it, he pulled off more to give. “I thought my heart would break when my raskas vanished. I searched for days. For days and days and did not eat or sleep. I felt as if I was walking through a dream that would not end. But then you found them. For that, you will always have my thanks.”
Karu smiled, embarrassed. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Draoki shrugged. “That doesn’t mean that it is done.”
Karu wondered how many of the other neighboring people were like Draoki and how many were like Cynaco.
“Are you warm enough?” Draoki asked. “I can get you something to wrap in. I should have asked sooner.”
“No, I’m fine. Everything’s dry now more or less.”
“Good. Well, whatever you need, don’t be shy. There’s more than enough for one like you.”
“Thank you.” Karu bundled deeper within the cloak. Somehow it was as if she could smell her father again. She wondered what he would think of her now. The raskas continued to cycle up onto the table, some snitching food and others nuzzling her.
“Hey, hey, don’t be greedy. This is our guest,” Draoki said, shooing one away as it tried to take her whole spoon. “Don’t take her spoon. Ah, no, now that’s a fine way to give thanks.”
Karu laughed, moving out of the way as the raska spilled her tea. “It’s all right. I’ve never seen anything like this. Not that I’ve done this before.”
A loud knock sounded on the door, but it didn’t sound like a hand. It sounded more like a hoof.
“Ahhh. Umeen.” Draoki pushed back from the table. “Here is another thing you have not seen if I am right in my guess.” He strode to the door and pulled it open. A large silver-grey horse with a distinctive white spot on her forehead stood before the door. Draoki extended his hand to her, the fingers slightly curled. She pressed her snout to them as if in greeting and trotted inside.
Draoki shut the door. “Karu, Umeen. Umeen. Karu.”
Karu stared down at the horse. Her eyes were dark and intelligent, but there was something familiar in them. She frowned. “Umeen…”
The horse tossed her head. An image sprang into Karu’s at once. She fell back, hand flying to her temple. Her eyes widened. “The blessed waters! The mire!”
“Yes. Umeen was helping me search for my raskas. We were separated though. These portals make direction challenging at times. And she slipped and was trapped. I did not know, and I could not hear her.” Draoki’s expression grew mournful. “Umeen says that it is not by chance that you kept bumping into us. That all of this is for a purpose.”
Karu wasn’t sure what to think. “What sort of purpose?” she asked hesitantly.
“Umeen isn’t sure. Since her horn was broken years ago, she cannot see so clearly.”
Umeen ducked her head, her mane falling over her eyes.
“Her horn? You mean, you’re a unicorn?” Karu asked.
Umeen tossed her head. Her long dark silver mane flowed back like silk fibers.
“Yes. Her kind are known as the hidden blessings among other things. It’s certainly what she has been to me.” Draoki’s smile broadened. He sat cross legged on the floor beside Umeen, then held up his hand to Karu. “Do you wish to come down?”
“Yes.” Karu still wasn’t crazy about being held, but he did so carefully and set her down beside the hearth.
The unicorn nuzzled Karu’s hand.
Tears sprang to Karu’s eyes. She stroked her back. “I’m glad you’re all better.”
Umeen nickered. Hot breath whooshed from her nostrils.
Draoki nodded. “I’ll tell her.” He shifted his focus to Karu. “It’s a little hard for you to see what she’s trying to show you. I think you’re probably tired. It’s been a long day, and Umeen is not so good with humans. She spends most of her time up here. But she says that there is a reason for all of this.”
“What reason?” Karu asked.
“Well, that’s what she wants to know.” Draoki rested his chin on his fist. “She wants to know what reason you have. Or what purpose.”
“You mean what do I want to do?” Karu asked hesitantly. “With life?”
“Perhaps. It might be a start. I’m not always sure what she means either.”
“Ummm…I mean, I was trying to find the amu loril, but it seems like that doesn’t exist. Then I was trying to help Co — who turned out to be Cynaco finish his quest so that he could get his mother to remember the incantation and then unshroud the artifacts and stop the taking. And then, it turned out that all of that was a lie, and there are no artifacts, and he’s going to destroy the great barrier while the Dohlo are murdering people to keep the great barrier up and the immortal soldiers going. Then he’s going to take all of the masata out of the rift, and all of the people of Welnaru will be killed. So I was trying to stop that. And I’ve also lost Vry who may be in trouble because I don’t know what Cynaco did with him. So…” She stopped, pursing her lips. “As far as my purpose goes, I guess I want my purpose to be to stop Cynaco and the Dohlo and free Welnaru from this war and the artifact seeking, which also means introducing Welnaru to the rest of the world and get Vry someplace safe too.” She paused, scanning Umeen and Draoki for their reaction. She half expected to be staring at her like she was crazy, and, while Umeen’s expression was impossible for her to read, Draoki appeared pleased.
He stroked his close trimmed beard and nodded. “That sounds like a good purpose to choose.”
“So what does that mean?” Karu asked. “If my finding all of you was supposed to happen or important, does that mean you’re going to fulfill my purpose with me? Shouldn’t you have your own purpose?”
“I have lived a very long time,” Draoki said. “And Umeen a very short one. You are in between. For the young, it is good to go with others to achieve their purpose and learn what that means. And for the older, it is good to go with the younger and help them shoulder the burden of their purpose. We will help you with this task, and in the morning, I will take you to someone who will be able to help you even more.”
“Thank you,” Karu said, clasping her hands tight. “Thank you!”
“You must do one thing though,” Draoki said.
“Sleep.” Draoki smiled. “Sick warriors must heal if they are to fight another day, and you have many days left to fight, I think.”
Karu sat in the room until it was dark out. As usual, that came sooner rather than later. It was hard not to count the minutes. She rubbed her hands on her stained trousers and contemplated all that had happened.
The worst part about the waiting was that it gave her time to consider not following through with this. Maybe Vry would make it. Maybe Cynaco wouldn’t do anything to interfere. Even if she could get past the warg briefly, she knew the Dohlo would not protect her. They might listen to her, and they would probably recognize what she said. The fact that she knew such names and information might shock them, but it also corroborated what she said as much as any of it could be.
She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. All this time, she’d been trying to avoid her own death. Trying to find a way to stop it. And now there was a way out. For a time at least. And no one would die because of her. At least not directly. But…
Standing, Karu sighed. She coughed into her fist, bundled herself up, and shouldered her pack one more time. Though it was dark and the torches had been lit, a few places were open near the Dohlo Chambers including a rotisserie market. Taking her last coins, Karu purchased two pounds of the garlic rubbed pork. She gave Gella Meor a piece each time she crossed to another walkway. The warg lapped up the pieces eagerly, growling and whimpering at intervals.
She hoped the warg wouldn’t get in trouble for this, but it was the only way she could think to complete this stage of the plan. The Dohlo Chambers sat at the exact center of the city in the tallest of the buildings. The bricks were dyed black, and they had intricate metalwork along the windows and doors. The ward circle began approximately ten feet from the nearest external pillars. Unlike the rest of the city, the storm shifters ensured that every part of these streets remained above water. Only a little water collected on these stones, and it was swiftly swept away into the departing stream.
Her heart beat faster, the aching in her chest intensified. She coughed again.
Gella Meor nudged her hand for the first time, eying the rest of the packet.
“Oh yes. I’m sorry. I was thinking of something else.” Karu placed the rest of the meat on the porch clapboards. “You can have it.”
The warg pounced on it.
This was it. Karu forced herself to remain calm and crossed the street. The warg had his back to her now. The air intensified with a heavy thrum. She felt the energy pass over her as she strode beneath the first of the wards. The farther in she went, the stronger they would
Gella Meor bolted up. He howled, lunged, then vanished.
Karu pulled her cloak tighter and hurried on. The enormous black doors stretched over thirty feet into the air, but two smaller doors allowed one to enter without moving them. She pressed the door back and slipped inside.
The chamber smelled like dust, death, sickness, and fungus. She tried to be quiet, but another coughing fit announced her presence even before her eyes could adjust to the darkness.
The air stirred as a robed figure appeared before her. “Why are you here?” a cold voice asked, neither male nor female.
“I have come—” Karu started. Another coughing fit gripped her.
“Your time is near. Five days left. Have you given up your quest?”
Karu shook her head. “I have something important to say,” she rasped. She recalled both Ms. Bren and Cynaco mentioning that muck fever often worsened with stress and anxiety. It was little wonder it seemed determined to flare here even without the cold and the damp. “I need to talk to all the Dohlo present.” Her eyes had adjusted at this point. She stood within the tall narrow foyer. Everything was grey and black from the walls to the pillars to the unlit torches that were there for emergencies. The Dohlo who stood before her wore flowing black robes, a hood, and a mask that covered the two thirds of their face. Their lips were painted black with canine bite piercings made of black jet. Their sleeves trailed almost to the floor, and their fingernails were painted black while the fingertips had been dyed to match. More Dohlo stood in the back, watching silently. “Cy—”
“Silence.” The Dohlo held up their hand. “You have arrived early, but you do not wish to pay your debt. This is unacceptable.”
“Unacceptable.” Voices from the back agreed.
“Please, I need to come farther in,” Karu said. She tried to step around the Dohlo, but they held up their hand higher to block her. “The ma—”
Purple light flashed, hair paws seized her, and she found herself spinning through the air. She crashed on pale blue flagstones.
“You can’t even wait a full day before you betray me,” Cynaco said coldly. He stood in front of her, glaring.
Karu pushed herself up stiffly. The warg had retreated behind her. “You only said I couldn’t speak the words to Vry, and I didn’t. I had to try something. These people do not deserve to die!”
“I told you—” Cynaco stopped short. The red in his face lessened as his shoulders relaxed. He laughed. Stepping back, he nodded. “You’re right. I did tell you that you couldn’t tell Vry. But you know very well what else I meant.”
Another coughing spasm shook Karu. She turned her face away as she doubled over.
“What all did you tell them?” Cynaco demanded.
Karu straightened, breathing out wearily. “I didn’t get anything out. They just wanted to know if I was there to give myself early. That’s it. You know how much time passed. You know what the Dohlo are like.”
This seemed to placate Cynaco. He paced to the other end of the small room, his hands clasped behind his back. “I suppose you felt like you had to do something.”
“I know it’s not the same thing, but it felt too close to asking someone else to take my place. This has impacted all of our lives,” Karu said. “It is a miserable way to live, and even so we have found good. I don’t want the Dohlo to keep doing what they are doing. I want them to be stopped, but I want the rest of the people of Welnaru to live.”
“The Dohlo would have killed you. You entered their chambers when you were not invited and when you did not have what they considered to be an acceptable purpose. And even if they had heard you, they probably would have killed you.”
Karu nodded. Her body ached, and even through the terror, her eyelids sagged. “I know.”
“I thought you didn’t want to die.” Cynaco kept his back to her, his posture rigid.
“I don’t. But—” Karu couldn’t even finish the sentence before another coughing spasm seized her. She cleared her throat and swallowed, bracing herself against the increasing pain in her throat. “If it had just been about letting the Dohlo keep doing what they’re doing, maybe that would have been one thing. Maybe I could have let that go. But you’re going to kill everyone. Everyone. How could I know that and not do something?”
“I understand.” Cynaco turned, his gaze shaded. “And I hope you understand that I cannot allow that kind of disobedience in my kingdom. So, though it pains me, you must still be punished.” He then flung the glistening purple sand at her.
Karu barely flinched back when she was falling again, tumbling, spinning, crashing. The ground struck her hard, punching the wind from her lungs. She wheezed, unable to catch her breath. Cynaco stood beside her. His expression stone, he peered down at her, arms folded over his chest. “This isn’t the way I wanted it, Karu. But as I told you, I cannot tolerate this.”
Groaning, Karu sat up. It was cold out here, bitingly cold. Her pack was gone, and she was at the base of a steep hill. Dark grass covered the ground, sparse in some places, dense in others. Patches of gravel and flint broke through. Thorn bushes and brambles grew in abundance along with towering leafless trees with twisted branches and gnarled trunks. No rain fell at least, and a full moon lit everything with a brilliant icy light. This wasn’t part of Welnaru. Karu closed her eyes as another coughing fit seized her. Her ribs and lungs ached as if bruised beyond just the falling, but she had to get up. What was coming wasn’t good.
“You brought this on yourself,” Cynaco continued. “I could leave you out until you die, but I’m kinder than that. If you can survive the night, I’ll consider giving you my favor again.”
“I’ve been in worse situations,” Karu said hoarsely. She stood and straightened her shoulders.
Cynaco turned to look at her once more, his smile thin. “Not like this, I think.” He sighed. “It would be a shame if this is how you meet your end. I’d recommend you keep moving. And, try to get that cough under control.” He tapped his throat. “You’ll lead them straight to you.”
“Them who?” Karu asked.
Cynaco held his fingers to his lips. “You’ll see.” Then he vanished.
Karu turned slowly. From the looks of it, she was alone in a wild forest and low grassland. The cold weather made her skin prickle, and her breath steamed. The moonlight highlighted every blade of glass and every branch and shrub so that the edges of the shadows looked as sharp as knives. No wind blew though, and no clouds marred the sky. But there were no stars. No constellations to let her guess how close or far she was from home. No matter which way she turned, all she saw were trees and hills and shrubs. Presuming that time had not changed somehow, it was almost 11 at night. That meant she had at least seven hours before dawn. Maybe more, maybe less.
Suddenly cackling laughter resounded from beyond the twin hills to her right. Her skin prickled with goosebumps.
More laughter followed, this time straight ahead. Karu backed away.
The laughter intensified, more voices joining. The laughter was always high and manic, rippling and trilling out like spools rolling down a hill. And though it sounded human…it wasn’t.
Karu’s throat burned as she swallowed hard. Most likely a pack predator from the number of calls. But arboreal or land? And who was to say there was only one type. She backed away from the sound as the laughter grew louder and louder.
Then a strange form climbed to the top of the hill. It was large and lanky, disproportionately built with an overlarge head, torso, and forelegs. The moonlight revealed stripes on its hindquarters and jagged uneven spots on the rest of its shaggy coat. A long bony ridge ran down its back. Its eyes glowed yellow, then the vertical pupils narrowed as it looked at her. Throwing its head back, it laughed again.
