Photo Illustration by B. Zedan
The Girl with a Bird for a Heart walked alone on the road to Kudra Kai. She had been travelling a long time. The bottoms of her bare feet had blackened and calloused by days of roaming. They were as hard as the ground she tread upon. Her gray-brown clothes hung torn and ragged from her bony frame. Her skin looked as tan and tough as the walking stick she carried. She was young, but the wind had worn her face as rough as the road she walked upon and her hair as tangled as the dry weeds along it.
A cart drawn by two paksi approached her on the left. She did not turn to look at it. A boy her age was driving. The bed of the cart was filled with barrels. The sweet smell of wine wafted from them.
“Ho there!” shouted the boy. “You there! Hop in! I’m headed the same way! I can take you if you like!”
She did not turn.
“Do you not hear me?” said the boy as he passed by her. He yanked on the reins that steered the paksi and the enormous birds halted beside the girl. They were beautiful specimens with black feathers and crowns of white and blue. Their beaks were ivory in color. Each stood half a head taller than the girl beside them. Paksi were common creatures of burden in this part of Vatrus. Horses and other such beasts had been long thought extinct.
“I’m trying to offer you a ride, you filthy hen!” the boy said to the girl, frustrated at her silence. He glanced down at her from his cart. Through her torn blouse he caught sight of something on her chest. It looked like a semi-spherical box of black metal. “What’s that you have there?” he asked.
She said nothing.
The boy gave up and urged his paksi to move on and put distance between him and this uncivil mute girl. He was busy making an important delivery and had no cause to be wasting time helping some unappreciative outcast. He took one more peek at the object under her blouse and realized it was not exactly a box, but rather a small metal cage.
His heart sank and he made a sign with his hand to his chest. It was a gesture his grandmother had taught him to ward off curses.
“I beg your pardon miss. I see now what ails you.” said the boy. “You seek the Muck Witch, do you not?”
The girl did not even look up.
“Well,” the boy continued, “I know the rules. You cannot accept any help. I understand. Just so you know, you are on the right path. I’ll be leaving now, wanderer. I wish you good luck on your journey. It is almost over I hope.” He smiled nervously and urged his birds to move on quickly.
Before long he was a speck in the distance.
The girl continued with no aid besides her stick.
The boy reached the estate soon after his encounter with the outcast girl. He wheeled over to the great hall and spoke to the doorkeeper.
“I bring casks from Vintner Madora. They were ordered for the wedding.”
“The Vintner usually sends his son. Who are you?” asked the doorkeeper.
“I am a simple servant. The Vintner’s son is away on business in Karas and I was sent in his stead.”
“Bring down a flask so I may sample the wine, boy.” said the doorkeeper. He was an older man, but large and imposing. His mustache was long and droopy and suggested a former life in the military. He was unarmed, but carried a horn that could summon the estate’s guards in an instant.
“Sir, my instructions are to bring the casks into the great hall. They are for the wedding feast, not-”
“Do as I say child, or I shall strike you!” the man bellowed. The servant boy shut his mouth and scrambled to the back of the cart.
“You understand that breaking the seal will ruin-”
“I count seven barrels.” said the doorkeeper. I believe we can spare one.”
The boy set to the task of applying the spigot.
“I don’t have a glass for you, sir.” he said when the wine was ready to be poured.
“Use this.” the man said as he extended a small drinking cup that he carried
The servant took the cup and poured. He would have considered it an insult to the Vintner to serve his wine in such a filthy vessel. Rather, he would have if it had actually been the Vintner’s wine and if he had actually been the Vintner’s servant.
The doorman sniffed at the wine and took a swig. After a pause he gulped the whole cup.
“More.” he said. The boy refilled the cup and once more the man downed it.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” asked the boy.
“What do you know? You’re just a dirty child.”
“May I complete my delivery, now sir?” asked the boy.
“Very well. Be quick about it.”
The barrels were quite heavy, but the boy managed to get all of them into the hall. When he was finished he tipped his cap to the man and urged his paksi to leave upon the same road he had come. The doorman closed the door and set the lock.
When he was well away from the estate the boy looked about to see if there were any watchers. Upon finding none he held his wrist up to his face. A thick leather band with a blue stone set in it was wrapped around the wrist. The boy spoke into it.
“It is done.” he said into the stone. “Enin is inside the hall.”
Within the great hall one of the casks rattled.
The girl approached the hut as if it were a slumbering beast that may awaken at any moment. The conical structure almost seemed to grow out of the ground itself. It stood just before the place where the dry land gave way to bog. The sun shone but the dense tree cover ensured that the domicile remained in eternal twilight. Beside it stood a small pen that housed a few blue swamp hens. The doorway stood open. To be more precise there didn’t seem to be a door at all, just an opening.
Silently she padded up to the building. The great toothless mouth of a door gave way to solid darkness. She peered into the black, expecting a wrinkled crone to stare back at her, cackling and covered in warts.
When her eyes adjusted to the dark she saw no one. Just a straw bed, an iron pot and a collection of bottles and trinkets. The girl walked around the hut and found no sign of the Muck Witch. Perhaps she had the wrong hut or maybe The Witch was out doing whatever it is that witches do. The hens looked well cared for, so the girl assumed the latter.
