Audiobook Edition: Available exclusively on Patreon!
↤ THE CAVE ↦
(that is, hunting)
Despite the obtuse instructions for finding it, once decoded it was simple to notice the rise of earth that jutted from the ground through the thicket of trees. With the terrain mostly flat, the natural, stony buttress caught the light of the increasingly waning sun as it cast the heavy reds of approaching twilight over the Valley and through the tangles of old growth forest.
It was Arteo who pointed it out, much to Ilis’s consternation. She wasn’t particularly prideful, and would have been as pleased with Kessa discovering it as herself, but the boy was aggravating and this would just be another way for him to grate on her.
She imagined him a boy in her mind, but he was not so far from her in summers past. Yet she always felt much more worn and world-beaten than most of the ladies her age. After all the pains she’d suffered, she was as embittered as an old washer-woman with a bad back. But it would be many summers before the delicate tautness of her skin would sag and wrinkle, and the aches of time gnawed at her. It’s easy to feel old and tired when you don’t have to wear it on your face.
Arteo had similarly reduced her age in his mind. She was clearly more matured than him, but he underestimated the emotional and experiential gap between them. Helpful for him that as she had continued her nearly relentless assault on his masculinity, intelligence, and abilities, that he started to see her not as a girl, but a woman. An angry, angry woman.
Kessa was unconcerned with their pettiness and was far more distracted by the potential for the woolly growths on the branches above them to release their spores and send them all into a cannibalistic nightmare. She was so worried about this that she wondered how either of them could focus on anything else, or even be calm.
And so the three reluctant companions stood at the edge of a curve in the trail, staring at their destination with no way to reach it.
“Is it possible the trail winds back closer to it?” Arteo asked to no one in particular.
“It may,” Ilis responded, “but how much more time can we waste on that?”
“If we’re quick about it, we might be able to scout ahead and return.”
“How much time do we even have?” Kessa asked, distractedly watching the menace waiting above them. “Do the spores come down after dark or at dusk? How far into dark? I can’t be here to turn into what you said I could, Tey, I can’t! I —”
Arteo pulled her into a tight hug to quell her panicked breaths. Harsh tears fell in quick slaps on his shirt.
“It’s fine, Kess. We will get there, I promise,” he soothed. “Or else my nose will fall off.” She almost laughed, the fear held at bay.
“And your hands will become mashed potatoes?”
She nodded and sniffed back her runny nose. Before she pulled back from him, she wiped some snot on his shoulder.
“Oh revolting!” he chided as he looked at the smear on his shirt.
“It’ll dry,” she said with a grin. Once again he found it difficult to be cross, especially with her flushed, tear-stained face.
“Come see this,” Ilis beckoned, standing several paces away, pointing between the trees. They approached and followed her eyes.
“I don’t see…” Arteo began, but then he did. A series of flat, marbled stones had been laid into the ground, leading a rickety path to the cavern. Gray slate with ripples of white set them off, if just so, from the thick brush around them.
“The white flowers in the nonsense, it has a double meaning!” Arteo yelled, giddy with realization. Ilis glanced at him with amusement, the first time seeing him awash in childlike excitement. For a flicker of time, she even found it charming.
“Yes, that’s all wonderful, can we please hurry now?” Kessa urged. They didn’t argue the point and Ilis led the way by quickly hopping over a nuisance of thorny vines onto the first block to make their way to safety.
Hunting in the Valley was not like elsewhere. The kinds of creatures that can survive in a place under constant threat of having their flesh corroded by wood particles or lungs melted with the caustic smoke of a sudden forest fire are not usually very edible.
The caydid, for instance, was a lumbering beast that moved with the malaise of a creature overburdened by its own weight. The thick double-layered armor of hardened flesh that coated everything but the surface of its eyes (which had dense eyelids and a gelatinous membrane over them to aid their protection) was impervious to the poisonous effects of the tree’s wood. It could stay submerged underwater for over an hour before needing to surface to take a breath, and was generally impossible to kill.
Many of the smaller forest animals were nocturnal and dwelled underground, making hunting them in this section of the Trail impossible. Stalking predators was dangerous and their flesh was sour or indigestible.
So Ilis enlisted Arteo in jamming a stiff branch under a boulder astride the cave entrance and pressed down on the raised end to tip it up. They pushed the branch further under and lifted it to flip it over completely. Beneath was a slithering mass of seedbugs, each about the size of a fingernail and the color of late summer grass.
“No,” Kessa said firmly, her stomach turning. Ilis didn’t flinch when she picked one off the underside and popped it in her mouth with a decisive crunch.