Horror spread through Karu, colder than the rains at the blessed spring, colder than the rock after she took shelter in the night. Whatever that creature was, it terrified her. There was something almost human about it, the voice so close and yet so wrong. It advanced slowly over the hilltop, moving directly for her. Other heads appeared as well.
Karu watched as more and more eyes appeared over the crest of the hill. Her heart slammed so fast within her chest, she couldn’t catch her breath. Their yellow teeth shone in the moonlight, almost as bright as their eyes. Another round of laughter followed, louder and louder until it filled the whole air.
The chuckles, jeers, and whoops increased again, rising, then falling, then rising again with increasing intensity.
Karu struggled to catch her breath as she ran. Already her chest ached, and a stitch formed in her side. She needed to cough but didn’t dare stop until it was too much. The creatures were out of sight, but they sounded closer than ever. Sagging against a rough barked tree, she cleared her throat and lungs. The adrenaline was leaving her more exhausted now, her body drained. With each cough, the shrieks of laughter intensified. A sharper whoop followed.
Karu hinged her to the left, glimpsing one of the horrifying creatures almost a hundred yards away. It reared on its hind legs and dropped back to the ground again, laughing in short excited bursts.
Come on. She had to go faster. Faster. Breathless, she plunged farther into the forest, picking a zigzagging path. The only reason those creatures hadn’t caught up with her yet had to be because they were playing with her. Like a cat with a mouse.
The branches and brambles seized her cloak, her arms, and her legs. They struck her face and snagged her hair. And each time she collapsed against a tree or boulder, convulsing with painful, lung wracking coughs, the laughter grew closer and closer. One always appeared near on her left. Ten feet closer each time.
It was a game for them. A game they knew they’d won. Karu leaned against the trunk, gasping for breath, her throat raw. The edges of her vision swam. The creature appeared again, less than forty feet away from her now.
Karu stumbled away. “Get back,” she called hoarsely. Picking up a rock, she flung it. It landed miserably short of the mark.
The creature snickered. Its pupils were mere vertical slits, the rest of the eye livid yellow. It approached slower now. Saliva ran from its thick jaws.
She couldn’t keep running. It was all she could do to keep standing. “Get back!” Karu staggered away. Each breath burned like blades.
The ground gave way beneath her.
Crashing down, she struck the river bank and tumbled headfirst into the icy waters. For a moment, she tumbled and twisted around, bubbles streaming from her nose and mouth. Her hands struck something furry, which immediately swam out of the way. Reaching the surface, she cried out for air, barely able to gulp it in. An aquatic rat swam alongside her, nose twitching. It chirred and squeaked before swimming to the other shore and clambering up on the bank. Karu fought to follow suit, but she couldn’t break free of the water’s grip.
The manic laughter continued. One of the creatures was on the bank above, leering at her with its wide toothed grin. It whooped and laughed as more faces appeared. Karu floundered in the water, fighting to stay afloat and swim. But the current had already swept her away from the predators.
The creatures laughed and howled, bounding alongside as the river carried her away, faster and faster. Sometimes the waves splashed over her head. Her hands and feet were numb, her movements uncoordinated. The river plunged over a small three foot fall, and she barely surfaced again. It whipped her to the west, breaking away from the first shoreline.
The creatures yelped and laughed the sound more annoyed than jubilant now. But the relief that flooded Karu was not so great as the waters that surged over her. If she didn’t get out soon, she was going to go into shock. Black dots formed throughout her vision, pulsing and expanding. If she could just get to the left bank, she’d have even more distance between herself and those creatures, whatever they were. But it had to be soon or—
Karu’s eyes widened. A tree had fallen into the water on the left bank. Its long coarse branches formed a net. If she could just get farther over, she might just be able to reach it. The waters sped her along. She stretched her arm out. The branches struck her hand, stinging like a whip strike. But she clamped her clumsy fingers around it and grabbed hold with her other, clinging desperately.
The tree groaned and creaked with her added weight, but it remained on embedded on the shore. Karu dragged herself onto it, inching her way across, bit by painful bit. The bark and thorns cut her more than once, but she barely felt more than the initial sting. At last, though, she collapsed on the riverbank.
A vague voice in the back of her mind told her to get up. Get up now. She had to get warm. Had to find shelter. Had to do something. If she stayed here, it was over.
Weakly, she pushed her hands against the cold mud. They sunk a little, pressing against small rocks and snail shells. Just a few steps more. Then a little rest. Another coughing fit burst out, shaking her body worse than the river. Off to the north bank, the laughter started up again, faint but getting closer.
Karu moaned, pressing her forehead to the mud. She couldn’t run anymore. She could barely crawl. Maybe if she kept her breaths shallow—another coughing fit arrived as if to spite her trying to avoid it.
The laughter sounded again, multiple voices rising in a nearing chorus.
Karu struggled up to her knees again, made it to the edge of the bank, and slumped down. What difference did it make if she got ten feet or a hundred feet farther before those creatures found her?
The bramble bushes near her head rustled. A sleek dark head poked out, sniffing. Then it disappeared again.
Alarm forced Karu up again, but she made it only two paces farther before her arms buckled. A large aquatic rat scurried out. It ran up alongside her head and sniffed her, tapping her head. Karu’s subsequent coughing fit sent it scrambling back. It circled her, then ran back into the bushes as the laughter drew even closer.
How much longer before they found her? Her scent at least was masked by the river hopefully. But the coughing…Karu let her eyes slide shut. Maybe it was time. The cold filled her now, aching, burning, expanding. If only it would be quick about it, and — she lurched forward, coughing again.
The laughter sounded on this side of the bank. Rolling over, Karu opened her eyes. One of the creatures was less than thirty feet away from her. It reared onto its hind legs and screeched and whooped. Answering laughter followed. Yellow eyes blinked into view, coming closer and closer. The lead creature stepped nearer.
Karu forced herself up, her breaths ragged. She seized a branch. “Get back.” The words were scarcely intelligible. Yes, she was going to die. But what was the point in dying if she didn’t try to live a little longer?
The bushes behind her rustled again, and two more aquatic rats hurried out. One was even larger than a wolf. It ran between her and the creature and pushed her back, clicking its teeth and shaking its tail. It firm paw nearly sent her tumbling backward, but another rat popped up, snagged hold of her tunic, and tugged her away from the river.
A sharper barking laugh followed. The creature’s hackles lifted. Then it charged. The others bolted forward as well, a mass of yellow eyes streaming out of the wilderness.
Karu held the branch up, bracing herself for the horrible biting and ripping. Then the air shimmered. Purple light shot out in a thin line. And a heavy thudding footstep followed. “Raskas?”
Karu turned, the branch still lifted over her shoulder. The giant stood directly behind her.
The rats ran to the giant and scurried up his leg. The wolf-sized one perched on his shoulder like a cat, squeaking and chirping and swiping its paw on its nose.
Everything else had halted. The creatures as well. They stared at the giant as if uncertain what to think of this new invader that stood within arm’s reach of their prey. The small voice in Karu’s head told her to run now, but her legs refused to move. More coughing sent her back to her knees.
The giant nodded as another rat situated itself in his pocket. Then, stooping down, he reached for Karu.
Terrified, Karu managed one weak swipe before he grabbed her. The creatures whooped and laughed, jumping up and down with rage. But they didn’t advance.
His hand engulfed almost her entire body, and the heat was almost intolerable. It sent her into another coughing spasm. The giant turned, the air shimmered, and he carried her into the purple line.
“And what might that be?” Cynaco asked.
“You have to let me return to Welnaru,” Karu said.
Cynaco studied her in silence for almost a whole minute. “Why do you need to return?” he asked.
“I have promises that I must keep. Small things that need to be wrapped up. Gifts that must be given and traditions carried on. You may be planning for these people to die, but that doesn’t eliminate what I owe them,” Karu said. She met his gaze, hoping he would accept her statement. “I have no love for the Dohlo. I hate them for what they have done and for the way that they have treated my people. My people did not deserve that.”
“You speak of them very affectionately for being so long alone,” Cynaco said.
“I still think there are people there worth helping. And Vry told me I can’t save everyone. I accept that. I never said that I could. But if I could have just a couple more days to go and make sure that I have righted any wrongs I may have done and paid back kindness to those I can, I would appreciate it very much. I might even be able to do it in one. And if you let me do that, then I will return. Though I would prefer another entrance away from the spiders.”
Cynaco smiled. “Yes. They do make things rather exciting for intruders.” He nodded then. “Very well.”
“And Vry. He should be allowed to decide where he goes?”
“You are asking for a great deal.”
“It would be helpful if he could come with me, so long as he’s willing.” Karu suspected that she might not be able to get sufficient warnings out within the time she would be given. Vry might prove useful in that regard.
“He is yours to do with as you like. But.” Cynaco held up his finger, leaning forward so that he was inches from her face. “If you tell him what I am planning, then I will punish you severely. Do you understand?”
His breath struck her face, malice lacing his words. Karu stared straight into his eyes. “I understand perfectly.”
“Very well then. Come with me.” He led her from the fungal garden to another room a few halls away. It was clean with sky blue tiles, a pearly dais, and a lectern with a large book on it. The only items were bottles, jars, and vials stored on shelves four feet off the ground. Then Karu noticed her pack sitting in the corner as if it had been waiting for her.
“Since I would rather you not go insane, I will prepare something special for you. Small portals can be created in certain locations where the barrier is already exceptionally weak, and one of those locations is actually within the Red Flower Inn. Room 310 to be precise.” He smiled thinly. “And I will not send you back unprotected.”
He removed a grey vial from the shelf. A claw and arching symbol had been etched into its side. Holding it close to his mouth, he cupped his hand to it and spoke into it, the words from a language Karu did not recognize. He then removed the cork. A grey cloud rushed out, billowing and expanding. Lightning cracked within it, and a loud growling commenced. Stepping back, Karu watched, uncertain what this was becoming.
Within thirty seconds, it had grown to be eight feet tall. Long legs and pointed ears formed and claws slashed out of the cloud. Then in a final burst of energy, the cloud exploded outward and left a bipedal warg in the center of the floor. It growled and shook its head, saliva dripping from its mouth.
“This is a spirit warg,” Cynaco said. “Most can’t see it, but you can. No one else in Welnaru will be able to see him though. He’s going to make sure that you’re safe.”
Karu suspected it was for far more than that. “That really isn’t necessary.”
“I say that it is. You’ve been doing some very odd things in Raborki. How can you be certain that you won’t face some sort of trouble?” Cynaco said it so sincerely that if she hadn’t just heard him say that he was going to destroy her whole country, she might have believed he cared.
“I guess…” Karu stared at the warg. “What do I feed it?”
“Oh he doesn’t have to eat. Not anything that you can provide. This is another creation of the masata.” Cynaco flipped open the book and ran his finger down the column. “You will have two days at most. If you decide to leave, you need only tell the warg to take you home. He will do so immediately. If he becomes suspicious of you or believes that you are going to break your word, he will bring you back as well. Also, Vry will be sent elsewhere. I haven’t decided where, but you can leave the instructions for how you want him to carry out whatever it is that you do not finish. If you return and behave as you are expected, I will bring him back before the barrier falls and the masata is torn from the rift. Otherwise, he will die with all the rest.”
“But—” Karu started.
“Argue with me on this any further, and I will end this entire arrangement,” Cynaco said sternly. The anger that flashed in his eyes was so intense that Karu fell back a step. She nodded. “Good,” he said.
She drew in a deep breath. This decision had been the best one. If she had refused him, she doubted that he would have sent her back. There would have been too much risk of her revealing his plan. His decision to not let Vry join her was exceptionally telling. Despite his claim of enjoying time with her and wanting to see where time took them, she had no doubts that he would happily kill her.
“I don’t like being cross with you, but you need to stop being difficult. This all may be very confusing and alarming, but that does not make you qualified to question me without ceasing.”
“Good.” Cynaco removed a jar from the shelf, opened the lid, and removed a pinch of purple dust. “Now then…” He cast it out. Briefly the air shimmered, then it flashed purple. A thin line appeared. “Walk through and you will be back in Room 310 at the Red Flower Inn.”
Karu nodded. She started forward, then halted just before the line. “Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate this chance.”
Cynaco returned the nod, stiffening slightly as if he had not expected to be thanked. “Remember what I said. One word spoken to your slave and you will both be punished.”
“I won’t forget. Though I do have one more question.” She picked up her pack and slipped it over her shoulder.
“What?” Cynaco said sharply. His breath hissed through his teeth.
“What’s the warg’s name?”
A look of disbelief passed over his features. “What’s the—he’s a spirit warg. He doesn’t have a name!”
“I was just wondering.” Karu strode through. The purple light flashed around her and an odd sensation rushed through her body as if she was falling. Then, just as abruptly, it stopped, and she stood in the corner of the room next to the fireplace. The warg stood beside her, unblinking.
Karu sank onto the floor and held her head. Her temples pounded with urgency, each throb reminding her that she had two days to settle this. Two days to figure out a way to warn everyone without the Dohlo killing her and without the warg dragging her back. The warg’s heavy breaths emphasized the tenuousness of her situation. And Cynaco was right that she had made quite a spectacle of herself. But she had succeeded in the first part of her plan. Now she just needed to come up with the rest.
There was, however, a couple small things that she could do. She stood and gestured toward the warg. “Come on. If you’re going to go with me though, I’ll need to give you a name. Do you have a preference?”
The warg stared at her. He growled low in his throat.
“I feel like since we’re going to be spending time together that you should have a name, but you probably wouldn’t like our typical dog names out here. They aren’t especially imaginative, and you are a warg after all. I could call you Lovely.” She smiled.
The warg’s eyes narrowed. It growled again.
So he did understand. “Temperance then.” Another growl. His hackles lifted. “I suppose you’d like something a little more ferocious like Gulla Meor, which is a fancy way of saying Slayer of Mortals, Devourer of Souls.”
The warg’s ears pricked up. His tail wagged slightly, then stopped.
