‘Good afternoon,’ it uttered.
It tilted its head to the left.
‘I . . .’ it sounded almost contemplative, ‘want you to die now.’
‘Riffid Alive,’ Kataria whispered breathlessly.
There were very few occasions outside of violent situations where it was acceptable to speak the shictish Goddess’s name. Everyday prayers and curses were for weaker deities of weaker races; the shicts were born with all the instinct they would ever need. However, if the Foe of all Kou’ru could have witnessed the carnage on the beach through Kataria’s eyes, she highly doubted the Goddess would begrudge her.
What had, undoubtedly, begun as a pristine stretch of white sand, completely indiscernible from any other chunk of beach, was now smothered under twisting sheets of grey and white. She stepped upon what had once been the beach, covering her nose as a heavy sulphurous odour sought to choke the life out of her.
The sound beneath her feet was thick and crunching, not unlike walking on pine cones. The sun’s warmth paled against the fierce heat that choked the beach. She glanced down; the earth smouldered, red embers burning stubbornly through the blanket of smoke that roiled over sands scorched black. She glanced up; what thin trees remained standing had been charred into dark, lanky arms reaching up towards a sky no longer visible from the ground. Upon their fingers burned bright fires, beacons in the smoke that drew her further down the coast.
They illuminated the earth, however faintly, and the story continued in the charred sand as Kataria spied the first tracks.
There had been a battle, she recognised, and not a clean one. Footprints were muddled: bare feet with webbed toes crossed over heavy, booted indentations in a brawl that sprawled the length of the shore. Here, someone fell hard upon the earth and left a pool of thick, boiling red behind. There, some strange green ichor pulsated hungrily in the sand like a disease. And all across the sand were the vast, webbed prints of something large that had stalked through the melee in long strides.
Lenk had told her to regroup with the others if she found any sign of the creature, but, she reasoned, he often told her many things she didn’t care to hear. For the moment, she forgot him, forcing down concern and instinct, and leaned closer to the ground, following the story further.
The demon had appeared somewhere in the midst of the brawl, after the earth had been scorched. It had wrought terror upon the field; everywhere its foot had landed, the depressions of fallen bodies lay nearby. Interesting twist, she thought, but unsatisfying.
If the Abysmyth had indeed killed and injured as many as the tracks suggested, where were all the corpses? Where were the drowned victims? Occasionally, shallow trenches had been carved where the bodies had hit the earth, indicating that they had either crawled or been carried away.
Whoever the Abysmyth had struck down had apparently escaped with their dead and wounded. She frowned, uneasy. That only accounted for one side of the battle; where were the frogmen that had rushed into battle beside the demon? For that matter, where was the demon? She paused by the base of a flame-scarred tree, scratching her chin thoughtfully. The wind moaned, peeling back a blanket of smoke.
It was then that she saw the needle-like teeth leering towards her.
She whirled, bow up and arrow drawn, levelling her weapon at the gaping maw that loomed out of the grey. Her hand quivered once, then stayed; the mouth did not move. Instead, the mouth glimmered a shimmering, crystalline blue.
The smoke retreated further, exposing the face that held the teeth, the large black eyes that dominated the face. From behind a skin of ice, the frogman howled soundlessly at her, immobile and unblinking within its azure prison. His spear was held above his head, icicles hanging from the weapon’s tip, the frogman’s muscles frozen and unquivering under a sheen of frost.
‘Well,’ she grunted, ‘I’ll be damned.’
Somehow, the human curse seemed more appropriate for what occurred next.
In a great sigh, the smoke peeled back. A forest of frozen flesh was laid bare before her eyes. They stood in a charge that had no end, mouths open to utter a battle cry that had no sound beyond the cracking of ice in the distance. Dozens of the pale invaders, turned into an expanse of endless blue, rushed towards some unseen foe that they had never reached. Many of them hadn’t even set two feet upon the ground before the ice claimed them.
And now they levelled their hatred, their black stares, upon her.
Kataria, however, had no more attention for them. Her concern was reserved for the emaciated beast that had stridden into battle with them. The Abysmyth’s tracks were not apparent in the frost-kissed earth nor the smouldering black sand. However, one set of footprints did catch her attention.