She found a dry stump in the clearing before the hut and decided it would be a good enough place to rest while waiting for The Witch. It was not long before someone approached.
A young man and woman walked cautiously toward the girl. They're rough clothing and lack of shoes marked them as peasants. Each had the brown skin and hair that was typical of the common people throughout Vatrus. The woman was with child.
“Muck Witch!” called the man, “My wife is not well. She carries our child. Please aid us!”
The girl stood up but did not speak. The couple drew closer and she could see that the woman leaned heavily on her husband, unable to support herself.
“You’re just a girl!” spat the man. “Where is The Witch?”
The girl said nothing.
“Who are you? Where is the Muck Witch? Can’t you see my wife needs help.”
Even if she could have spoken the girl would not have known what to say. She had no knowledge of healing and no idea where The Witch had gotten to.
“Well, if you cannot help me and The Witch is not present then I shall have to do it myself!” said the man as he strode to the opening of the hut.
“Husband, no.” said the woman weakly, but he did not seem to hear her and dashed inside The Witch’s home. The girl looked at the woman. Torrents of sweat washed down her brow and she breathed heavy and pained.
In seconds the man returned with an arm full of bottles.
“Maybe one of these is the medicine you need, dearest.” He held one of them out to her. It was small and opaque with a cork stopper. He put his hand over it to open the bottle before a voice from the bog interrupted him.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” said the voice. “Cacodaemons are frightfully difficult to bottle up again once they are released.”
The man turned toward the bog and said, “Is it you? Witch? Show yourself! I come only requesting your aid!”
A white skinned woman stepped out into the clearing. Her red hair was long and braided. She was younger than expected, no more than thirty years. She wore an outfit of green and brown cloth and fine leather boots. Her face and clothing were perfectly clean although she had been coming from the direction of the bog.
She ignored the couple and approached the girl. “You,” she said, “have travelled a long way to come here.”
The girl did not reply.
“Ignore her.” said the man, “She is just a dumb child. My wife is ill. We need-” The Witch raised her hand to silence the man without taking her eyes off the girl.
“Let me see it.” said the Muck Witch, poking her finger toward the girl’s chest.
“Witch, I beg of you...” at this The Witch turned around. She looked at the pregnant woman for a moment and then to the collection of bottles in the man’s arm.
“The blue glass one. It is filled with dried leaves. Make a tea from them and have your wife drink every last drop. Then she should rest.”
“That’s it?” asked the man, “And that will save her and save my child?”
“No.” said The Witch, “The baby is already dead.”
“There is nothing that can be done about that, man. Do as I say and your wife should live. Perhaps she will even be able to bear another child.”
“M-my child...” stuttered the man.
“Do as I say and leave me, man. And be thankful. If you had come here any later you would have lost both child and wife.”
“Thank you.” said the woman, through exhales.
The man dropped all of the bottles save the blue one and the couple left The Witch alone with the girl.
“As I was saying, girl. Show me what you have there.”
The girl lowered her blouse enough for the witch to see the tiny iron cage. Inside it was an even tinier bird- some sort of finch. Its foreparts were a sooty grey with flecks of yellow. Its wings were darker but similarly unremarkable. The bird would have been quite plain if not for a brilliant tuft of vermillion feathers on its forehead.
“Dear creature, be not afraid.” said The Witch. “Sing for me your song.”
The bird chirped. Timidly at first but then stronger and with what sounded like joy.
“Titihihihihihi!” chirped the little creature.
The Witch clasped her hand over a delighted smile. “Yes! Dear friend! All will be well, I am certain.”
She picked a bottle from the pile the man had discarded. She unstopped it and placed the tip of her small finger inside the neck. When it came out there a dark yellow pigment coated her finger. She touched it over the girl’s throat, making a tiny amber mark.
“Now your turn, child. You may finally speak.”
“My name is Tula Petek! I was cursed by a horrible man! He stole my heart and replaced it with a bird. He took my voice!”
“Who? What man? Why did he do this thing?” asked The Muck Witch. She did not seem to doubt Tula’s fantastic story one bit.
“I do not know his name.” Tula Petek told The Witch. “He was a stranger. He said he needed my heart for a ritual. He said it was perfect for his needs. He told me that I would remain alive until the end of the world, but I would not be able to speak to warn anyone of his plan.”
“The end of the world?” asked The Witch. “Did the man mention when that was to come.”
“In eight days time.”
Enin did not have much time. He had work to do and a world to end.
He was a dark skinned man originally from a small village in Etarika. As a boy, long ago he ran away and lived most of his life in the streets of Kudra Kai. As a man Enin travelled to Airomon, Hybourne, and even the Dark Expanse of Kuros. He had walked the world in search of answers. He discovered the magic of the Crystal Men and the craft of the Hidden People of the Red Valley. Enin had unlocked secrets he’d never expected and been laden with curses he’d never imagined. The worst curse of them all was his life.
He opened the lid of the barrel which had allowed him into the hall and got immediately to work. He passed the beautifully carved columns of kordwood and did not pause to admire the ornate reliefs of Maj, the Shaper forming the world with sacred fire out of the raw material of the void. Enin glanced briefly at a depiction of Mur, the Destroyer inhaling the sacred breath from all living things and moved on.