“Ah, there we go. You like that.” Karu grinned. Maybe there was a way to make this work out. “Well, come on Gulla Meor. You’re probably going to find this boring, but I need to take care of some things.”
The spirit warg followed her down the staircase. More coughs descended upon Karu. She shielded her mouth with her fist, then wiped it on her cloak.
“My goodness, dear, that cough is getting worse.” Ms. Bren strode out from the hall. Her gait was a little stiffer, but her smile was just as wide. “Why don’t you let me make you something hot to drink? No charge.”
“Maybe in a bit.” Karu fished her pouch out and removed a few of her coins. “I’m only going to be here a couple more days, and I just wanted to thank you. You’ve been an excellent host. I always look forward to coming here because everyone’s so friendly. But you especially. I know this isn’t much, but it’s a little way that I can say thank you.”
“Well that’s very kind of you.” Ms. Bren smiled, tears shining in her eyes. She accepted the coins and put them in her pocket. “It’s always good to hear. If there’s anything else I can do for you, do let me know. And when you get back, I’ll send that tea up to your room.”
“Thank you.” Karu cleared her throat again, then turned and left.
The rain was still pouring, the storm shifters still working. A few greeted her while others watched suspiciously. One called out, “what strange thing are you up to today?”
“Just some social calls. Nothing too exciting.” Karu was surprised that they weren’t acting worse. She made it a point to smile at all of them. This shift was probably nearing the end of its time and a new set would soon be there in slick dry trench coats and wide-brimmed hats. Because of their efforts, the waters had not risen past the planks. It was remarkable how hard they worked, and all without complaining and little notice. She turned, her hands tucked under her cloak. “Hey!” She waited until they looked up. “Thank you. Just for everything. You’ve done a lot of good work here.”
They looked at her like she had lost her mind, and she turned and hurried on without waiting to hear their responses. Her path took her now to the merchant’s. She went to the bakery beside, asked if the clerk knew the merchant’s favorite baked good, and purchased two. When she opened the door, she found him there at the counter. “Ah, the artifact seeker,” he said with a warm smile. “You found it?”
“No, not yet. But I’ve got six days left.” Karu placed the paper wrapped pastry on the countertop. “I wanted to thank you again. Those gloves and that meat saved my life.”
“It is always a privilege to help another,” the merchant said.
“I’m terrible about introducing myself sometimes,” Karu said. “My name is Karu. What’s yours?”
“Balmor.” He smiled though there was still some sadness in it. “I hope that you find the artifact. Is there any other way in which I can help?”
Karu glanced back over her shoulder. “Do you by any chance know anything about masata magic?”
“Masata magic? No. I’m afraid not. Dangerous stuff, masata. It can explode at the slightest jostling if it isn’t gathered properly.”
“I heard it was rather unstable. Someone was talking about a legend.” Karu paused, noticing that the warg was sniffing one of the dried hunks of meat. She pulled her pouch out. “I’ll take a pound of that too before I leave.”
“Excellent choice. It’s been aged and marinated in spirits. Very powerful.” Balmor sliced off the amount plus a little extra and wrapped it as she placed the coins on the counter. “Let me know if there’s anything else.”
“I will.” Karu bid him goodbye then and picked up the package. The warg followed her, breathing heavily.
“Come on, Gulla Meor.” Karu continued around the corner to a small side street. No one was about, and the rushing of the water was it was pulled along and removed masked the sound of her voice. Vry was right that she had judged the spiders too quickly. She hadn’t even tried to find a way to reach them, and maybe there wasn’t. They had been exceptionally threatening right from the start. But she could at least try with this warg. She unwrapped the paper and offered the warg the meat. “You don’t seem to just be spirit. And I’m guessing you’ve got some corporeality or else you couldn’t drag me off. So…would you like some of this?”
The warg’s ears pricked forward, but his eyes narrowed. He then edged forward, more saliva dripping from his mouth.
“You can have it,” Karu said.
The warg licked the meat tentatively, then seized it in his jaws and pulled back. He shook his head and devoured it swiftly.
“There.” Karu grinned. “I wonder why you didn’t just eat it in the shop? Nothing was stopping you. He couldn’t see you, and he wouldn’t have seen you do it because his back was to you.” An idea struck her. She rummaged in her pack once more and pulled out the dried meat. Breaking off a chunk, she held put it on the ground but said nothing.
The warg finished the meat she’d given him, then stared down at the meat on the wood boards. He looked from her to the meat. That longing expression in his eyes was the same as any dog she had ever seen. Then, after a few moments of staring at it, he sniffed it. But he did not lick or touch it.
“You can have it,” Karu said.
The warg at once pounced on the meat. Little bits fell from his mouth.
“I’m guessing you don’t have to have this sort of food to survive, but you like it.” Karu nodded. This was making sense. And since he could have food, that meant she had an even better chance of soothing and befriending him, which meant he might not be so aggressive in enforcing Cynaco’s orders. “All right then, Gella Meor. We’ve got two more stops to make.”
The first stop was in a little flower shop where she bought with a few of her last coins a potted closet lily, a hearty thick leafed plant that could be kept in the dark and whose color changed depending on how much you talked to it and the sound of your voice. From there, she went on to the infirmary. Hjor, though surprised to see her, welcomed her, and he accepted the plant with delight.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” he said. Then he flushed and cleared his throat. “I mean…” He gripped the clay pot tight.
“It’s all right. I know what you mean.” Karu forced a smile. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I did have some more questions for you if that’s all right.”
“Whatever you like.” Hjor continued to hold the pot. The tips of the leaves flushed turquoise from his words.
“Do you know of any powerful magic practitioners who can use masata energy here in Welnaru?”
“No. I know the last king didn’t want anyone to use it because it was too unstable. Too potent for smaller tasks, too demanding for the larger. Best to leave it where it was, wherever it was.”
“Hmmm.” Karu nodded. “Do you mind if I look at your books?”
Karu got them out and sat in the chair beside the bed. Gulla Meor growled quietly. Karu shot him a chastising look. “I’m really fascinated by all this, you know,” she said for the warg’s benefit. “I always loved books, but there were rarely any around.”
“Books usually bring a great deal of joy. I’m not so sure about mine though.” Hjor chuckled.
“I wish I knew more about magic.”
“Well, there’s not too many that can tell you that. All the minor users are pushed into service, and the Dohlos, well, they don’t really seem to like people talking about the fact that they’re practitioners. Not that it’s punished. But they give you some pretty dark looks these days.” Hjor shifted in the bed. He shook his head. “I think that’s why they have so many wards up in their chambers.”
“What do you mean wards?” Karu asked. She turned the page. In a section of bound and folded paper were additional smaller sheets and a spare pheasant quill.
“Items to ward off magical energy and spells. It’s as if they don’t want anything else to get in there. Which would not make much sense when you consider that they’re probably using their private chambers to practice magic.”
“True…” Karu paused, realizing that it actually did make sense. She had seen many icons, tomes, statues, and charms hanging on the walls of the Dohlo gathering chamber. They had frightened her when she went there with her grandparents and parents to allow each to pay their debt. At the time, she had thought they were cruel reminders of the horrors that the Dohlo could bring upon them. Now she realized it was all about keeping Cynaco away. Cynaco and his magic. Yes! Cynaco only used masata based. The last king had insisted on his practitioners using a variety. No one practiced with masata because the wards prevented it. As she glanced down at the blank page, another idea struck her. “Could I ask a big favor?”
“Of course.” Hjor smiled warmly.
“Could I use some of your writing supplies?”
“Certainly. There’s ink in the cupboard.” Hjor indicated the cupboard where the books had been kept.
“Thank you.” Karu quickly organized the materials and began writing. She titled the top of the document Karu Iitin Syua Last Testament. Then she wrote in a neat printed script, These are the possessions and debts that have yet to be settled. Funds can be accessed in a bank in Per Lidi under the family name Syua. Please see to these matters, Vry. Thank you.
The quill scratched across the page. This had to work. There was a chance that she wouldn’t be able to speak to the Dohlo or that they would kill her before she faced them, but if she did this right, then Vry would know what was going on. Her heart raced faster as the warg peered over her shoulder. She tried to keep writing, pretending not to notice him, but his hot breath made her skin crawl.
Hjor continued to chat with her, and she tried to make amiable chitchat as well even as her pulse soared. It was hard to think of enough small random things that someone like her might possess. But soon she had her message. On the right hand column was a list of random items ranging from buttons promised to a neighbor friend to toothpicks that needed to be replaced to beads that needed to be put in particular boxes. On the left column was the following:
She let the ink finish drying, then folded it. “Thank you, Hjor.” She bid him farewell and left. They had no sooner moved to a side street when the warg seized her and pushed her up against the wall. “Whoa!” she exclaimed.
The warg pulled the parchment out. The air around him grew purple as he passed through.
“What is this?” Cynaco’s voice asked. He sounded distant as if he was at the end of a long tunnel. She couldn’t see him through the portal.
“My testament. It’s the instructions for what Vry is supposed to do with my belongings. Look at the top.” Karu folded her arms tightly over her chest.
“This is highly specific.”
“That’s how my family does it. A family tradition which I feel like I should try to keep given everything. I want to make things as right as I can.” Karu sighed. “Where did you send him anyway?”
“He’ll get there. Eventually.” Cynaco grew silent. Then the pages rustled. “Aside from being exceptionally anal, I don’t see anything wrong with any of this. I’m sure he will find endless amusement counting out all of these glass beads and identifying the proper shades.”
The warg reappeared with the parchment in paw. Karu took it back, giving the warg a chastising glare. “You could have asked me,” she said sternly.
The warg flicked his ears back.
“It’s not like I want to die, all right?” Karu put the parchment in her pack, then sighed. “It’s getting late. Let’s get some food.”
Though she sounded calm, her insides churned. Cynaco might not have kept his word. After all, he didn’t seem to like Vry much. The fact that she didn’t know where Vry was or how far away disturbed her even more. There was no way to confirm anything, and her knowledge needed to be passed on. Even though Cynaco had only said that she could not tell Vry, she suspected he had meant to say that she was not to tell anyone.
Ms. Bren greeted her warmly as always, and Karu gave her the parchment, explaining that Vry would be returning at some point and she needed to make sure that he received it. Ms. Bren agreed to deliver it. Karu then ordered dinner for herself and the warg, paying extra so that they could eat in their room.
Once they were alone in 310, she pushed the platter of stew to the warg. His nose twitched as he watched her. “You can have it,” she said.
The warg pounced on it, devouring it in great gulps. Karu ate her meal much slower. The Dohlo always met at night. If she could get past the first gate, the wards might be enough to keep the warg from following her through at first. She’d have to enter deeper though if she wanted to be protected for longer. But if she could get the words out, even a few minutes might be sufficient.
Karu’s stomach sank. She’d be caught by someone after that. Who would do the catching was the point on which she wasn’t entirely sure. There really wasn’t any way out. But if she wanted to make sure that the warning got through, she had to do this. Her appetite vanished, and she pushed the platter of stew over to the warg. “You can have it,” she said softly.
Co stood in the doorway, keys in hand. He smiled, and at first Karu was relieved. Then she realized his garments were entirely different. At first, she wondered if perhaps he had taken on a disguise, but his clothing was far more ornate and luxurious, all silks and velvets. And the ornamentation on his doublet was exquisite, depicting miniature phoenixes across the lower portion, all interlocking and seeming to rise and fall in flame depending on whether light or shadows struck the garment. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said, moving as close to the bars as she could. Her excitement couldn’t overpower the unease that rose within her. “What are you doing here?”
“This is Co?” Vry muttered under his breath. His tone suggested something was very wrong.
“Yes. That’s what she calls me anyway.” Co spoke differently now too. His voice was more assertive, his manner more assured. “Move away from the door so I can unlock it. It catches a bit and sometimes jumps. You don’t want to lose a tooth or an eye.”
Karu slid to the side. “I don’t have the goblet,” she said quickly. “They took it away because it belonged to someone else.”
“I know.” Co slid the key in. He smiled as he glanced at her, the edges of his mouth twitching as if he knew something. “I really didn’t expect you to go after it. Especially not in the same day you got the ring. Thank you by the way.”
“I just thought I could get all the pieces so you could finish your incantation, and then we could pay my debt and fix the artifact situation.”
“It’s a beautiful sentiment. But you were supposed to rest for the day. Possibly even the next. As you can see, it really didn’t take you that long to get both items.” Co twisted the key. The lock clacked sharply and the door popped open with a sharp jolt. “Things almost didn’t work out. I thought too that you’d see how large the spiders were and decide you didn’t want to mess with it or at least go back for help. Something other than plunging in alone.” He pushed the door open.
“This goblet belongs to a king. Apparently it was stolen and put in the cavern. Is there something else that we can use for your ceremony?” Karu hesitated, not moving toward the door. All her instincts twitched and prickled, screaming something she couldn’t understand. Even Vry hung back. The air bristled with some underlying tension.
“I know exactly where the goblet is. So far as I’m concerned, you have done everything I asked, and I am pleased. All the better for you. Now are you coming out?” Co asked. The way he looked at her was different.
Karu stepped forward cautiously. “Co,…something feels wrong. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said. He pulled the door shut with a sharp clang before Vry could pass through.
“Hey!” Vry exclaimed.
“Co, it’s all right,” Karu said. “He’s with me. He helped me in the cavern.”
“You’ll wait here,” Co said, looking at Vry. “I haven’t determined what I’m going to do with you.”
“He isn’t a threat. If we’re going to escape, he needs to come with us,” Karu said. “He helped—”
“You saved him from the spiders, Karu. By law his life now belongs to you. Rather fitting given the manner in which he decided to gain his own freedom from his debt.” Co smirked as he returned his gaze to her. “But you and I need to speak privately. There are a few things I need to clarify. The first and most important being that I am Cynaco, ruler of Chirad.”
Karu closed her eyes, feeling as if the blow she had been waiting for had finally fallen. “Welnaru’s enemy.”
“Enemy. Rival. Victim. Though much has changed in the past several centuries, I grant you. However, there is much we need to discuss.” He motioned to the door. “You’ll walk with me?”