He, or she, for the tracks were made by slender feet set lightly upon the ground, had stood before the frogmen. The frost radiated from that position in a great arcing wave, staining the ground with ice. From there, this new character had turned about, unhurried, by the looks of its shallow, well-defined footsteps, and traipsed down the shore.
Where it had stopped, carnage was born. Fire savaged the land, sending bodies to the ground as burned husks, barely discernible from the scorched earth. Trees were split down the middle, as though by a great blade.
It didn’t take the shict long to deduce the presence of magic. Even through the acrid stench of brimstone, the stink of wizardry was thick in the air, a foul amalgamation of sulphur and something metallic, with a somewhat lemon-scented after-aroma.
That answered a few questions right away - for what earthly fire could smoulder for so long? What mortal ice could remain frigid even under the sun’s unrelenting warmth?
More questions arose than were answered, however; Dreadaeleon was the only creature she knew capable of the practice of magic, and he was far too frail to wreak such devastation. Besides, he had taken off with Gariath, across to the other side of the island . . . hadn’t he?
The Venarium, she knew from listening to the boy, were the sole practitioners and custodians of magic. They were, she had learned, a secretive and largely boring lot, more content to study and make rules than actually use their powers for anything interesting.
This character, this set of prints, however, was anything but tedious. She followed the trail, noting each shattered tree, each heap of burned corpses, each patch of ice. So intent on the tracks was she that she hardly noticed the Abysmyth when it appeared through the gloom.
She did not start at the sight of the creature. Rather, she was struck dumb by it and its sudden appearance.
It was dark, far darker than she remembered it, wisps of smoke pouring from its gaping maw, an enormous wound in its chest and craters that had once been eyes. An icicle the size of the Riptide’s bow skewered it through its ribcage, holding it aloft like some demonic kebab, its webbed feet barely grazing the ground as they swayed in the wind.
Despite the oppressive heat, Kataria felt her blood run cold.
The Abysmyth had been a definition up until this moment. Despite being a creature of hell, it had existed according to rules: it killed and it could not be killed. The ending of the trail’s story had changed everything. Something had fought the frogmen and Abysmyth, something that left no bodies, only smears of pulsing green ichor.
And amongst it all, someone, a man or woman who strode between infernos and blizzards as casually as one skips through a meadow, had given her a plot that she no longer wanted to read.
Suddenly, finding Lenk seemed like a rather good idea.
Her ears twitched and, for a fleeting moment, she was almost relieved to hear a sound other than the crackling of ice and fire. Such a moment was short-lived; the sounds of steel singing through the air slipped muffled through scars in the smoke, accompanied by faint mutters of voices she had never heard before.
They were vaguely familiar. There was grunting, snarling, the sound of something heavy being swung through the air. Yet there was something odd about the voices: they all spoke at once, echoing and reverberating off of each other to become incomprehensible. Like wisps of smoke, they trickled through to her, brief scents of sulphur and brimstone without the stink of something truly burning.
And then, all at once, they were silent.
She waited, ears twitching, hoping to hear more; she ought likely to have fled, she knew, but was tempted into stillness by the sounds. She had to find the end of the story that had begun back in the jungle.
Moments passed, a tense eternity of quiescence. In the distance, a seared branch crumbled at its joint and collapsed upon the sand with a faint crash. Her breath was loud, she knew, so loud she might as well have been speaking.
‘Ah,’ she barely whispered, ‘hello?’
She received her answer half a blink later.
Lenk came hurtling through the air like a wiry javelin, cutting through the smog and leaving a trail of clear air behind him. He hit the earth, shifting from missile to plough as he dug a deep trench in the charred sand, a cloud of ash in his wake. There was an alarmed cry, a faint crash as he struck the tree.
Then, silence once more.
She rushed to him, not bothering to call his name, not bothering to shriek out in alarm at whatever had hurled him such a distance. She made no noise, save for the earth crunching beneath her feet and the words hissed between her teeth.