Enin held a hammer and a wedge and with them began prying apart the floorboards. It took several attempts before he found what he wanted- an opening. Once he had the correct spot Enin swiftly made a hole in the floor deep enough to climb down. Cool dank air rose into the hall.
The estate had been built on a very old parcel of land. Long before the worshippers of Maj and Mur ruled Vatrus the world had been a much different place. The land had been tamed over the ages but in some places could still be found the breaches- openings between this world and the other. Most were hidden deep underground. A few were closer to the surface.
Enin sucked in a lungful of the cavern air then hopped down into the hole. It was only a few feet deep, but a subtle breeze blowing into the dry air of the cave informed him that the tunnel extended far and led to where he needed to be. Ducking on all fours, Enin entered the dark passage and crept along in blackness.
The further he went the narrower the tunnel became. After several minutes of crawling Enin could barely move. After several more his hands felt the lip of a ledge. Reaching down, he could not feel the bottom. Enin had brought no light with him because he knew the caverns were not entirely empty. He knew that a light in such a place was like a bloody chunk of meat in a lion’s den. He climbed down leg first and hung to the bottom of the ledge. Still the bottom of the cave eluded him. Clinging to the ledge only with his fingertips, Enin kicked his legs below himself in search of a cave floor and found none.
Worrying that he had come to the wrong place but having no other choice Enin released his grip and slid down the rock wall.
He fell longer than he had expected, but the wall sloped slightly and he reached the bottom with minimal injury. Scratched and slightly bruised, Enin groped around in the black pit. He looked for The Door.
Several times he scanned the pit with his fingertips. Several times he found nothing.
Enin stood and fumbled in the dark. He determined the hole was roughly twenty feet in diameter. For at least an hour he ran his fingers along the walls and floors of the cave to no avail. This was surely the place. The scroll he had taken from the Temple of Aina had lead him here. The opening, the cavern, the pit- all were as predicted. This must have been the place, but The Door was nowhere to be seen.
An infinite amount of time seemed to pass. Enin’s thirst and hunger gnawed at him. He had brought no tools except the hammer and wedge, no provisions save one. That was the rule. The darkness does not offer its secrets to those who come cautiously. He knew that. He knew that he needed to eschew the needs of the mortal world if he were to enter the breach. He had fasted for three days before coming. He had become as clean and pure as a human could be. The only impure part of Enin was his heart, but he had prepared for that.
Enin reached into his pack and procured a small sack. He opened it and removed an object the size of a pear wrapped in leaves. Through the wrapping he felt it pulsing and warm.
Enin had committed many sins. He had wronged many people, but always, he told himself, for good reason. He unwrapped the object and felt the wet and beating heart of Tula Petek in his black hands. He felt her pain when he stole it from her. He carried her cries of pain in his ears every day since. Enin did not wish to harm her or anyone, but he knew it was the only way. Without a pure heart he could not open The Door.
Many more hours passed. Soon the preparers of the wedding would discover the hole in the floor. Enin doubted any would dare investigate the tunnel. He would never be found. The legends regarding the dark things beneath the estate were still fresh in the minds of the people. They would probably cover the hole and act as if nothing had been seen. Or perhaps they would burn the hall and lay heavy stones over the spot where it had stood. Perhaps they would salt the ground and place wards and totems around it to prevent any from ever suffering the fate of the fool who ventured into the darkness.
But Enin would not die. Enin could not die. That was his greatest gift. His greatest curse. He could suffer and starve and wail and scream until the end of the world, but before that time he would be doomed to sit in darkness in a hole clutching the heart of Tula Petek.
Tula Petek eyed the Muck Witch.
“I’ve told you my entire story. All that I know and understand of it. My grandmother found me lying in an alley where the man had left me. She saw the cage that took the place of my heart and knew right away that I had to come to you. She told me the rules that I must follow to seek your aid.”
“Your grandmother gave good counsel, girl.” said the Witch.
“So you can help me? You can restore my heart like you did my voice? Make me whole again?”
“No.” said the Witch.
“But, Muck Witch, please! I beg. I will repay you any way I can. I have no coin but I will work for you! I can cook, and tend to your animals!”
“I do not need those services,” the Witch began, “but more importantly I cannot fix this curse. This wicked man who has stolen what is yours- you do not know where to find him. You do not know where he has absconded with the core of you. Even if you could find him the only way to repair the damage done is if he willingly returns your heart.”
“Then I am lost?” cried Tula.
“No. You have lost something but you have not lost yourself.” said the Witch. “Even though you are changed by this ordeal, you still have your life. That is more than many get to keep after having the heart of them removed.”
“My life? What good is that? The wicked man took my life as well as my heart. Or he will soon enough. He claims the world will soon end. I with it. You as well I suppose.”
“That does concern me.” said the Witch as she flipped her braided hair over one shoulder. “The world happens to be where I make my home, so ending it would cause me great distress.”
“What does that even mean really?” asked Tula. “How does one end the world? And what does my heart have to do with it all?”
The Witch gathered all of the spilled bottles and replaced them inside her hut.