“What are you going to do with her?” Vry demanded, standing against the bars. “That woman has done nothing but help you and—”
“It’s no concern of yours, slave.” Cynaco looked harder at Karu then. “If you want answers, you will have to walk with me.”
Karu nodded slowly. “All right.” She passed through the doors, her heart hammering so fast she thought she might collapse. Co had lied to her. But why? What did he want? As Cynaco pulled the door shut, she mouthed, “I’ll be back” to Vry. The door clicked with a heavy thud. Cynaco locked it and then hung the keys back up on the wall. “This way.”
Karu’s mind spun over this new information. She kept her gaze straight ahead, walking no faster than him and always watching him in her peripheral. He said nothing as he led her first through one long stone hall with dull grey flagstones and then through three more. The only sound to break the stillness was their own footsteps and breaths with the occasional interruption of marching soldiers or passing servants. The quiet unnerved her, but looking at him stung even more. Did he plan to hurt her? Or kill her? What had he hoped to gain from all this? So many questions tumbled through her, pleading for answers. But he seemed content to simply walk, his hands clasped behind his back and his gaze straight ahead as well.
No answers presented themselves as Karu continued. Soon they passed from dull stone corridors to well-polished and more ornate ones. Decorative arrangements of fungi and crystals adorned shelves and the occasional table. The floor became smoother and glassier though presumably the same stone. The stone work along the walls created abstract mosaics which sometimes resembled the form of a phoenix in indigo tiles and other times a series of strange beasts ascending a mountain. After forty-seven minutes, they reached a tall door set deep in the wall, the wood polished until it shone like polished metal. Vry pushed the door open and gestured for her to enter first.
Karu did so cautiously, her eyes widening once she passed through the door. If someone had told her that she would find a fungal garden impressive and beautiful, she would have chuckled. Fungi were fascinating, but she had never seen a collection that brought the word “beautiful” to mind. At least not until now. The garden stretched on for quite a ways. Small orbs about the size of melons hung suspended from the ceiling, bathing everything in mystic purple and oracle blue light. This coloration did not disguise the great variety of fungi and their incredible beauty and creativity. No matter which way she turned, there was a new type to consider. Columns of magenta striped funnels, blue bonnets with delicate periwinkle tendrils, violet night shades with indigo speckles on their thick caps. Some were as tall as she was, and while many of the varieties resembled ones she’d seen before, most were in more exotic and startling shades than she had ever imagined. A pale white path wound around them, and the soil around them had been carefully tended with thick black mulch. The air here was warm and earthy.
“I think you’ll find the center fountain the most interesting,” Cynaco said, pointing toward the path that curved around an orange bowl-shaped fungus.
Karu tilted her head. No, what she would find most interesting was an explanation about what he was doing and why he had done it. But she bit back the words and followed him down the path. The garden continued beyond these large fungi even farther than she could see. The largest was an enormous plant whose jade green leaves were easily the size of a house. Long thick purple veins ran up and down its velvety blades. The stipules and stalks became a darker blue-violet the closer to the ground it came. And beside the stalks the path circled a silver-blue fountain. A stone phoenix stood in the center, not surprisingly, water running off its feathers and trickling down like smoke. Fog rose and fell over the bowl of the fountain, clinging to the ground as it drifted along. And there on the ledge of the well sat the black goblet. The sight of it was like a knife twisting in her stomach.
Cynaco picked up the goblet, dipped it in the fountain, and took a long drink. He focused on the phoenix statue, his back to her. “I’ve asked a lot of people to get this goblet over the years. No one ever has. Several have started to. They mostly had the good sense to wait for me to confirm the instructions and pumped me for details to ensure that they knew what they were doing. But those few that did go in without much preparation always turned back when they saw the webs. Why didn’t you turn back?”
Karu folded her arms, her shoulders painfully tight. “I needed to get it. And…I know spiders. Or I thought I did. You just said they were big. You didn’t say they were ten feet tall.”
“Well that would have spoiled the surprise and the opportunity.” Cynaco turned again. “The unfortunate part is that I missed most of it because, as I said, I wasn’t expecting you to go. I’m sure it would have been enlightening to see how you escaped the spiders before you had to make that mad dash of yours right into my country.”
“It was over very quickly. They didn’t bother me until the end,” Karu said. She began coughing.
“You really should have stayed and accepted Ms. Bren’s treatment. It wouldn’t have gone poorly for you. The truth is that I had made my decision after you got back with the blessed waters.” Cynaco smiled faintly.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean or why you did what you did.”
“Well, I’ll explain.” Cynaco strode back in front of her, one hand gripping the goblet, the other resting in his pocket. “The story that that old man told you was only partially true. And strangely the story that your slave believes is also partially true. I’m not sure how he came to the conclusion he did, but he is right that the artifacts don’t exist.”
Karu stiffened. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Back before Welnaru was encompassed by the great barrier and protected by the immortal soldiers, I was crowned king of my nation. Now land was never the issue. We had fertile grounds and great wealth with room to expand to the south and the east. The one thing that my nation required was a substance known as masata. It’s an energy form that is generally trapped within the earth, appearing in what are quite similar to fault lines. Magic is energy. To accomplish a spell or incantation, the energy must be transferred. For my people, that energy form was masata. Now I took a different approach to magic. It was a gift in my opinion. I saw to it that everyone in my nation was trained to use it. To heal. To tend. To care. To fight. They had to learn alternatives, of course. It is not wise for anyone to be utterly dependent on one energy form. But there were some areas in which masata usage was simply superior, specifically in the arenas of healing and protection. In some cases, even nourishment. Though we tried to prevent it, our therizinosaurs and saber cats and others lost their food supply. Or perhaps the food supply changed. We’re still not sure to this day. But with masata, we could make even soil or wheat fit for their consumption and provide them with the nutrients that they needed. The problem was that we needed more masata.”
Cynaco sipped from the goblet, his expression had a hardness now. “Now your people did not use masata. In fact, only those who demonstrated some sort of reasonable talent for magic were allowed to train for it, though I will give Berum credit for drawing from a multitude of sources when it came to their energy usage. The point though was that there was a great rift of masata energy that ran through fourteen of your cities. It was one of the largest that I had ever seen. I asked for Berum’s permission to harvest this. We would pay for it of course. The masata was worthless to him, but for us, it was life and strength.
“But he did not trust us. And in this, I do not fault him. We were on friendly terms, but a king can never truly trust his neighbors. Friendliness is often the mask that is worn to allow for a better time to reveal one’s role as executioner. He told us that we should search our own lands or acquire the empty lands into which we could expand. I explained the situation, bettered my offers, did everything I could, and still he refused. At last, I realized that we had no choice but to declare war.
“Now it is true that it took almost eleven days for me to reach the first city which I intended to take. My intent was to take a single city. The rift could be drained from there. But your king was so afraid of what I might do that he sacrificed his life to create the great barrier and the immortal soldiers. In that the scholar was correct. But not in the creation of the artifacts. I saw that barrier come down over Welnaru and recognized the scent of sacrifice. In that moment, Berum had my respect. I had always heard that Welnaru’s kings were instructed from the earliest of days that their duty was to protect their nation, even at the cost of their life. And to see that in action was humbling indeed.
“So I returned to my home and sent out scouring parties to search for masata. In time we found it though it did not come in time to prevent all losses. I did not think much of Welnaru then because I had too many other responsibilities. The barrier would remain up for a time but when it came down, there would be talks with the new king. Each night when I walked the parapets, I could see the great barrier glistening. But imagine my shock when one day I reached the parapets and realized that the barrier had moved.” Cynaco chuckled darkly.
Karu shook her head. “I don’t understand. How could the barrier have moved?”
“Well,” he said, holding up his finger. “There’s a funny thing about power. Again that scholar was correct in that the practitioners of magic became the Dohlo. The Dohlo became the unofficial leaders because, when the time was right, they were to lower the barrier. They were also to choose a new king, but who was there to enforce that?” Cynaco laughed again. “The king did not count on the selfishness of his practitioners, not an especially uncommon failing in those who are selfless. And the Dohlo decided that they wanted more land. More resources. Welnaru was self-sufficient, of course. But more would be good. So they did the one thing that they should never have done, they tried to expand the barrier that the king made when he sacrificed his own life, but they themselves were not willing to make the same life nor did they have his strength.
“Now magic is a very simple thing. Once a spell made properly is in motion, it remains in motion and effect until another equal or greater spell ends or interrupts it. This is why it must be used with care and precision. When the king laid down his life to create the great barrier and power the immortal soldiers, what he did was enough. He sealed that energy into a perpetual loop that would not be dispersed until the barrier was lowered. But when the Dohlo tried to expand the barrier, they damaged that seal. Holes developed in places like Hlarg Cavern, and the immortal soldiers ceased to be immortal. The magic’s hunger returned, and it had to be fed. The loss was slow at first. The Dohlo tried to fix it by moving the barrier back to where it was, but it was too late. The damage had been done. Erratic portals and strange distortions developed. And all the while the great barrier and the immortal soldiers leaked.
“Of course, their encroachment onto my territory could not be permitted. And I fully admit that I am petty and spiteful. I dislike being refused, but what I despise even more is hypocrisy. It hadn’t even been five years since the king’s sacrifice, and they were already trying to cheat. So I gathered my armies again, and we marched and did battle with those precious immortal soldiers who were no longer quite so immortal. This put the Dohlo in an exceptionally tight position. They had to feed the magic, and feeding it came with such a price. Their immortal soldiers began to crumble, so they had to remake them. And at first, their magic was sufficient. But they were longsighted in this and realized that it could not continue.
“That was when the fiction of the artifacts was created. A legend intended to inspire duty and loyalty to one’s nation while providing an excellent reason for people being routinely harvested to keep the barrier and the immortal soldiers functioning. In the beginning, they did not need so much, but as the strain upon the barrier and the soldiers grew and my attacks have increased, so did the need. That is why the time permitted each individual for searching has decreased and the crimes which permit such individuals to be taken have increased. That’s why those who have only part taken and are put into recovery generally die from infection. Their bodies are then taken and used the rest of the way. No one who goes to pay their debt themselves survives now. For the Dohlo, the price of a body is the entirety of that person’s life. Magic has not died within your nation, but it is all being channeled into key locations. And the reason that the legend has faded is because the Dohlo are so strained that they cannot pass on their propaganda as they once did. Now all that matters is keeping the barrier up and the immortal soldiers alive.”
Karu stared at him in shock. Each word was like a punch to her stomach. “There’s a war right now?”
“A brutal war. Some of those who are taken whole are turned into immortal soldiers. An unpleasant and vicious process, nothing like the original immortal soldiers that the ancient Dohlo created. They are abominations and torments.” Cynaco set the goblet down. “Nothing you could have done would have saved you from being taken, you see. The Dohlo will be announcing soon that other families must take up the search for artifacts. Those who have been safe will now be drawn into the search, and on it will continue. But it won’t be nearly enough. Welnaru’s fall is imminent. Within five years, your barrier and your soldiers will be destroyed.”
Karu swallowed hard. “And what will you do when they fall?”
“I will rip the masata from the rift and leave your miserable nation to break and burn in its wake,” Cynaco said sternly. “The price for betraying me is high indeed.”
“You said there were ways—”
“That is not the point. The Dohlo spit in my face. And there is a price for that. It must be paid. And Welnaru will pay it.”
Karu fell back a few steps, dizziness sweeping over her. “What were you doing there anyway? What did you want? You’ve been in there, and…” She pressed her hands to her face. “This doesn’t make sense. You can’t do this!”
“I can, and I will. It is nearly done. You cannot change my mind on this point, so I don’t advise that you try.”
“If you can come through, why haven’t you done it sooner?” Karu asked.
“I have passed through the portal many times. My tolerance for the barrier and for spiaro magic is high, so I am not at risk of losing my mind as others are. It is no lie that passing through too many times can have an ill effect on most people. But I entered to learn the truth of what was going on and settle things for myself as well as to confirm that the masata cannot be removed while the barrier is up.”
“And the silver ring…” Karu stared at him.
“Mostly true. But not my mother’s though that’s who the old hag thought it belonged to.” Cynaco rolled his eyes.
“Why were you having me get those items?” Karu asked. “Why did you offer to help me?”
“It was amusing.” Cynaco smiled crookedly. “Sometimes I get bored. And waiting and scrimping for information is often a trying task. You had desperation written all over you. Desperation and idealism. An intriguing but somewhat contradictory combination.”
“And the book with the map? Why did you leave that if you didn’t want me to find the other pieces?”
“That was an error on my part. I had prepared that earlier when I intended to convince you to continue moving forward. With everything that was happening, the book slipped through, and I did not remember it until I returned and saw that you had removed the map. I fully intended for you to spend at least a day or two resting.”
“You were never going to actually follow through were you,” Karu said softly. All of the warmth she had felt for him had faded, leaving now only the sense of loss. His kindness, his charm. It had all been pretend.
“Originally I intended to waste your time. I had several methods for going about it. As the deadline neared, I intended to introduce opportunities to have others take your place though not of their own volition. I suspected you’d resist most of these. In fact, I did not intend to directly approach you about someone unwillingly taking your place until the very end. Less than five minutes seemed the ideal point. I wanted to see what you would do. Do you know?”
“I hope I would have said no,” Karu said softly.
“But you don’t know?” Cynaco’s eyebrow arched.
“I don’t think anyone can really know something like that until they come to it.” Karu watched him. She was going to die. Whether by the Dohlo or in battle. She closed her eyes as tears brimmed up. “I don’t want to think I’d make someone else take my place, but I don’t want to die either. In that moment, I’m afraid maybe I would.”
“Given how you have behaved in other instances, I find it less likely.” Cynaco set the goblet aside. “And as I mentioned, I had changed my mind once you brought back the skin of blessed waters.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I thought you were simple, naive, and foolish. And in some respects, that is true. But I was surprised to find that I enjoyed our time together,” Cynaco said stepping closer. “And your desire to help me even though you yourself were in a difficult point was touching.”
