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.
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