‘Don’t be dead, don’t be dead,’ she chanted to herself like a mantra, ‘Riffid Alive, don’t be dead.’
He might as well have been, lying in a half-made grave with the seared tree to mark it. Motionless, eyes closed, sword held loosely in hands, he looked almost at peace in his trench. So deep was the rent in the earth that she had to leap in to reach his body.
‘Don’t be dead, don’t be dead.’
Two fingers went to his throat; nothing. A long, notched ear went to his chest; soundless.
‘Don’t be dead, don’t be dead.’
She leaned closer to his face; his breath was cold and icy. Her eyes remained open, watering as the smoke stung them.
His eyes opened with such suddenness that she recoiled. He rose from the ground like a living corpse draped in an ashen cloak. His sword was in his hand, naked and silver. His eyes pierced the gloom like candles burning blue. His stare shifted over her, merely acknowledging her presence, before he soundlessly pulled himself out of the hole.
‘Lenk,’ she all but cried after him, ‘are you—’
‘Not sure,’ he replied. His voice was like the sound of the embers beneath his boots. ‘Fight now.’
That, too, was answered as soon as she emerged from the grave.
‘They won’t listen! They can’t hear You!’
Kataria’s ears twitched. A dozen voices, all choked and speaking at once, tone shifting wildly between each word.
‘I’ve tried! How I’ve tried! How I’ve suffered!’
Footsteps, embers crunching under massive, webbed feet.
‘But for what, Mother? They refuse enlightenment, deny You!’
The crack of ice.
‘Have I done nothing to show You my devotion? Is all my suffering in vain?’
Silence. The sound of smoke rising from the earth.
The endless grey trembled and scattered, exposing the Abysmyth as a towering tree in the centre of the forest of frozen frogmen. The beast was alight in the gloom, eyes flashing wide and empty, talons wet with ooze, pulsing green ichor pumping in time with each staggered breath it took.
‘There’s . . .’ Kataria paused to stare at the creature with ever-widening eyes, ‘more of them?’
‘More?’ Lenk swept the smoke for a sign. ‘Where?’
‘Behind us,’ Kataria replied. ‘Dead. Something happened here.’ She glanced from the demon’s wounds to a glob of the throbbing green substance on the earth. Not blood, she noted, not bothering to wonder what else it might be. ‘Probably whatever happened to this one as well.’
‘One or one thousand,’ the young man muttered, raising his sword. ‘We will clean the land of their blight.’
‘You think we can?’
‘You cannot,’ he replied sharply, ‘we can.’
‘We?’ She glanced at him, terrified. ‘Who’s—’
She never finished the sentence, her breath robbed from her the moment her eyes met his. Perhaps it was the cover of smoke, the angle at which she saw him or stress from the horrors of the battlefield that twisted her vision. She prayed it was, for she saw his stare burning brightly through the smoke.
She tightened her jaw, turned away, resolved not to look again.
‘Then what do we do?’
‘Stay,’ he commanded coldly. ‘We kill.’
‘You can’t kill that thing.’
‘He cannot,’ Lenk replied, ‘we can.’
‘Damn it,’ she muttered breathlessly, ‘of all the times for you to go completely insane, why did you have to choose the moment when I might die, too?’
If the young man had a reply for that, it was lost in the scurry of boots on burned earth. He was up, a flash of silver and blue, carving a path through the endless smoke towards his towering foe. The creature, for its part, seemed unimpressed.
Then, suddenly, it erupted.
‘The Shepherd is ever tireless! Ever vigilant!’ It roared and the frozen frogmen quaked against the ice. ‘It is through his mercy that deliverance is possible! It is through the Shepherd that Her mercy is ever known!’
Lenk lunged, and a great black arm shot out, seizing him about the waist.
Whatever madness or courage had shot him into the beast’s grasp vanished once he was drawn close enough to look into the thing’s eyes. It gurgled angrily, its blank gaze straining to express the fury its voice could only hint at in disjointed harmony.
That seemed to infuriate it.
‘Do not fear, my son,’ it murmured, ‘for even as you strike at me, I am ever bound to forgive you.’