“There are lots of people like that in Welnaru,” Karu said. “Ms. Bren for instance. A merchant gave me gloves and food to keep me alive that night on the mountain by the blessed spring. There are so many people worth saving.”
“What they did was kind enough, in many respects, but it did not cost either of them much. Neither of them had their lives at stake if they should fail to act to protect their own interests. But that is besides the point. I not only enjoyed our time together, I felt that there was the possibility that there could be something more between us in time. I am not a man who rushes things unless there is cause, and I see no reason to hurry this. I would like for you to remain here with me. You would be free to come and go where you like except when I summon you. Then I expect you to come.”
Karu scoffed, blinking. “You’re asking me to stay with you here? When you’re planning to destroy my people?”
“I presume you would rather live than be destroyed,” Cynaco said. He watched her, his expression more guarded.
“This isn’t easy,” Karu said. “I don’t even know what I think of you right now.”
“That is why we have time,” Cynaco said. “The only thing that you need to decide is whether you will stay here or whether you want me to send you back to your death. Because let me assure you, there is no other way out of the Dohlo’s demands other than having someone else pay the price for you.”
Karu took a deep breath, trying to sort this all out. There was so much new information, but what rose to the top was that Welnaru was in danger, her people would soon be killed, the Dohlo had involved them in a losing war, and Cynaco did not like to be crossed. A plan took shape in her mind. She nodded. “I still feel very confused,” she said slowly. “But I will stay with you as long as you like if you will let me do one thing.”
Karu stared up at the spearman. He and the others wore silver and black leather armor with light plating. A phoenix emblem was emblazoned on their chest plates, and the detailing on their trousers, epaulets resembled feathers. The Welnaru national animal and emblem icon was the sirrush, a creature resembling dragon, cat, and eagle in a single body and with a single head. But detailing generally focused on a combination of scale, feather, and fur, rather than only feather. “I’m so sorry,” she said haltingly. “We must have fallen through a portal trying to escape the spiders.”
“Enough. Get to your feet.” The leader stood with his arms akimbo away from the semi circle of warriors. His bases was made of leather rather than silk or velvet like a noble’s, and the belt had large feathered guards that had been sewn over the top. “There is no good reason for trespassing in Chirad.”
“What year is it?” Vry asked.
“1118,” the leader said.
Vry shrugged as he stood. “At least it’s the same year as us.”
“Hand over your weapons.”
Vry reluctantly removed his dagger and sword, then stooped to undo a boot dagger.
Karu got to her feet as well. She pulled the pen knife from the side of her pack. “This is all I have,” she said, offering it to the guard. “If you could show us a safe way back, we’ll be more than happy to leave.”
The guard nearest her snatched away her bag and knife. He rifled through it before holding up the goblet. “Looks like they were stealing too.”
“Stealing? No! I was sent here to get it, but it was just sitting out in the cavern,” Karu said.
“It was just sitting out yes, but in the king’s garden. This is his prized goblet.” The leader took the goblet in hand and eyed them scornfully. “We don’t let trespassers leave without interrogation, but since you’re thieves as well, you can plan on not leaving.”
“No, wait, we have to get back!” Karu exclaimed.
“Silence.” The guards pointed their spears at them once more.
The leader motioned to the passage on their left. “Put them in holding. I’ll alert the king that we found his goblet.”
“Wait!” Karu cried. She reached for the goblet. “You don’t understand—”
Vry caught her by the arm. “Don’t give them a reason to kill you,” he whispered.
Karu fell silent, realizing he was right. A horrible despair spread over her as the guards prodded them forward. Getting the goblet back now meant having to break out of a dungeon, rob a hostile king’s garden, and then navigate a way back through a cavern of giant angry spiders. Even if she had thirteen days again, she doubted there was enough time for all that.
Torches appeared on the walls of the passage, fastened into the stone with iron bolts. Slowly the walls became more polished and finished, and soon they walked on flagstones. The dampness also cleared, and eventually they passed rooms with fires, tables, chairs, and other soldiers. Karu noted every step and turn. Even if the portals took them someplace other than the Hlarg Cavern, it was at least a way out and a chance to make it back home in time to get the the goblet to Co, find her artifact, and stop this horrible tradition.
Eventually they reached a heavy stone door. The guard removed a thick ring of iron keys from the corner wall farthest from the door, then unlocked it. The door grated open stiffly. Inside were several cells with benches and chamberpots. While the cells were small, they were at least clean. The first guard unlocked the door while the others continued to hold them at spearpoint.
“Listen, I promise that that we didn’t mean to do anything wrong,” Karu said as the guard motioned to the cell. “But I have to get back to Welnaru with that goblet or else I’ll be executed.”
“You may not have to go to Welnaru to be executed,” the guard said darkly. “Now get in.”
Vry had already stepped inside. Karu followed dejectedly. “Please, if you could just let me have it, let me explain it to the king, I’ll see if I can get it back to him when the ceremony is done. I didn’t know it was his, and I don’t think Co did either. It was just in the cavern. Just sitting there!”
One guard nudged another and whispered something. All four laughed. They strode out of the cell and then closed the main door behind them.
Tears choked Karu’s throat. She dashed the back of her hand beneath her eyes. “I can’t believe this.”
“It is incredibly rotten. We not only find a portal but enter what appears to be a rather well-advanced country, and now we’re both thieves of something that a king loves. This will not end well for us.” Vry sat heavily on the bench, his elbows resting on his thighs and his hands dangling between his legs. “It’s all such a waste. I’ve got such a brilliant mind. I’m a master of ciphers, you know. Codes. Ciphers. You name it. I’m brilliant at math. I can break a problem or a code like that.” He snapped his fingers. “The Iitin Cipher? I know thousands of combinations.”
“What?” Karu turned to stare at him.
Vry lifted his hands. “It’s a cipher. Each letter is equal to its value on the alphabetical scale. A is 1, Z 26. You then put together these different sets of numbers and put them side by side, and when you subtract them from one another, the difference is the value of the letter. So A could be 2625 or 3130 or 54 or 111110. Endless variety with a simple solution. And I know countless others. I could have done so much more good with my life, but I had to spend most of it because of these stupid artifacts. I know every bone in the body and all of the Patiam cures for aches and fevers. But what good does that do?
Karu wanted to chastise him, but the words died within her. She sank onto the bench, leaning her head against the bars. They dug into her scalp. It was over. Nothing she could say would make a difference.
No matter how she puzzled it through her mind, there was no solution outside a miracle. She tried not to count the minutes, but the instincts that her mother had honed within her and that her father had encouraged kept track of everything pass second. One minute. Two. Seven. Twelve. Sixty. Eighty-nine. Her last days were free falling through the hourglass, wasted. Tears leaked down her cheek.
“Hey.” Vry came to sit beside her. “Listen, I know I’m a boor, and a selfish one at that. But if you need to talk, you can.”
Karu tried to hold back the tears, but her face twisted. Then the tears burst out. “I don’t want to die.”
“Nobody does, Karu.” Vry put his arm around her shoulders. “Listen. We’ll figure out a way out of here. You’ve still got seven days.”
“Six now,” Karu whispered thickly.
“Okay. Six. That’s enough though. More than enough.”
“If I’m even a minute late in arriving to pay my debt, they’ll take all of me,” Karu said. “And if I somehow escaped that, they’d plaster posters with my face on them in every village, town, and city.” She wiped her eyes, sniffing. “I saw the last one everywhere I went. Even in the little lake fishing villages that only had a hundred people. She looked so sad. Not much older than me, you know?” Karu closed her eyes, recalling the woman’s face vividly. That image had never left her. Haunting wide eyes sketched in sepia ink, light crow’s feet around her eyes, a slight cleft in her chin. “She looked like a friend of mine from Usi. Just an ordinary woman. Make a dairy farmer or a cook or a teacher. Someone who served quietly but kindly. And they hunted her for months before they found her and carried her away to be taken apart in front of everyone!”
“I remember that,” Vry said. “Lena.”
“Yes.” Karu shook her head. “I’m out of time.”
“You can’t give up on yourself now though. Come on. You want life, you’ve got to fight for it. Listen, I whine and I moan and I complain. But I don’t give up on one plan unless I’ve got a better one waiting for me. You have six whole days. That’s plenty of time.”
“No, it isn’t. I have to find a way to get the goblet back, and then we’ve got to get past the spiders, and—” She buried her face in her hands.
Vry grimaced. “Well, I’m not saying the spiders will be easy. But I don’t think the portals always go to the same place. Least ways that’s what I’ve heard, and it can’t really take us anywhere much worse than that, now can it? And even if it drops us off in the middle of the wilderness, we can’t be more than a few days’ swift march to one of the cities. You can pay your debt in any of the cities, Karu.”
“People don’t surviving the recovery rooms. My mom died there. It wasn’t supposed to be that bad for her. But she died!” Karu sobbed.
“Yeah, they treat those people like they’re cow pies in a ballroom.” Vry sighed. “Listen, I know you don’t like it, but I can find you someone bad. Someone who does bad things but not bad enough for the law to get him. The guy I put in my place, I caught him beating some poor hound pups with a stick. He’d already killed one. So I arranged his being taken. The Dohlo aren’t as picky as they make it seem, and I didn’t feel bad about putting him in my place.” Vry shifted on the bench, his gaze dropping. “Not really anyway. Not enough that can’t be dealt with. But I tell you, I’d rather be alive and guilty than dead and innocent.”
“I don’t think I can make someone else take my place,” Karu said. “And I want to stop this. Forever. If we could just find the artifacts—”
“Karu, there aren’t any artifacts.” Vry leaned back against the wall heavily. “We don’t actually know what the laws are in this country. Maybe it will be better. Maybe after you get a chance to explain yourself to the justice, they’ll go easy on you. Or maybe they’ll put you in jail for a time. They’re not necessarily going to execute you.” He didn’t sound nearly as convincing as he looked.
“I suppose that could work, but that doesn’t fix the problem back home.”
“You got lucky saving the bear,” Vry said. “But in real life, we don’t get to save everyone. There was another bear in there who wasn’t lucky enough to get out.”
“Do you think we can’t save everyone because we just can’t or because we think we can’t and so we don’t even try?” Karu asked softly.
“I don’t know. And I don’t really care either. Any day that I’m drawing breath and not stuck in a spider’s larder is a good day by me.”
“I guess that’s one of the things that make us different.” Karu gripped his hand.
The lock grated and clanked. Karu straightened, looking toward it. The door slid open slowly, revealing a lone figure. Karu gasped. “Co!”
The voice called again, distorted and terrified. “Please! If you can hear me! Help!”
Karu stared down the yawning passage with horror. It wasn’t one marked with a red X, but she was supposed to stay on the main path. Was it possible that it wasn’t even another person? What if the spiders had learned how to mimic? Could they mimic? She shook her head. She’d never heard of one using sounds or voices before. That of course didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. But what was more likely? And what if it was Co? What if he had come here so that she could rest? She had no idea where he was. The voice didn’t sound like his, but her own footsteps didn’t sound right either.
She secured her pack, then moved closer to the yawning passage. It had sharp points along its top, reminding her of teeth. A less than pleasant reminder of the current danger. Webs stretched out within this passage. Bracing herself, she stepped under the jagged stones and followed the voice. It faded and grew, sometimes wailing and sometimes moaning, the words sometimes elongated and other times quickened. Sometimes she felt the voice echoing through. She noted every step though and the key markings within the rock. Just because she was leaving the main path didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to find her way back. The map showed much of the cavern, and its markings were beautifully clear.
Yes, there was nothing to be afraid of. Except spiders big enough or smart enough to hunt unicorns. Neither of which was a pleasant thought to contemplate.
“Hello?” the voice shouted again. “If you’re out there, answer me.”
Karu noted that the passage opened up farther ahead, the ring of her torch casting a light into the chamber beyond. She didn’t dare shout back. Some spiders hunted based on vibration. If only there was some way to communicate that. If he didn’t stop shouting, he was going to lead the spiders right to him. Then again, he might already be trapped.
“Hello!” The voice strained, growing stronger. “I see your light. Can you hear me?”
Karu quickened her pace, looking for any sign of a present threat. Nothing. Not on the walls. Not on the ceiling. She hurried forward, pushing aside the terror of a camouflaging spider. She emerged within a larger cavern, smaller than the cathedral and not so beautiful. Her heart leaped with horror. With the exception of the openings into the other passages, the walls of this cavern were enmeshed in thick, sticky webs. Numerous bodies ranging from deer to bears to rabbits to dogs to wolves hung at regular intervals along the walls and ceiling. Most were shriveled, shrunk down to bone and skin. And there stuck in a web between natural formed pillars was Vry. A waterproof torch lay on the ground near him, burning on its last embers. Thick strands engulfed Vry, but he wasn’t fully wrapped. His eyes widened when he saw her. “You.”
Karu thrust her finger to her lips, pushing away the shock. “Keep your voice down,” she whispered sharply. She looked around the chamber. While there were many large shapes, none of them were spiders. She then hurried to him and dug out her pen knife. “They may be drawn to the sound.”
“This is their larder,” Vry said darkly. “This is where they bring the food. Believe me, there’s been lots of sound down here. They don’t come in here unless they’re hungry.”
“What are you doing down here?” Karu wedged the torch between two stalagmites.
“I thought there might be some proof about what the Dohlo are doing in here,” Vry said. “There’s been lots of weird things happening here. It’s one of the biggest spots for portal disappearances. I thought that maybe it was just an excuse for the Dohlo to make people disappear. Now I’m thinking that there are other reasons people disappear in here.”
“No joke there.” Karu stepped closer.
“Hey, hey.” Vry scowled. “You’re gonna cut me down with that apple knife?”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
“You don’t travel with something a little more substantive?” Vry stared at her in disbelief. “Get my sword or dagger. One of them. This stuff is thick and strong.”
“I thought these were just cave spiders,” Karu snapped. She worked his dagger out. It was double edged noble dagger with sapphires inlaid along the base of the hilt. The blade was made from a silver-white metal that reflected the torchlight when she removed it. More importantly, it cut through the webs with ease.
“Yeah, well they are cave spiders. Just really big ones.” Vry glanced around nervously. “Hurry up. They haven’t been in here for awhile. I think one of ’em will be back for a snack.”