“Come girl.” she said, “We will put tea on and I will tell you a story about the making and the breaking of the world.”
The Witch began to boil water in the iron pot. She procured a tin box from the massive collection of junk in her hut along with a small teapot. The box was full of strongly aromatic tea leaves which the woman put into the pot.
“Which story have you been told?” she asked Tula.
“I’m sorry, ma’am?”
“About the beginning.” said the Witch as she poured hot water into the teapot. What tale are you told about the origin of the world and all the things in it? There are many stories and I am asking which is yours.”
“I see.” said Tula. “I suppose that the story I have been told the most is that of Maj the Shaper. He stood in the firmament surrounded by void. I forget how, but he created a fire. From that fire he forged the world.”
“That is the essence of the story, yes.” said the Witch. “Have you been told others?”
“Yes,” Tula said, “my Grandmother told me that the world always was. That one day people emerged from a hole in the ground or a cave and we have spread upon it ever since. And I once saw a man in the market square preaching that the world is an egg laid by a giant waterbird and when it hatches we will all be food for the baby bird.”
“That is one of my favorites.” said the Witch. “So. If you have been taught that Maj created the world have you also been told of Mur the Destroyer?”
“Oh yes, of course. He is to come after the final war of mankind and suck the life out of every living thing. Then he will wipe the world clean with the sacred fire. Then it all starts anew I think.” Tula was unsure about that last part.
“So, there are many different stories regarding the beginning and the end, no?” asked the Witch.
“In Arodem,” continued the red-haired woman, “they claim that the world was squeezed out the udders of a colossal she-goat. In the Red Valley it is said that the world is formed by the music played by a piper and if she ever stops playing we will all cease to be.”
Tula laughed at that one and the Witch glanced sideways at her.
“Is that any more laughable than a giant bird egg or a man forging the world on a vast fire?” asked the Witch.
“I guess not.” said Tula, “But tell me, Ma’am, which of these stories is the right one? Which is true?”
“They all are.” said the Witch as she poured the tea into a pair of mismatched and chipped cups.
“Are you saying that they are all equally true or that they are all equally false?” asked Tula.
“That is an excellent question.” said the Witch. “It is one I cannot answer.”
“What is the point of asking me all this anyway?” Tula asked. “What does it have to do with the wicked man and my heart? Is he planning on starting the final war so that Mur will come and draw our souls into his black lungs? Or is he going to crack the massive egg or interrupt the piper? How do all these stories help me become whole once more?”
“I have already told you, child. There is no making you whole again. Not in the way you mean. And if that man means to end the world he may well succeed. Even if he fails and you somehow convince him to return your heart there is a chance that...” she looked down at her tea as she trailed off.
“A chance that what?” asked Tula.
“There is a chance that you may no longer want it back.”
“Fool!” he said, “Damn old fool! That’s what you are!”
Shouting at himself in the pitch blackness. This is what the wicked and mighty Enin had sunk to. A withering husk of a man, an ebony skeleton crying in the shadows.
“So certain of yourself, old man. So full of hubris. You sought to make yourself a god. Now look at you. You’re too dried and ancient to even produce a single tear.”
He held the heart in front of his face. He could not see it the way one sees in the light but still he sensed it before his eyes. It was a warm heart, a bright heart. The girl from which he’d stolen it had been those things. Warm. Bright. It was a great sin to take it from her. Not his greatest sin by far, but a great one nonetheless. Even now, far removed from its host the heart was strong and full of life’s blood.
“Idiot.” came a voice not his own. It startled the old man before he remembered he was not entirely alone in this cave.
“You’re doing it wrong you decrepit turd!”
Enin glanced down at his chest reflexively in spite of the utter darkness. “What would you have done differently, feather-brain?”
The voice came from his heart, or what passed for one. An iron cage implanted into the cavity of his chest, much like the one he had forced upon Tula Petek. Within it was a starling. Had there been even a mote of light it would have reflected iridescently off of the bird’s feathers.
“You read the scroll of Aina. You must have a pure heart to see the door.”
“I DO HAVE ONE.” boomed the old man, waving the heart around blindly.
“You can’t just hold it out like a candle, you dullard. The heart must be a part of you.”
“I may be a birdbrain but I’ve seen a thing or two in the centuries I’ve lived inside your chest, old man. The only way you can find what you want is if you tear your heart out. Again.”
“But to do so would-”
“Kill you?” finished the bird, “No, I’m sure it wouldn’t. Besides, isn’t that the whole point?”
“It may merely disable me.” said Enin, “Make me unable to move. Trapped in this cavern, frozen for eternity.”
“That it just might, but maybe not. What have you to lose at this point? You’re trapped down here either way.”
“But if I release you, what will you do?”
“Fly away.” squawked the bird, “Far away from you!”
“At least you are honest with me.” said Enin, “I suspect you are correct. I have no other option, do I?”
“None that I can see, but even I can’t see in this pit.”
Enin covered the heart in leaves once more. He set it gently down and began reciting a very ancient incantation. Strange syllables unheard for aeons poured from his mouth. The metal in his chest grew warm, then hot, very hot. The bars of the cage began to glow red, creating light in this pit for the first time in human memory.