“How is it?” Arteo asked warily.
Ilis considered it carefully before answering, “Not much to it. Hardly a delicacy, but not unpleasant either. A touch meaty, like overcooked sausage.”
“Was that your attempt to sell us on it?” Kessa asked. Ilis removed a small iron pan from her sack and crouched, using her hunting blade to glide a bunch of them into it.
“I have no desire to sell you on anything, you either eat them or suffer for not,” she said with her usual tartness.
“They are unusual but nutritious, and contain proteins, fats, and salts to help feed our muscles. The stone-hard jerky you’ve been eating lacks many nutrients and will start to slow you down.”
Ilis offered the filled pan to Arteo, who took a small number and chewed on them. Kessa watched for his reaction — a noncommittal shrug. She griped under her breath, but lifted one from the writhing mass and put it into her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut in an anticipatory wince.
But it wasn’t so terrible. It was as Ilis had said — there wasn’t much to them. She tried a couple more and found her stomach gracious for a flavor that wasn’t jerky.
“Once you get used to the wriggling sensation, they aren’t so bad,” she concluded.
Arteo almost said, I hope my first time with a woman will be described better than that, but decided against it. A smile perked up his cheeks though.
“We should start a fire,” Ilis said between the stiff pops of bugs being crushed by her teeth. “It’ll keep hungry flyers from entering the cave while they feed at dusk.”
Arteo and Kessa nodded, sparing a glance to see the vibrant colorwheel of the setting sun as it pulled the curtain of night over the Valley.
The fire struggled to reach into the darkness of the cave, sending flickering sparkles of burning light onto the rough texture of purple stone that made up the walls. The three travelers sat and warmed their bodies from the aches of the day.
“Feels strange,” Arteo said, palms extended to the crackling flames from his perch on a squat rock.
“What does?” Kessa asked as she lay on her back, witnessing the stars as best she could with the brightness from the firelight.
“It’s only been a day,” he responded. Kessa’s eyes scrunched up — he was right, they’d just started that morning.
“That’s a funny thing,” she said. “Feels like longer.” She pushed herself up and faced the heat, crossing her legs.
“Is it like that for you too?” she asked Ilis, who merely shrugged.
“I haven’t had call to count days for some while,” she said. “For me, time is almost a liquid thing, like a stream or river. You can see the twists and bends, follow the length, but not carve it into neat and equal parts. It’s all just flow.”
“That sounds like harvestime on the farm,” Arteo chimed in. “Seasons, not days. Though I never did have Father’s instincts for the crops.”
“He always knew, didn’t he?” Kessa contributed wistfully. “I remember watching him walk you through the rows to tell you which ones were ready.”
Arteo nodded, but his gaze fell sadly to the ground.
“I feel guilty,” he said.
“For?” Kessa asked, her attention now given fully to him.
“For leaving. For not being there for you while my head was on other things, on this. And now they don’t have you either.”
She quietly nudged her way over to him and laid her head down on his lap.
“Oh Tey,” she said, and nothing more. He looked down at her plaintively and felt comforted.
“I would like to say,” Arteo began, glancing up at Ilis, “I do appreciate you not commenting on our skin.”
Indeed one of the most prominent ways that identified them as from a lower class was their golden-bronze complexion. The texture was thinner than the darker-skinned members of the Iron class, and lacked the ivory gleam of most of the peoples blessed to be Amber or Pearldrop.
Some of the less charitable names for people of their skin included “sun-stained,” “wetsanders,” and, most derogatively, “marduk,” which is a northerner, high-class word that roughly means “soiled to ruin.” It was both impolite and impolitic to call someone a marduk, and was now generally relegated to smoky rooms of the wealthy where they knew they were safe to speak of such things without consequence.
Their complexion could be traced back to their ancestors on the Endless Isles in the Southborn Seas, who migrated to the mainland hundreds of years ago, along with the Blacklace hogs that were endemic to the islands. Despite being on the mainland for over twelve generations, the descendents of the people who called themselves the mera (their word for seafolk) always existed as outsiders.
“There are enough fools, charlatans, and monsters in the world. Hatred for something as insubstantial as the shade of one’s skin would make me no better than any of them.” For Ilis, it was as unremarkable a thing to say as commenting on the weather, but Arteo and Kessa felt a warmth spread from the center of their chests and around their core.
“I’ve never met anyone like you,” Kessa was moved to say.
“I should hope not,” Arteo said, “one of her is plenty.”
Ilis was about to say something, but noticed the mischievous grin on his face and had to suppress her own.