“How many are there?”
“I’ve seen at least three, but I’m betting there’s a whole colony. I’m the only thing left alive in here. They don’t seem to bite.” Vry shuddered. “Just stick us up here and leave us. They brought that bear in while I was here, but it died before me. Something must have happened.”
That was significant. Karu frowned as she continued to cut through the web. Some of it brushed against the skin on her forearm. At one her skin flushed. Small bumps formed. “Ah!” Drawing back, she pushed her sleeve up farther. The itching intensified worse than any spider bite she had ever had. Then slowly it faded. The truth dawned on her. “The webs are venomous.”
“What?” Vry’s eyes widened even more. He struggled harder. “Then get me down!”
“Hold still. I think you’re fine. The only bare skin you’ve got is on your face and the back of your head. Guess those fancy clothes and that high collar did you a favor.” Karu rubbed her arm. It stopped stinging after a few seconds longer. Topical venoms took time to penetrate. The more the victim was encased in the webs, the faster they died. From the number of corpses present, Karu suspected that these spiders were well fed and not especially concerned with the speed of death. The most wrapped appeared to be the oldest. “I guess if you don’t die fast enough, they wrap you up more. Otherwise, they’re happy to leave you here and let their webs finish you off while they gather up more prey.”
“Fascinating. Now get me down.” Vry set his jaw, but he no longer struggled. “This place should be burned to the ground.”
“Kind of hard to burn out a cave like this.” Karu resumed cutting. Her hands shook so she had to slow her strokes.
“What are you doing in here anyway?” Vry demanded. “Not that I’m not glad to see you of course. I just figured you’d be off looking for the artifacts that don’t exist.”
“I am. Sort of.” Karu finished freeing his leg. “I came here to get a goblet.”
“What for? It’s not an artifact is it? You know you don’t get credit for finding an artifact that’s yours.”
“My friend needs it. Once he has it, he’s going to help me.”
“Unless your friend is about to die, it doesn’t sound like he’s much of a friend if he’s making you help him when you’ve got nine days left.”
“Even worse.” Vry flinched as a strand of web came near his face. “Come on. Hurry up.”
“I’m going as fast as I can.” Karu glanced back over her shoulder. That awful haunted feeling had intensified again. There was no reason for a spider to stalk her in here and then let her go around freeing its prey. “Keep an eye on the openings.”
“Oh, that’s what you want me to do? I was thinking about catching a little nap while you finished cutting me down.”
“Do you want me to leave you here?” Karu demanded, straightening.
Vry blanched. “No. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll watch the passages.”
Karu shook her head. “When we get out of here, we need to go out the way I came. Otherwise, we’re going to start running into some of the passages marked in red.”
“What passages marked in red?” Vry asked.
“I’ve got a map. It’s got all the portal disappearance locations. Or maybe spider attack locations.” Karu cut faster. His other leg was free now. The web began to sag beneath his weight. She shook her head. “Co just save they were big spiders.”
“Well these are definitely big,” Vry said.
“Yeah, well, a big spider means it’s about the size of a dinner plate unless we’re talking about a king spider. Not big enough to eat bears and unicorns and people!” Karu snapped.
“I’m not arguing with you. I’m just agreeing that they’re big. And ugly.” Vry shuddered.
“How big are they exactly?” Karu asked. His left arm came free.
Vry’s face paled. He nodded toward passage behind her. “About that big.”
Cold horror swept over Karu. Her skin tightened, and fear stung her nerves. Slowly she hinged her gaze over her shoulder.
An enormous brown and red spider filled the passage. It was so large she could not even see the top crooks of its legs. It watched them with six murky eyes. The furred mandibles worked slowly against its jaws, but no sound came from it. A medium sized black bear lay beneath it, gripped with its forelegs. The bear moved weakly, a low growl emanating from its tawny snout.
“Um…” Vry shook. “I’ve got a bit of a wild idea.”
“I’m willing to hear about anything right now,” Karu whispered.
“I don’t think it knows that you’re cutting me loose. Maybe it doesn’t even know you’re here. You’re right in front of me now. So put yourself directly against me and hold very still. I think it’s just here to replenish the larder.”
Karu nodded. Then so slowly it hurt, she moved directly in front of Vry. He kept his arm lifted where it was and did not move.
The spider ducked down and entered, its body compressing briefly to allow it access. As soon as it passed beneath the arch, it returned to its former size, the tops of its legs almost brushing the ceiling. It dragged the black bear in as if it weighed nothing. Then, carefully, it placed it on the webbed wall, wrapped a few strands around it, and then turned toward them. The bear struggled, more growling louder.
Karu held her breath. The spider watched them, its eyes unmoving and its jaws unstopping. There was only the faintest rush of sound as the spider had moved earlier, and even now, there was no sound to indicate it was even in the room with them.
Then it stepped scurried closer.
It took every ounce of strength Karu had to not shriek and run as the ten-foot spider approached them. It stopped within inches, so close she could see every striped hair on its face. It clicked its mandibles then, a soft whirring sort of click that belonged to a far smaller animal. Karu trembled.
Raising its forelegs, the spider tapped Vry’s chest. Vry cringed, but kept silent. The spider tapped him again as if to see if he was going to run. It sank back and watched.
Karu’s head spun. She blinked, repressing the screams that built inside her. Her hand sweat around the dagger. She could feel the tension in Vry’s body as well. His heart hammered against her ear.
The spider moved closer again. It tapped Karu’s forehead. She clenched her mouth shut, stiffening. Its mandibles worked faster, the whirring click intensifying within inches of her face. Karu held her breath, cringing back against Vry.
Then, all at once, the spider pulled back as if satisfied. It bustled about the chamber then, nudging and tapping the other bundles before at last settling on two. The bear’s plaintive moans grew louder. As easily as if plucking ripe fruit from a tree, the spider removed the two dried husks from the wall, ducked down, and left the chamber.
Karu gasped, dropping to her knees. “Oh that was close.”
“Too close.” Vry panted for breath. He then reached for his sword, but his arm stuck. “Hurry up and get me loose. We’ve gotta get out of here.”
Karu adjusted her grip on the dagger and resumed cutting him loose. After a few minutes more, he was free.
Groaning, he cracked his back and arms. The rest of the webs peeled off as if they had lost some of their strength and stickiness now that they were no longer connected to the main web. “Great lake serpents that feels good.”
Karu ran over to the bear. She seized the strand of web across its back and cut it off.
“Hey, hey! What are you doing?” Vry exclaimed. He ran up to her.
“I’m cutting this bear loose.”
“What the everlasting!” Vry clapped his hands to the top of his head. “What? No!”
“It’s going to die if we don’t.”
The bear whooshed a loud breath out as if in agreement, rolling its eyes up at her.
“That’s nature! We can’t save everything!” Vry stared at her in shock. “That bear is going to attack you if you let it free.”
“I think it knows we’re trying to help. It’s scared like us, but look at it, it isn’t fighting anymore.”
“Do you make a habit of this?” Vry demanded.
Karu sawed through the webs faster and faster. The black bear dropped to the ground. It woofed, shaking its head as it got free, but it didn’t bare its teeth or raise its hackles at her. “Yeah, when I can.”
Vry shook his head. “This is unbelievable. Well, why are you being so mean to the spiders? You’re taking away their dinner.”
Karu shrugged, continuing to cut the bear free. “Those spiders aren’t natural. There’s something really wrong about them.”
“Yes, I agree that they’re an abomination against nature. But are you saying that they deserve to starve? Why don’t you try to help them?”
Karu hesitated as she freed the bear’s paw.
“I’m joking!” Vry shouted. He paced away from her and then back, resting his hands on the top of his head. “You’ve got to draw the line somewhere, and gigantic man-eating spiders seems like a very good one to make. Now let’s get out of here.”
“Just another minute.” Karu finished severing the last of the webs and jumped back.
The bear pulled free. It shook its head. The rest of the webs fell away as if they were dust. Then it bolted for the nearest passage, disappearing into the dark.
Karu handed him back his dagger. “All right.” She then snatched up her torch and pointed toward the passage she had come from. “Now we can go.”
Vry muttered under his breath as he followed her. They quickly returned to the cathedral room. Karu took a moment to orient herself. The ring of light and shadows made the natural sculptures hard to identify for a moment.
“I came through there.” Vry pointed beyond the melting violin.
Karu recognized it then. “Me too!” She hurried forward.
The front of the passage suddenly filled as the massive spider appeared beneath its arch. Karu stopped short. Vry bumped into her.
The spider stiffened. Its mandibles clacked, much louder this time, the hairs on its legs and head bristling.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got another wild plan.” Karu stared at it, terrified.
Vry gulped. “Um…run?”
“Obvious but probably best at this point.” Karu glanced at the other passages. An odd shifting, clacking sound was coming from the one closest. “Not that one though.”
“Nope. This one.” Vry gripped her wrist and tugged her toward the smallest one on their right.
The spider shook its head and cracked its mandibles together, emitting a much louder and sharper clicking. Rearing up, it charged them.
Karu jumped over one of the smaller rock formations. The stone shook under the spider’s rage. She and Vry plunged into the darkness of the smaller passage. Karu barely had time to look up and around to ensure they weren’t running into any other spiders before they were already past one of the side passages.
The spider’s deafening clicking faded and then renewed, joined by others. “Sounds like there’s more coming,” Karu exclaimed as Vry charged forward.
“Whoa!” Vry stopped short, then ripped her to the side as another enormous spider appeared in the passage before them. They barely slid into the side passage as the spider pounced on the wall, its grasping forelegs missing them by inches.
The cave path pitched downward, the floor becoming slipperier and damper. The sounds of the spiders clacking and running after them mixed with the slow drip of the water filled Karu’s mind. She kept expecting to feel the coarse hair grip of the spider as it pounced, then the sting of its web as it bound her. They had to get to some place the spiders couldn’t chase them.
“There!” Karu pointed at an even smaller passage.
“I see it.” Vry ripped her toward it. They both plunged in, then they pitched forward, rolling into the darkness. The torch clattered from Karu’s hand, stone striking her back and cracking against her arm. Then she slammed into the ground, her head catching on Vry’s shoulder.
“Ow.” Vry winced.
Karu tried to force herself up, but her body resisted. Her lungs ached as she struggled to fill them. The torch lay a few feet away from them. Up above the spiders clattered, clacked, and stamped. But the sound wasn’t getting any closer. Maybe they had lost them. Karu strained to reach the torch.
“Oh, hello,” Vry said.
Something sharp and cold pressed up beneath Karu’s chin. She froze as she glanced back.
Several armored guards stood behind her, spears pointed at her and Vry.
“You are under arrest for trespassing in the Chirad Passages,” the apparent leader said.
Karu returned to the Red Flower Inn just before the dinner rush. It didn’t take long for her to clean up and change. Then she used the chip for dinner, went to settle her tab and learned that Co had paid for her stay through the next two weeks.
Two weeks. Karu smiled slightly as she ordered her meal, the silver ring still gripped tight in her palm. He was counting on her survival. It was a touching gesture. Even though now, she basically had seven days.
Seven days. The phrase settled in her stomach so heavy she wanted to skip her meal. She couldn’t shake that nagging little doubt that there was something wrong with this. Co had been nothing but kind to her, and she did not doubt his intentions. He wanted to save his mother. And through her restoration, she would hopefully recall the incantation she had uncovered which would reveal the artifacts. But was it guaranteed to work? She forced a bite of hunter’s stew down. The flavors did not register with her. Raucous singing had started at the front of the dining hall. Karu glanced up, half expecting to see Vry up there, proclaiming the wonders of his pragmatic method. But he wasn’t present.
Not that that was truly a surprise. She wasn’t sure how long he had intended to remain in Raborki. More than likely he had overstayed his welcome. Most who bought folks and used them as trade for their debt did not publicize it. And unless that person traded their lives willingly for the original debtor, it was not looked upon favorably. Vry had money and apparently connections of some sort, but she doubted that they were enough to fully protect him from the condemnation of the general populace. Then again, who knew how people really responded? As more and more faced the death knell of the Dohlo’s demands, his method would likely become more popular. There was something so much sweeter about life when it was threatened and close to ending. Scarcity made things more precious. Karu had not counted her days at the beginning. Now she hawked the minutes. She rested her cheek against her fist and took another bite.
Seven days left. Just one week before she knew if her life would continue. Opening her fist, she stared down at the silver ring in her palm. The second of the three items. Only one more to go. Impatience rose within her. Co had promised to help her as soon as she provided him with the three items. Perhaps she should go to the cavern tonight. She jostled her leg up and down as she contemplated this, nervous energy filling her. She coughed absently.
The silver ring was easy enough to put someplace safe. She could wrap it up and put it in his book. Provided he wasn’t there of course. A quiet voice warned her that if he had come back for the night, he would object to her leaving.
Warmth flooded her as she thought about spending the night in the same room with him again. He had been about to kiss her the night before. She had been so busy with searching for the ring that she hadn’t thought about their last exchange until now. Or maybe it was all her imagination. She’d been on the verge of passing out from the medication. Maybe he hadn’t said all that.
Karu shook her head. She probably shouldn’t think about it. Regardless, it would be best to get this over and done with. Hlarg’s Cavern was on the other end of the city, but she would need a waterproof torch to enter the cavern anyway. Reaching the cavern itself wouldn’t be particularly difficult, and since it was located on the north side and on high ground, she didn’t have to worry about flooding. Yes. The more she thought about this, the more sense it made. She even had some of that dried pressed meat that the merchant had given her in case something went incredibly wrong and she had to spend a night out in the cold again. But at least she was starting the night out in clean clothes with only a minor cough and aching chest. Besides, given how cold it was tonight, the spiders weren’t likely to be particularly active, cave spiders or not.
Karu finished eating her hunter’s stew and buckwheat bread as quickly as she could. Then, after leaving a tip, she hurried back to her room. Co had not yet returned. Good. She had a chance to get this over and done. She wouldn’t be back until late of course, and he was likely to be annoyed with her himself. But how mad could he stay when she showed him that she had the last two items that she had promised? She had to purchase paper and ink from the front desk, but Ms. Bren allowed her to borrow the quill. She even offered to bring her a large mug of sweet root tea and more of her special medicine. “It’ll soothe that cough of yours.”