The pain was immense as the cage went from red to white hot. Within the bird appeared gravely frightened.
“I don’t like this.” it said.
“It will be over soon.” replied Enin. It was a phrase he had spoken many times. As a doctor he’d said it to sooth patients. As a killer to silence his victims. Today he was playing both roles at once.
With a brilliant flash the door of the cage burst open. Instantly the bird popped out, singed but not hurt. It stretched its wings for a moment, glanced at Enin in the fading light of the heated metal and flew off the way they had come. It did not say goodbye to the man that had held it captive for an eternity. Even if it had wanted to Enin was certain that the power of speech left the creature the moment it exited his body.
The next step of the operation would be the difficult part. Enin’s entire body felt as if it were on fire. Without a living heart his corporeal form would soon cease to function. He fumbled for the organ of Tula Petek but between the darkness and pain could not find it. With great effort the old man managed to flip over to his knees and felt around the cavern floor for the precious object he knew could only be a few inches from him.
He tried to curse in frustration but no words escaped his mouth. His very breath was absent. Frantically Enin swept around the cave with his hands. Each movement stiffer than the last. His arms and legs began to feel like rusty hinges. If he had a tear to cry it would have poured out of him, but Enin had nothing. Even the black bird he’d exchanged for a heart had abandoned him.
Falling on his face the old man gasped dryly, unable to take a single breath. This was his end for certain. Paralyzed on the cold stone, trapped within himself until his mind snapped.
Something brushed against his neck. It was a leaf, one he’d used to wrap the heart. With intense effort Enin turned his neck toward it. His right arm was completely dead, but his left was still inching along. Using his fingers like the legs of a spider he managed to crawl his hand along the floor toward his face. Every inch of ground covered by his hand sent stabbing pains along his chest and spine, but Enin continued.
The hand soon felt the warm, life filled heart. It had rolled loose of the leaves, but did not seem damaged. Grasping it in his wicked hand gave Enin an iota of vitality. Just enough to scoop it toward his sunken chest.
As he pushed the heart into the cage it began to beat faster and faster. The pain subsided a fraction and Enin managed to push the cage door shut and roll onto his back. The fire in his muscles ebbed and his lungs began to pump stale cavern air. Nothing in his long life had ever tasted as sweet.
Glancing upward Enin saw a light. It was blue, no yellow, no...not any color he’d ever witnessed. It was ring-shaped and floating just a yard or two above his face. Enin sat up and reached out to the light above him.
It was the light of the end of the world.
“Tell me, Tula,” said the Muck Witch, “how did you meet the man who did this to you? How did he dress and what did he look like?”
“I sold fish and oysters at the market in Skara Lys to the south. Mine is a fishing village half a day from there. My grandmother and I have sold there for years. We have our own stall. She tends to it while I carry baskets of our wares about the square.”
Tula took a sip of the tea the Witch had given her. It was hot and had a flavor of spice. She admired the cup for its sea-foam color as she held it in both hands to feel its warmth as if drawing strength from it.
“On market day the man approached me. I cannot picture his face. It is as if he used some trick or glamour to make me forget it. His clothing was fine and colorful, but very unusual. He had the bearing of a nobleman, but his attire did not resemble that of the refined folk I would sometimes see in the square. He wore a coat of crimson with golden trim and a tall black hat. He had dark skin. Even darker than mine. He resembled the men from the land to the south, across the Straight of Sutrus...”
“Etarika?” asked the Witch.
“Yes, that’s it. One of the sailors my father fished with came from there. He had skin the color of lamp oil as did the man who...who did this.” she pointed to her chest.
“So the man who stole your heart was a nobleman from Etarika?” asked the Witch. “I have known a few from that land. They have always proven to be fine and joyful people. But as with all folk, some among them are rotten I suppose.”
The girl continued, “The man said he wanted to purchase an entire basket of fish- all I had been carrying. He offered me an extra Lio coin for me if I carried the fish to his home.”
“And you did not question this?” the Witch asked her, “A strange man offering you coin to follow him home?”
The girl set her cup down and looked the Witch in the eye. “What choice would a child such as I have, Muck Witch? Had I refused the man could have struck me for such insolence. Perhaps it is different wherever you hail from, but here in Vatrus people know their place.”
The Witch turned her head away as if looking out a window, but there was none.
“He led me to a narrow street I’d never walked upon and instructed me to set the basket down. Then I looked up and he fell upon me.”
“I’m sorry.” said the Witch, “I meant not to blame you for his actions. What the man did was terrible and his fault alone.”
“I tried to scream but could not make a sound. I did not speak again until today. The worst part was the look in his eyes.”
“The wild-gaze of a madman can be horrifying.”
“No,” Tula said, “it wasn’t that. His face was full of remorse. He apologized as he cut me open. He was nearly in tears as he explained that in thirteen days the world would end. I lost my consciousness while he spoke of the ritual he would perform. I don’t even know why he was telling me. It was as if he were simply lonely and wanted someone to talk to.”
“This man has committed a horrible violent act upon you, girl.” said the Muck Witch, “He is not worthy of your empathy.”
“Thirteen days until the world ends.” said Tula, “That was five days ago. Could it be true? And if so how? And please, no more stories.”