It craned its arm up, raising him high into the sky, as if to present him to heaven for inspection. Its talons pierced Lenk’s flesh, he felt his tunic shredding, five warm pinpricks painted his body red. He felt a scream burst from his lungs, but heard no reply.
‘It is your nature to fear the unknown,’ it continued, a deep, resonant bass leaking through its many voices, ‘but the Shepherd knows no nature of his own. His life is duty, and his duty is life.’
A ray of sunshine split the smoke, shining down on Lenk.
‘Through Her, I grant you this,’ it gurgled, tightening its grip, ‘my mercy and my duty. I . . .’
It tilted its head, hesitant. Its eyes flickered once more as a twisted shriek tore itself from the creature’s maw.
‘I HATE YOU!’
The arm snapped down. Lenk hit the ice, shattered it, and descended below. He ploughed his grave with his body, shards digging into his back and flying up into the air. Even after he had stopped, he felt as though he were still falling, as though something else had torn itself from his body and vanished into the earth.
Through fluttering eyes, he saw the cold powder descending upon him, settling like a blanket, urging him to sleep. Even the sun still shone upon him. It felt warm; somehow, he knew he should have felt colder than he did.
‘What,’ he whispered, ‘what do we do now?’
No one answered him.
‘Can we survive?’
No one spoke to him.
‘I . . . think I’m going to die.’
No one reassured him.
The sun vanished behind a blot of ink. His eyes snapped open once, wide enough to see the outline of a webbed foot the size of his head rise above his face. He blinked, and it was still there. Then he felt his eyes shut themselves and it no longer existed.
The world was dark.
‘From Mother Deep to child,’ it all but whispered, ‘from child to mortal. This is your mercy. Sleep now,’ its foot tensed, ‘and dream of blue.’
The demon’s body convulsed suddenly. A sparrow with a silver beak sang through the air, burying itself in the Abysmyth’s ribcage. It hesitated, flinching as one flinches at bee-stings. It heard the sound of feet scampering on ice, the sound of something humming a solemn tune, the sound of air parting before metal.
Another arrow struck it, embedded itself in the creature’s neck.
It lowered its foot to the ground, swinging its head about to survey the ice. Nothing but still, solitary bodies and frozen faces met its gaze, mirroring the anger it yearned to express.
‘How many times must we go through this?’ it gurgled. ‘How many times must I be scorned before I show you the unreasonableness of your blasphemies?’
Upon hearing no answer beyond the crack of ice, it hurled its head back and screamed.
Kataria was hard pressed to choke back her scream as the creature’s fury raked at her ears. Something tinged its multitude of voices, a gurgling, shrieking squeal that sought to reach inside her head and sink audible talons into her brain. Pain, perhaps, or merely annoyance at having a pair of arrows lodged in its body.
That seemed to aggravate it.
She nocked another arrow and peered around the legs of a frozen frogman who scowled down upon her. The Abysmyth loomed like a tower with a poor foundation, swaying in the impotent breeze that tried to chase the smoke from the beach.
Up to that moment, she hadn’t even thought of trying to kill it.
Her plan had simply been to distract it long enough to dig Lenk out of his hole and drag him off to safety. However, as she stared at the creature, temptation manifested in the beast’s gaping wounds.
This did not seem like the demon she remembered. This was not the unholy terror that had held a shipful of men in terrified awe, not the creature that had pulled an entire harpoon out of its belly, unfazed. This demon, if it could still be called that, seemed weaker, wounded.
It whirled suddenly, swinging a colossal arm. Glass shattered and a thousand shards of what had once been a man, or something close to it, flew across the beach. Kataria, again, had to bite back horror as a fragment of what had been a face bounced twice across the ice, then skidded to a halt at her feet to stare at her with one eye frozen in hate.
Then again . . .
‘Forgive the fury, child.’
Kataria froze instinctively; had the thing spotted her?
She dared a glimpse. The Abysmyth stalked towards her, sweeping its eyes across the blue stillness; the look of a predator with the scent of blood.
With all the casualness of a boy with a stick, it brought its arm down to crush another frogman. It pulled back a webbed fist, dark red splinters embedded in black skin.