“Maybe when I get back,” Karu said. She couldn’t afford to fall asleep that long again, and that medicine was extremely potent.
“You’re going out again?” Ms. Bren gave her a chastising shake of the head. “Are you trying to catch a death chill?”
“No. Exactly the opposite. I’ll be buying one of the oil torches too, thanks. Two actually. The kind that won’t go out.” Karu hunched over the page and scribbled out her message. Each second lost was one she could never get back, and she wanted every bit of daylight she could get. Once the words were on the page, she blew on them so that the shimmering black ink sealed to the fibers. Then, folding it carefully, she returned upstairs to her room with the two torches. Each one was supposed to last for hours, but she packed the spare in her bag.
Final preparations concluded with her checking and double checking the placement of the ring to make sure that it wasn’t going to fall out or slip away. Once she was satisfied, Karu hurried back down the staircase and outside.
No one said anything to her this time. Those who recognized her stared openly. Quiet mutters and murmurs followed her as she walked. Not even the storm shifters called out any greetings. One started to, then someone nudged her and whispered something. Karu wasn’t sure how she’d explain everything when she finally finished all this questing business, but she hoped it wouldn’t be too challenging. Most likely if she cleaned herself up they wouldn’t even recognize her. For now all that mattered was that no one stopped her. Their unease and caution prickled along her spine and mind like a warning. She tightened her grip on the one lit torch, nodding and smiling at any one whose gaze she caught.
Not one person stopped her. The silence grew eerie as she walked along the clapboard porches and beneath the overhanging roofs. Everyone gave her a broad berth as well. The positive aspect of this was that it was not long before she reached the gate and followed it outside. The rain quickened, coming in at an angle as the wind howled stronger. Her course took her up a roughly cobbled path. Bits of gravel and stone had fallen away from the steep climb upward and occasional stairs cut into the earth itself. Water poured down it, not strong enough to be more than a nuisance. This was the sort of hike she usually enjoyed, brisk, focused. Her pace warmed her even though her coughs increased.
Once she was in for the night, she promised herself she would have a wonderful cup of Ms. Bren’s tea. She smiled, enjoying that thought. And since Co had paid for her lodging for the rest of her time until her debt came do and even beyond that, she could even celebrate with a small pastry or something equally warm and pleasant. Yes, after a dark night of tromping through the rain and negotiating a path around cave spiders, that would be a very pleasant way to end the night.
Hlarg Cavern soon appeared like a skull at the top of a twisted neck. There were more stairs cut into the stone and earth here which made the climb a bit easier in the slick weather. The torch flickered and hissed at the constant deluge of rain, but as promised, it did not go out. It provided a sharp counter to the chill even though it radiated only a relatively small zone of heat.
As she reached the top, Karu leaned just inside the entrance to peer inside. The cave smelled like damp stone and rotting bodies, an uncomfortably odd and sickly sweet scent. She grimaced, pulling her cloak up over her face to mask it. Something had probably run in there and died. There weren’t as many fast eating scavengers in certain parts of the country, especially within the cave systems. All bodies would be broken down immediately, but, if they were hard to reach, the scavengers might wait a bit for the meat to soften and ferment, unconcerned about others getting there ahead of them because of the corpse’s awkward location. Or there could be a healthy crop of skull cabbage and death bonnets growing inside, two types of large fungi that emitted scents similar to death and rotting corpses when they blossomed. Karu shuddered. Neither were pleasant. Death bonnets in particular left a horrible black murky film on one’s hands if one picked them up when they were ripe. It could take hours, even days to get the horrid scent and slime off.
But the cavern other than that appeared safe enough. The passaged opened inward with the standard stalactites and stalagmites protruding at points. And it did have the advantage of being dry. She stepped inside carefully.
The relative calm of the cavern engulfed her. Karu kept her steps slow, resisting the urge to charge in. A few webs clung near the front on a couple stalactites. They were thick, sticky, and gauzy, very much like cave spiders. Small bugs and moths were already wrapped up in them. A spider no larger than the size of a quarter gold piece huddled on the web. It didn’t move as she passed. As cold as this night was, these spiders weren’t going to be especially active. Which was quite fine by her. The last thing she needed was more complications.
The damp cold within the cavern clung to her lungs and chest. She coughed as she pulled out the map and examined it. The detailing in this was quite good. She recognized three of the smaller rock formations in this initial cavern with ease. Well done to Co or whoever handled the cartography. The one note that was included on this was that sound was distorted and did not travel well. Perhaps because of the portals. Things heard might sound farther away than they were until they were in the same chamber or within a few feet. The notes transitioned into words she did not recognize.
Her footsteps were loud. Even the sound of her own breathing. Unnaturally and uncomfortably so. Knowing that this was somewhat normal for this area at least elminated that concern. She studied the map again and again with each passage she moved beyond, and she kept her ears open for any sound of other animals. Bears sometimes used these caves for sleeping, and in weather like this, it wouldn’t be unheard of for other animals to use them as well. No muddy tracks indicated this. But the webs did get thicker and larger as she moved farther and farther inward. As she passed one side passage, she noted a web that was woven in so many layers that it was thicker than her whole body.
That was odd. Funnel spiders were more likely to do that, and, as the name suggested, they generally created funnels with theirs. The webs then weren’t usually sticky. She lightly pressed her hand to the edge of the web. The fibers clung to her fingers at once as she pulled them back. As soon as they tugged free of the main web, they crumbled.
Now this was even odder. The webbing looked like a funnel spider’s and was in a cave spider’s domain, but under closer analysis it was more like a rope spider’s except for the crumbling. The fibers, though strongly connected, were coiled around one another and then woven in. Rope spiders were incredibly distinct in the way that they wove, and the finished webs were extremely strong and quite difficult to escape. So why had it crumbled like that? Her grandfather would have loved to see these webs. She could only imagine what he would say. If there were rope spiders down here, that wasn’t so bad. They were large but essentially harmless and desperately shy despite their large curved fangs and jerky movements.
Karu continued on. The passage descended as it curved, but it never became uncomfortably steep. The damp intensified as did the smell. She passed a few death bonnets, two large clusters forming in one of the passages marked with a red X. Grimacing, Karu hurried on. If for smell alone, those death bonnets gave a good reason for avoidance.
Another twenty minutes in though, and she noted that the webs had grown thicker and larger. Occasionally thick strands of rope-like web strung across the main passage, forcing her to duck or step around. An uncomfortable prickling formed at the base of her spine and continued up her neck when she noted a large wrapped corpse in one of the webs. From the size of it, it might have been a cat or a rat or even a small dog. It was tightly bound, drained to a husk from the desiccated paw that stuck out of it. Now that was unusual. More like a king spider, one of the largest spiders. It was big enough to set traps for mammals and drive them into it. Again, they were not particularly dangerous to humans, but they could be frightening. They could weigh about thirty pounds and often charged to demonstrate dominance or drive prey into webs. But this was far too cold a climate for them. And…the prey was too high off the ground. King spiders couldn’t climb on webs quite so high. Their webs were usually low and strung across the ground or between shrubs and brush that they could climb. Unlike other spiders, they couldn’t climb on ceilings, and, while their little footpads could scent the air and taste for the presence of threats, they needed slanted surfaces with rough exteriors to successfully get off the ground.
Karu disliked this. Spiders didn’t bother her, but if this was a new species, she didn’t have enough information to make smart decisions in handling it. Co had said they were big spiders. But that told her nothing. There were dozens of large spiders throughout Welnaru, some more dangerous than others. And while he insisted that their venom wasn’t bad, how did he know? He hadn’t mentioned what type they were. So was that a guess or actual knowledge?
Her skin crawled now. Not one of the spiders was around for her to see except the cave spider near the entrance. The animal corpses continued, some growing increasingly large. A couple rats. Some mice. A snake. An adolescent wolf. Bits of appendages and tails indicated the ones that were wrapped, and a few were simply trapped on the webs and dead but not wrapped. That was also unusual behavior. As she entered another crossway of passages, she stopped short. A unicorn was mostly bond in the web. Its horn had broken in the struggle and now lay fractured on the ground.
Karu’s mouth fell open. Throughout her travels, she’d seen a unicorn more than once. They were elusive, sleek, and mysterious, and they sometimes disguised themselves as ordinary horses. But she’d only seen a dead one twice. And never death by spider.
She stepped closer slowly, her breaths catching in her throat. The unicorn did not move. Its soft white nostrils did not whoosh or even tremble. She placed her hand beneath its jawbone. The fur and flesh were cold. No pulse stirred beneath.
Nausea twisted in her stomach. The largest spider she’d ever seen could not have done this. Cave spiders sometimes worked together. King spiders too on occasion. But this unicorn had been hoisted up into the air. Now maybe the unicorn had jumped. This web was stretched between two smaller passages. But something in the way the body hung there contradicted that.
Karu’s hands trembled. She needed to get the goblet and leave fast. Anything that was strong enough to take down a unicorn was strong enough to take down her. She gently closed the unicorn’s murky eyes, then picked up its opalescent periwinkle horn. It looked very much like the one in her dream. Her dreams didn’t usually come true, but her mother warned her that when signs appeared in dreams and then in life, that meant that something important was happening. It was a warning.
Her hands tingled and pricked around the unicorn horn. What warning though? Aside from the obvious “get out now.” She swallowed hard and slipped the unicorn horn into her pack, hoping that it would become clearer later. The map revealed that the goblet was fairly close. If she hurried she could get it.
She started forward. As she did, she noticed how distorted her own footsteps were. They scuffed on the floor, but they weren’t so clear. And a vague headiness had come over her. Perhaps it was just the fear working in her mind or maybe there was something in the horrid scent. Bits of darkness seemed to move beyond the webs. She found herself jumping at her own shadow. “Stay calm,” she whispered.
It was hard for her imagination to not run wild. The strange way in which sound traveled meant that anything could sneak up on her at any time. And all spiders were quiet. Light on their eight feet. And of course she wouldn’t intentionally run into their webs. But if they were like king spiders and charged her or striped fangs and leaped out of a passage to scare her, how likely was she not to bolt straight into a web?
But though the evidence of spiders continued, she saw nothing and felt only the aching sensation of being stalked.
The map indicated that she was to take a turn here. The passage was clear, the stone bumpy but lacking holes. Her heart beat faster. She swallowed the fear building inside her but it returned just as quickly. If the map was correct, the goblet would be just a little farther in.
This torch revealed that the passage carried only fairly straight. Only a few passages curved out from it. Karu’s nerves intensified with each passage she passed. She peeked around the corner of each one and scanned the ceiling, half expecting to see some large arachnid staring back at her, mandibles twitching, forelegs tasting the air. Sometimes there were webs. Sometimes corpses. But no spiders.
Fifteen minutes later, her pace greatly slowed because of her constant checking and rechecking, she entered into another larger cavern. It was like a cathedral with tremendous and stunning sculptures formed through water, time, and stone. But the lace-like designs and leaf-like impressions as well as one form that almost looked like a nymph bathing herself in a river did not impress Karu. She only cared about one thing. Finding the goblet. The pale yellow and rose stone glistened in the torchlight, the constant drip drip louder in here. The map showed it as being on a relatively smooth sheet of stone that looked as if someone had poured out wet cement and then let it pool as it wished. Behind a statue that vaguely resembled a melting violin.
Karu spotted the melting violin and hurried to it. Her breaths and footsteps echoed in here, but as she rounded the violin, the sound changed again, becoming muffled and close. But she gave a cry of delight as she glimpsed the carved jet goblet sitting exactly where Co had said it would be on the stone. She snatched it up.
The goblet was intricately carved, shining beneath the torchlight. It held nothing, and its surfaces were clean. Good enough for her. She shoved it into the pack and prepared to head back.
Then she heard an odd sound. Some sort of muted wail from the passage nearest her. She stepped closer instinctively.
The male voice became clearer but was still distorted. “Hello! Please. Help!”
Someone was trapped down here.
Catching her breath, Karu ducked her head. Her head spun. How could rats be the size of wolves? This was ridiculous! Stealing the ring might not be such a bad option. She was certain that if she went upstairs and told Lady Elspa and Catrice that there were rats the size of wild wolves and house cats in the basement, neither would stay another moment. The smaller rats were clearly protecting the larger. At this moment, they were trying to determine whether she was a threat. Karu drew in a deep breath. So far though, they had not attacked. Which was a good sign. She didn’t get down off the stool though.
“All right, ratties,” Karu said softly. “I’m not here to hurt you. I’m just going to help you find a new home.” She looked around the room, realizing that she was surrounded. None were within five feet of her, but more of the cat-sized rats had entered. “All right. I’m just going to stay calm here.” She let out another tight breath, then looked back around the room. This time, she realized that there was something wrong about the largest two.
They lay side by side, but their posture was wrong. A pipe had fallen over them. They were pinned. Lifting her own candle up higher, Karu noted that a pipe had broken off from beneath the overhead boards. An excess and old pipe from the looks of it. The drain that had been fitted over the top must have broken. Perhaps something to handle overflow? She returned her gaze to the larger rates, noting that the smaller rats had piled up food in front of the larger two.
“Maybe you’re the leaders,” Karu said. She went over in her mind what she could do. The smaller rats were obviously very protective, but she might be able to win their trust. All she needed to do was lift the pipe and the larger two would be free. Then perhaps if she could lure them out…wait…where was she going to take them?
Karu wrinkled her nose. She hadn’t thought about that. She stepped off the stool and sat in the middle of the floor, blowing the candle out since the chandelier above was doing more than enough. A few of the rats scuttled forward. Their eyes were all shades of yellow, green, and in-between. Karu had to remind herself to stay calm. They could kill her if they wanted to. There was no question about that. Especially when there were this many of them. So she had to show that she was not a threat. Hopefully convincing a large rat that she was safe was the same as convincing a small one. She set her pack beside her and removed the apple. The small pen knife she kept on the side of her pack sliced through the fruit easily, releasing the crisp juicy scent.