“The man you have described sounds familiar to me.” said the Witch. “I cannot be certain, but many years ago I met a man from Kudra Kai. He was Etarikan by birth and his style of dress was similar to the man who stole your heart.”
“That means nothing.” Tula said. “There could be any number of men in the world who fit that description. Dark skin and a red jacket?”
“That is not the part that got my attention.” said the Muck Witch. “But I know of a man whose eyes are full of sorrow even as he is ending your life. They called him The Baneful Physician or The Friendly Death. You never knew which you would find when you looked upon him.”
Tula sipped her tea. It tasted bitter and strong. She held the cup in both hands once more and asked, “Who is this man? Is he a warlock?”
“Among other things, yes. He has walked the lands of Aris longer than I have. At times he has been viewed as a savior, and others a destroyer. If he is the one who harmed you then I admit I am in fear.”
Tula reached out and placed her hand over the Witch’s.
“Who is this man?”
“His name is Enin.”
The light brushed against Enin’s fingertips. It had a physical presence. Waves of heat shot down his arm and into his chest. They engulfed his newfound heart in a flame that did not consume. The light of indeterminate color flooded his eyes. The heat spread throughout his body like a fever.
“Stand.” came a voice from above him. The voice was indescribable, neither deep nor high and not loud nor soft.
Enin rose to his feet, expecting his head to meet the ceiling of the cave. It did not. He was a tall man even without his hat. As he stood he got the sense that the cave itself was much bigger than before, infinitely large.
The light in his eyes began to fade.
“Who are you?” Enin asked the voice.
“Close your eyes.” said the voice.
“Why?” asked Enin, but he did as told as if compelled. The light faded slowly to black.
“Who are you?” Enin asked once more.
“Open your eyes again.” was all the voice said.
Enin stood in a field of green. The bluest sky he’d ever seen floated above him. The meadow spanned about one hundred yards in every direction. Trees of a sort he’d not known since his boyhood lined the perimeter. The field teemed with life. Birds of many colors darted about and small creatures he took to be rabbits munched on the short grass by his feet.
Before him stood an elderly man. His back was bent and a profusion of deep lines covered his face. His eyes were watery and grey, but open and alert. He smiled a genuine smile.
“Welcome to my pasture.” said the man.
“Who are you?” Enin repeated.
“Who are YOU?” asked the man.
“I’m...I don’t know...I’m just me.” Enin knew who he was. He knew his own name, his own history, yet somehow could not speak it. He felt as if he stood beside a massive pane of glass and his entire life before now were on the other side. He could witness it as if from afar but couldn’t touch.
“That is correct.” laughed the man. “You are just YOU. I have seen you. Dancing about the stage. Playing the role of demon and angel. Living a life that you think has been long. I have watched you cry and laugh and love and hate. You have made quite a spectacle of yourself.”
Enin looked more deeply at the man. He recognized the face.
“Father?” he said, “It’s you!”
“Yes, but not in the way that you mean.” said the man.
Enin looked again and said, “I am mistaken. It has been so long since I have seen his face. But I recognize you now. You are my teacher. The first teacher. You taught me to read when I was so small. You sent me down the path of knowledge. That path I have walked ever since.”
“I am that, but again not as you think.”
Again he regarded this wizened old man. Each time he glanced at him his face changed. He was the slavemaster of Kudra Kai then the Wizard of Hybourne. One moment he resembled the man with the apple cart- the first man Enin had ever killed. The next he wore the face of a Crystal Man who had aided Enin in his search for a potion that would extend his own life. Every teacher he’d ever known, every face of every person who had granted him knowledge was present here.
“This is simple trickery.” Enin said. “You are using basic magicks to fool me. I’ve lived among face changers in the Shadow City. I’ve slain skinwalkers in the forests of Grek. I’m not fooled by your pranks.”
“This is not a prank, young one.” said the man, “I am The Teacher. I am every teacher. When you look at me you see the face of every person from whom you have drawn inspiration. You see all teachers.”
Enin looked away.
“I am not young.” he said, staring into the blue.
“You are to me.” said The Teacher. “Your time on this world has been long by your standards, but I have watched you as well as countless seekers before you.”
“Yes. Seekers. Those for whom the world around them is not enough. Those who climb hills and plunge into oceans. Those who scale the ladders of academies and dive into books.”
“I have done it all.” said Enin. “I have spent more than ten lifetimes walking this world and now I am weary. I come here seeking to end it.”
“I can aid you in that.” said The Teacher, “But what I set in motion cannot be undone.”
Enin sat on the grass and wrapped his head in his hands. “Teacher,” he said, “I am spread thin. My bones should long since have been dust. Yet still I walk this world. I have seen all the joy and all the pain that mankind has to offer. I have been the cause of much of both. I wish only now to end it.”
“The world. End it all.”
“Do you not care how this action will affect the rest of those living in this world?”
“No.” said Enin, “If there is one thing I have seen in this world it is the wickedness in the hearts of all men. The scroll of Aina- Keeper of Breath showed me how to put a stop to this. I have done so much to get to this place. I have killed, tortured, so many have I harmed. But if I follow the path that I have set myself to. I can erase it. My own sins. The suffering I have wrought. All the blood, all the pain. It will be like lines erased from a slate.”