“Only in the good ways, of course,” he added.
She didn’t say a word, merely raised her right hand and touched two forefingers to her forehead before lifting them off, doffing a cap that didn’t exist.
Kessa was pleased that everyone had found some sense of camaraderie. Cupped in a sweet petal of unconcern, the dancing flames pulled her into the land of imagined worlds, where she hoped her dreams would be as mellifluous as the soft touch of her brother’s hand petting her hair in the night.
The killer that fancied himself a man of words was unaware of the spores that floated from the branches as darkness coated every pore of land. He was also unaffected by it, part of the vanishingly small portion of animal and man that are immune to its effects. To him the night was chilled, but otherwise tolerable.
His ignorance left him all the more confused when he witnessed a pair of travelers walking strangely along the path. He had set himself up in a nook of soft grass, hooded by the flanks of thorn and hidden by the too thin light of the second moon. He had kept a respectable distance from his prey, watching as they ascended the steep hill to the cave entrance.
He considered them industrious, worthy of a longer look, a more furtive examination before he utilizes what he considered his second greatest talent. And these sumptuous ones needed something grand and undeniable when the time came — no cut throats and burned houses for them. This would need an especial level of care and planning.
But while he was lost in thought, the mutterings of two men caught his attention. They were moving in unusual, languid patterns, speaking in hushed yet urgent tones, but not to each other. They appeared to carry their conversations with the sky or trees or dirt, he thought as he watched. More than that, they appeared to be suspicious of each other, throwing wicked, spastic glances over their shoulders.
Finally they wandered close enough for the Writer to overhear.
“I know I said he could have it, but he never gave it back,” the slighter, reedy-voiced man murmured.
“There wasn’t call for that kind of talk,” said the other in a raspy baritone that seemed to come entirely from deep within his chest. “Mother didn’t say he deserved it, but he took it anyway, didn’t he?”
The Writer was uncertain how this bemusing sight could be. No one possessed of such failing faculties could have found themselves on this path, or even the Trail itself. To be in this place was to be prepared, not mad.
Yet here they stood, puttering with abstract shuffle of feet and liquid slosh of tongue. What cruel puppetmaster held their strings to make them dance so? Even a king’s fool had some sense about him.
“Stop following me, brother!” shouted the thinner man, pointing a ginned up finger at the stout man on the other edge of the path. His back had contorted into a twisted hunch, his eyes burning red.
“Mother wished she’d taken the blye and gotten rid of you when she’d realized you were inside her. She told me herself!” the older man spat back with a venomous intensity, referencing the weed that grew in the eastern swamp which could end a pregnancy still in its first cycle.
“Best she didn’t, or you might have eaten her!” his younger sibling shouted, clicking and clacking his teeth together with a rhythmic, noxious intensity.
“I would sooner eat a pile of rancid shit than anything that you touched!” he retorted, stomping his feet on the ground like a raging animal.
It had been some time since the Writer had beheld something that filled him with such delight. Watching these two fracture as chipped mountain stone in an earthquake was more entertainment than he could have wished for this night. He decided that if one were to kill the other in the next few minutes, that he’d give the victor the honor of being gutted by him. It would sate his bloodlust for a time and give him the practice he’d been lacking since making the rambling journey to the Trail.
The thin brother ran full bore at his older sibling, squealing like a hog being butchered stem to nose. He had no weapon, but bent down to use the crown of his head like a battering ram. His brother still retained enough of his reflexes to step aside, sending the lanky man’s skull into the prickly wood of a tree with an emphatic crack. Whether the tree or the head made the loudest sound was unclear, but a splay of blood was left behind on the trunk as the younger brother fell to the ground, his body twitching in fitful spasms that foretold the inevitable.
“Hahaha! You stupid hog-shit! Can’t take anyone’s dessert now, can you?” the hulking man cackled as he stood over the convulsing body shadowed by his mass. “No pudding for you, brother!”
He swayed back and forth in a perversity of dance, not hearing the quiet footfalls behind him. There was a sharp jab to his left side that was pulled clear across his stomach, spilling oozing, bilious chunks of crimson meat to the ground. He collapsed and rolled on his back, desperately attempting to claw his intestines back into the black fissure of blood and refuse. He had only a moment to register the tall figure standing over him, watching him with curious eyes as the world echoed off into darker and darker rivulets of fading light.
With all the tinny indistinction of a broken bell, he heard the figure say, “Lot more blood in the fat ones,” before all was consumed by empty nothing.
Thank you to my patrons!
Fire Amber Patrons