The rats’ noses twitched.
Karu cut off a bit and then held it out to the one nearest her. “Do you want some?”
The rat edged closer, then glanced over its shoulder. The one slightly behind it peeped. Karu set the apple slice down. Then cut off another and held it out to the one that had peeped. It darted forward a little bit, a distinctive black band on its arm. The next few minutes were spent with coaxing the rats to the apple. She sliced it thin and scattered it about, speaking in a soothing voice as she puzzled over what she was going to do with all these rats. She generally tried to lure infestations out to places in nature where they could live out their natural days while also finding ways to prevent them from returning. But with an infestation so physically large, that was going to be more problematic. And now that she was actually sitting still and closer, she realized that these rats had several strange features. Their tails had a cross and point at the end. Additionally, their tails and the bases of their paws were literally scaled like a fish’s. Even more peculiar, their paws were webbed. Their teeth curved inward, a frightening sight but more often a sign that the animal ate fish.
“Wait…” Karu whispered. “Is that what you are?” The loudest peeping rat darted up beneath her hand. Its nose wiggled as it sniffed at her. “Are you aquatic rats?” It snatched the apple from her fingers.
Catrice had mentioned that this had been a problem since the flooding. The pipe too had broken. What if that was one of the old drainage pipes that was broken, something that had been sealed off but that perhaps had burst during the storm. The storm shifters never took anything back that came with the water. They pulled only the water and left behind everything else, which often left quite a lot of debris. That would explain some of the debris that she had seen on the floor. And when the waters came down, the two large rats, perhaps the leaders of the colony or the parents, had been pinned. The smaller ones refused to leave so long as the larger were pinned, so perhaps if she could convince the larger two to follow her out of the city, she could take them to the river on the west side away from the flooding that might carry them back into the city.
“I just wish there was a way I could tell if you were aquatic,” she said. The boldest one scurried back to her, this time rubbing up against her hand. Its fur was thick and oily like an otters. And its ears had small flaps on the inside as if to close it off. The whiskers likewise were fine and white in some places as well as thick and bristly in others. And all four paws were definitely webbed. “Do you miss swimming?” Karu asked.
The rat stole the apple slice from her hands and hurried to the back.
A couple others crept forward now. Karu spoke softly to each one. She then edged closer to the two largest ones. The first foot or so, they were fine. But as she neared, the rats tensed. She moved back a little farther and resumed passing out pieces of fruit. Then, once the rats were comfortable, she edged closer.
It was hard to be patient. The rats, however, grew increasingly comfortable with her. One even tried grooming her boot. Soon though, she was out of fruit and still not within arm’s reach of the largest rats. “I’m going to have to get more food.” She scooted back, moved to her knees, then stood. She knew better than to make a sudden move. The rats clustered around, watching her and scurrying in circles. But they let her pick up her bag and candle and leave. A few trailed behind her, the loud peeping one brushing up beside her leg and squeaking whenever she took her eyes off it. “I’ll be back,” she said.
When she reached the staircase, she noted that they stopped, as if they knew that it would be bad for them to follow. She returned to the main floor to find Catrice in the kitchen and Lady Elspa nowhere in sight.
“You’re all right?” Catrice asked.
“Yeah.” Karu nodded. She set her arms akimbo and released a tight breath. “I don’t suppose you’d let me have some food? To bait them I mean. I’ve got to start moving them out.”
“You’re welcome to anything in the pantry except the prepared food items. I’ve already made Lady Elspa’s dinner, and she’s quite particular.” Catrice opened the door to the pantry, avoiding meeting Karu’s gaze.
Karu thanked her and peered inside. She shouldn’t have been surprised. The pantry was easily the size of her room in the Red Flower Inn and stocked with an enormous quantity of food. She wasn’t entirely certain why Lady Elspa ordered so much of it except for the fact that she then had it.
“I’m glad you’re all right. Those rats are really quite large.” Catrice resumed cutting herbs on the oiled board. Her knife slid easily through them. “It’s going to be a mess to clean up though.”
“So you knew they were the size of cats and just said they were big?” Karu dumped the bowl of apples into her bag as well as half a dozen peaches. She then hefted up a block of cheese under her arm.
“It didn’t seem easy to believe. The first time I saw them, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem because the basement was flooded. But then I realized they were playing, not drowning. Diving down and coming up again.” Catrice shook her head. “It isn’t right. I don’t sleep here anymore. They’ll come up and eat us while we rest.”
At least that confirmed that these were some sort of aquatic rat. “They must have gotten washed in during the storms. Maybe they’re a new species or just something we’ve never seen before.” Karu added a few more smaller items to her bag until it was almost too heavy to carry. “I’ll get them out of here though, but I do want my payment before I leave.”
“Lady Elspa won’t deliver it until after they’re all gone, and she’s approved of the basement.”
“I understand that she wants to make sure that the job is done, but I want to make sure that I get paid.” Karu wouldn’t put it past a spiteful woman like Elspa to stiff someone out of payment simply because she could. “So I’ll secure the rats, and then I’ll ask to speak to her. You don’t have to give her this message if it’ll get you in trouble. I’m just letting you know that there will probably be very large rats up here. And I really should be allowed to go as soon as possible because I’m not sure how much control I’ll have over them.”
Catrice dropped the knife. “You mean you aren’t going to kill them!”
“Not if I can help it, and I’m pretty sure I can.”
“But what if they come back!”
“They didn’t want to be here in the first place. If they’re aquatic, they want to be in rivers and ponds and lakes. This basement is the last place they’ll want. They’re just stuck here because some of them are trapped.”
“You must kill them!”
“You are more than welcome to come down to the basement and do it yourself. I said I’d get rid of them, not that I’d kill them.” Karu hauled all of the food items back down into the basement. It seemed like a much shorter walk now that she knew what was down here and why. The rats pricked up as soon as they saw her coming, and there was significantly more peeping and sniffing than before. Even the largest two did not chatter their teeth when she entered.
Keeping her steps smooth and her manner calm, Karu returned to her spot on the floor and resumed handing out treats. The rats seemed to take the handing out as part of the process, waiting for their turn. And then, as before, she edged closer and closer to the largest two who were pinned.
They certainly weren’t in the best of states. The smaller ones had kept them alive over the past few days. And condensations and bits of water that did leak in might just be sufficient for their thirst in addition to the fruit. Their fur, however was matted near the hindquarters, and Karu suspected that they were likely in a fair bit of pain. From this angle though, no bones appeared broken.
Soon she was within arm’s reach of the two large rats, then within a hand’s breadth. Carefully, she offered each a juicy bit of peach. The largest eyed her motionless, cautious, not even bristling its whiskers. The other took it, biting into the fruit delicately and pulling it back in. “That’s right. There we are.”
Karu set the peach down in front of the largest, then resumed cutting up bits of fruit, cheese, and nuts and passing them around. The smaller rats hopped in, some snuggling down beside her and several sniffing at her. After a slice or two more of peach and then cheddar, the second largest let her rub the top of its head and then around its ears. The largest one became jealous then and nudged her hand, emitting a deep but distinctive peep. “Yes, that’s good.” Karu smiled broadly. Their fur was very soft and quite dense. They were definitely made for the water. She took a few minutes longer to give them treats and talk to them before standing once more.
Now for the tricky bit. She moved cautiously around the pipe. The small rats followed her, a few scrambling over the other to get close. The pipe itself was wedged at the top against one of the cutouts between the boards. If she lifted it up just right, she could use that lip as leverage to release the pressure and unpin the rats. With her gloves well secured, Karu took hold of the pipe, counted to three, and lifted.
The smaller rats squeaked and peeped, a few hopping up and down and running in and out. The second largest rat lurched forward. It squeaked loudly, then limped out. The largest one followed suit, scrambling a little faster. Both retreated to the opposite end of the room, sniffing one another and licking their hindquarters at intervals.
Karu set the pipe back down and braced herself. This was the big moment. If the two largest rats turned on her, the smaller ones were certain to follow suit. They didn’t appear to be badly hurt, but she hung back as they groomed and stretched themselves. The smaller ones now bounded around. They crept around and under the larger ones, grooming them, nuzzling, peeping, and chirping. Patience in the next moments was crucial. She’d been bit by regular rats before. Imagining a nip from one of these was a nightmare.
But after another hour, the largest rats turned their attention to her. The second sidled up to her, bobbing its head up and down and peeping. Karu scratched the top of its head. The largest came up a little slower and nudged her. Karu happily petted it as as well. “Well, I don’t know how much you all can understand, but let’s see if I can get you out of here.”
She started toward the door, expecting to have to double back, but the two largest rats walked along directly beside her like two well-trained dogs. The other rats all fell in line behind her. She walked a few paces more, checked, saw that they were still with her, and smiled. Maybe this would be easier than she thought. Reaching the stairs, she expected some form of resistance or hesitance, but the rats did not even flinch. They followed her all the way up to the door. Her hand clenched tight around her pack, Karu cracked the door open and peered out. The rats were lined up neatly behind her.
Catrice was carrying a large tray of fine dishes out to the kitchen.
“Catrice,” Karu whispered sharply.
Catrice started. The dishes rattled.
“If Lady Elspa is ready to pay me, I’ll move the rats now,” Karu said through the crack.
“She said not until they’re all dead and she’s seen the bodies.” Catrice pinched her lips. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing more I can do.”
“I have the rats under control right now, but I need to be paid. I don’t want you to be blamed for it, so tell her I’m being difficult and insist on talking to her.”
Catrice shook her head, then slammed down the tray.
Karu sighed. This all might have been easier if she’d just stolen the ring. But that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. Even if it would have saved her time. “Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t about anything but doing the right thing,” she said softly.
Lady Elspa’s brisk footsteps sounded on the floor. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded. “You were given one simple task—”
“Lady Elspa, I require the ring now, and then I will remove all of the rats from your home. Otherwise, I’ll leave now and let you deal with them.”
“Why are you talking to me from behind that door. If you are going to attempt to extort me, at least have the decency to do it to my face!”
“I don’t think you want to see what’s with me behind the door,” Karu said. “Please. Just give me the ring. I don’t want to frighten you, and I don’t want to frighten them either. Give me the ring and step away from the door, and I will take these rats away from your home and never to be seen again.”
Lady Elspa seized the door and ripped it open. Her face paled when she saw the massive rats beside her. Staggering back, she gripped the back of the velvet couch.
Karu held her finger to her lips. “Please don’t scream, Lady Elspa. I’m not sure how much they’re willing to listen to me. But I’m sure they have very sensitive ears.”
Lady Elspa’s mouth moved but no sound came out. She gestured frantically at another door. “Get it, get it,” she wheezed.
Covering her mouth, Catrice dashed to the side.
The rats sniffed and squeaked, all curious but content to stay where they were.
Within seconds, Catrice returned, silver ring in trembling hand. She thrust it at Karu and scrambled back.
“Thank you,” Karu said. “Now please open the front door. And don’t do anything to startle them. We have a long way to go.”
Lady Elspa motioned to the door. Catrice obeyed at once.
Karu nodded, lifted her hand in thanks, and marched out, silver ring in hand.
They made quite an odd procession, and she wasn’t entirely sure how the city people were going to respond. She hoped they wouldn’t shout or grab at the rats or anything like that. So as she strode out onto the walkway, she waved at everyone she saw. “It’s all right. Everything’s fine. Please leave the rats alone. I’m taking them out. Hello. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise, it’s fine. Don’t touch the rats. I’m taking them home.”
Those few men and women who were out on this wretched day stared in shock, slack jawed and wide eyed. Even some of the storm shifters gazed on in amazement. A couple almost lost their grip on the great stream of water they’d formed. Karu nodded and waved at them all, keeping her expression calm. It was quite late in the afternoon, and the sky was a hazy slate grey. As she neared the gate she’d passed earlier, the storm shifter who’d spoken to her earlier turned to say something funny. His face fell. Shaking his head, he composed himself. “Having a nice adventure?” he asked weakly.
“Nice enough,” Karu said with a satisfied smile. “I’ll just be taking these rats up north to the safe point since you aren’t sending the water up there. Please don’t worry about them.”
One of the women shook her head and muttered, “What do you think she’s doing out there?”
“I have no idea,” another admitted.
Karu carried onward, flanked by the two and trailed by the rest. Some of the smallest ones bounded and splashed in the puddles, but they all stayed more or less in a straight line.
The rain poured down in thick grey sheets. Karu suspected that the safest place for them though was beyond the second set of hills where the forest started. A series of lakes and rivers as well as narrower streams and caverns would offer them plenty of space and might even be near their original home. Her legs ached from the climb as she crested the highest hill of the first range. The second set of foothills was perhaps another hour farther north. She set her hands on her waist. The ache in her chest had returned, and she had started coughing again. The rats occasionally nudged her when she coughed or sneezed, and several times they squeaked or peeped at her and brushed closer. “Nothing to worry about,” Karu said. She cleared her throat again, not liking the tightness in her lungs.
She stared down the edge of the hill. So long as they didn’t slide too far, the path wasn’t too steep. And the forests started in two directions within less than fifty feet. They were probably getting close.
All at once the air shimmered.
“Oh not again!” Karu covered her face.
The heavy thud of footsteps shook the ground. The rats jounced with the vibrations. They began shaking their tails and wiggling their noses, chittering, squeaking, and rustling among themselves.
Karu turned to her left. The trees moved and swayed as the giant pushed through them as if through a field of corn.
He was headed their way. How was she ever going to get all of these rats to— Karu halted, realizing that they had disappeared. The shrubs and bushes to her right rustled as the last of the rats disappeared from sight.
Well, Karu thought. So much for that. The giant emerged from the forest.
All at once, Karu realized that she was out in plain sight. She’d worried so much about the rats that she had forgotten to hide herself.
The giant stared at her, his gaze solemn. “Raskas,” he said again.
“What exactly are you looking for?” Karu shouted up at him. “What’s a raska?”
The giant stiffened, then looked back over his shoulder. He frowned. “Hello?” The air shimmered, and in a purple flash, he vanished.