The Teacher looked up at the sky. It had turned grey as Enin spoke.
“Seven days.” Enin said, “That is what the scroll says. Seven days from the time that I ask. That is the time to undo the world. Tell me it is true.”
“It is.” said The teacher. Clouds formed above them- dark, heavy, and pendulous.
“Then I ask you.” said Enin. “I beg you. Finish this. Finish me. Finish it all.”
“I shall.” said The Teacher.
Tula tapped at the bars of the cage that held the bird.
“Does it hurt?” asked The Witch.
“Not anymore.” said Tula. “When it was happening the pain was more than I could bare. My vision turned black and the next thing I knew my grandmother was shaking me awake. The pain was gone then. I felt merely...empty.”
“Tula-” The Witch began, but was interrupted by a horrendous crashing noise outside of the hut.
The two women raced outside to see fire raining from the clouds. Crimson balls of flame with streaking yellow tails blasted through the sky and into the boggy ground with dreadful force and exploded in terrifying bursts around them.
The Witch’s eyes grew wide as the hut in which they’d been sitting ignited behind them. The swamp hens clucked and squealed frantically as they ran in circles. The walls of the tiny structure burned quickly and plumes of black smoke billowed around it. From inside came several smaller explosions as the bottles and jars within burst from the heat or perhaps from some magical force within them.
More streaks dropped around them in a blazing torrent. From within the hut the smoke swirled and coalesced. It almost seemed to take a human-like shape.
“No.” gasped The Witch. “No. Not now. This can’t happen now!” She stood frozen and stared at the cacodaemon taking form inside her demolished home.
Tula grabbed her by the hand and pulled The Muck Witch into the dry forest on the edge of the bog. Gripping the older woman tight, Tula led her to the relative cover of the trees. Above them branches cracked apart in white-hot flares as the meteors fell. Splintered wood and searing fire flew by in every direction.
The pair ran forward until they came to a wall of trees ablaze. They turned to their left to find the path blocked by several fallen tree trunks that were blackened and burned by the destructive force that must have laid them low.
They veered back toward the swamp. A meteor struck the land behind them with concussive force and a noise like ten thousand thunderclaps. Tula and The Witch were thrown to the ground. All grew silent.
To Tula the world slowed as the blasts continued to fall around them soundlessly. She got to her knees. The Witch lay face down on the scorched ground with her leg bent strangely. Fire continued to rain. Her eyes filled with tears. If she had a heart it would have been beating like a hummingbird’s. Instead she had a bird and now The Bird spoke to her.
“Get up!” it said.
Bewildered and frightened, Tula’s mind almost failed to register the voice.
“Get up now or we’ll both die!” said The Bird.
“What?” said Tula, “How are-” before she finished her question she realized that she could not hear her own voice. She could hear nothing but The Bird.
“No, time for questions, girl!” came the voice from her chest. “Move, move, move! That’s all there is to do.”
“But-” she mouthed silently then stopped. Trying to speak was obviously futile.
“Now!” shouted The Bird as another meteor struck dangerously close to them.
Tula grabbed The Witch by her arm and hefted her over one shoulder. The older woman came to and looked around.
“We must run!” said Tula, but she could not tell if The Witch heard.
The Muck Witch tried to move, but her leg was clearly broken. She fell onto Tula.
Somehow the girl found the strength to drag The Witch to the swamp.
They trudged on three good legs through knee deep water. The blasts of flame seemed to lessen as they went. In several minutes that felt like years they reached a small hill where the ground was drier. Tula slumped to the ground, exhausted. The fire had not spread to that spot and as she looked behind her it seemed as if the meteor shower had ceased. Slowly Tula regained her hearing.
The two women sat on the edge of the bog, surveying the destruction.
“Do you know how to set a broken leg?” The Witch asked matter of factly.
The Bird said nothing.
The boy had arrived back in Kudra Kai as the firestorm began. He wheeled his paksi driven cart into the stables and manage to unfasten the large birds before the building was engulfed in flames from above. He raced to the exit but saw only a panorama of infernal destruction. People and animals ran and screamed in chaotic fear.
The panicked birds fled the stables, nearly knocking the boy to the ground.
The boy dashed back inside and flung open the cellar door. Several feet below ground he hunkered for what felt like hours. The explosive blasts subsided but he remained among the barrels of grain and cheap wine. From above he heard cries of pain and terror. He cried until his eyes were dry. He collapsed on the floor and prayed to whatever gods may have listened.
The boy had no family. He had no friends. Born to the streets, he’d been alone as long as he could remember. Just one in a sea of urchins on the streets of the greatest and most terrible city in the world he had become accustomed to taking care of himself. He ran with some of the gangs from time to time, learning different schemes and tricks of survival, but he never stayed with any long enough to be fully accepted. When Saiku Lin first offered him the job of smuggling Enin into the feast hall the boy was wary. The name Enin had only ever been spoken in fretful whispers by those he knew. He was a warlock, a doctor, a killer, a charlatan, and a man of great wealth and power. Those who got too close to Enin were known to suffer for it.
When the boy learned that he would be taking Enin away from the city he grew more intrigued. He would have to meet with the man and gain his trust according to Lin. Enin did not allow himself to be vulnerable to any that may use it against him. The boy spent several days with the sorcerer and saw firsthand what great wealth could buy. In Enin’s chambers the boy was fed, clothed, and allowed to sleep in an actual cot. He was put in charge of Enin’s stable and given a key to the man’s home. Several times the boy was left alone. He could easily have taken anything he wanted from the man. Gold and expensive items were strewn about Enin’s chambers as if they held no value.
The boy took nothing save that which was offered to him. He took caution to not even look too long at the accouterment of his master’s home for fear of bringing suspicion upon himself. A single candlestick from that house was worth more than the boy had seen in his life.
He planned to return to the house after delivering Enin, use the key to enter and fill the cart with as much as he could fit. Then the boy would leave Kudra Kai forever. He was not sure where he would have gone. Perhaps Skara Lys or even Karas. The further the better, he figured. He could set up a small shop somewhere and sell the curios he’d stolen. Perhaps become a fat and rich merchant in time.
Neither Saiku Lin nor Enin gave any indication of when the sorcerer would return if ever. When the boy asked what he should do with the cart and Enin’s magnificent paksi the man did not seem to care.
“Return them to the stable, I suppose.” Enin had said as if he would never need them again.
The boy knew that the man was insane. Wanting to crash a noble wedding in such a bizarre manner was clear evidence of that. He decided that whatever Enin meant to do was none of his business. He would do his job and return to the stables as ordered. If Enin ever returned to his home he would probably not even notice a small portion of his riches missing. By the time he did the boy would be hundreds of miles away.
The boy never got to enact his theft, of course. The moment he pulled into the stable the sky exploded.
Now here he was cowering in a basement.
He wondered if it would be safe to venture out. The muffled sounds of those above trying to escape the madness raining upon them lessened.
The boy crept over to the cellar stairs. He was unsure of what to do next. The paksi had run off so swiftly he could probably never find them, assuming they weren’t consumed in flames.
He considered for a moment that this could be punishment from the gods for his deceitful intentions. The gods had never seemed to take notice of him before, though. This firestorm was something else. It was something bigger than the boy could comprehend.
The boy gazed up at the cellar door, afraid of what may be on the other side. He couldn’t stay down below forever, of course. What choice did he have but to open the door?
The room had grown noticeably warmer. There was a crackling noise from beyond the door. His eyes grew wide and every nerve in his body tingled. The stable must have caught fire. There would be no escaping now. He’d trapped himself.
Tears streamed down the boy’s face as an orange glow emanated from behind the door. It outlined the frame of the wood sharply. In a heartbeat the entire portal to the world above bathed him in angry light.
He heard a loud crack as the slats that made up the door burst down and fell into the room in a clatter of smoke and flame.
At the top of the stairs was now an open hole and beyond it was a darkness broken by a flickering glow.
The burning slats had fallen upon the wooden stairs. Soon the passage would be engulfed in flames.
More frightened of being trapped than of getting burned the boy ran up the stairs through the fire.
All that remained of the stables was a dense cloud of smoke. The boy raced choking and crying through the smoke in a blind frenzy.
He fell to the ground some distance outside where the stables had stood, gasping for air. When he could see again the world around him was mostly black. The wrath of the gods- if that’s what it was- had struck just before nightfall. Enin’s house became a pile of cinder before the boy’s eyes. All around people were running with buckets of water trying to save their own homes and businesses. The boy sat by the ash-filled streets of Kudra Kai in shock.
“The world is ending.” he said out loud to himself.
“No.” came a voice from behind him. “This is just the beginning of the end.”
The boy turned to see Enin.
The hill on which they sat looked over a clearing. Beyond that lay a forest and past it would be the city of Kudra Kai. Against the darkening sky Tula saw an orange glow and several streams of black smoke pouring out over the horizon. The city burned.
“What I need you to do is hold my upper leg in place and push my lower leg back into the right position.”
Tula sat mute. Staring at The Witch.
“Do it, please. I cannot by myself, girl. I need you.” The Muck Witch said to her.
Tula looked down at the bird in her chest as if expecting it to chime in.
“Tihihi!” it chirped and said nothing more.
“Tula!” snapped The Witch, “You can do this. I saw how courageous you were during the firestorm. I’m sure you can be brave for me now.”
The Girl with a Bird for a Heart drew in a deep breath. She straddled The Witch’s thigh with her back toward the older woman. The Witch wore loose fitting trousers. The bottom half on the broken leg had been torn somehow during the storm. An odd bulge was jutting out about halfway down the lower leg.
“That’s my tibia, dear.” The Witch told Tula. “Take my leg below the bump- by the ankle is best. Pull it up like a lever”
“But,” Tula said, “that will hurt you!”
“It will hurt even more if you don’t do it. Please Tula Petek. Be strong for me. I can’t be strong much longer without your help.”
Tula did as she was told. She reached down to the lower calf and pulled up gently with both hands.
The Witch gasped but did not speak.
The girl felt a sickening grind as she set the bone, but it moved slowly into the proper position. Soon the grotesque bulge was gone.
The Witch exhaled.
“Well, done, girl. Now we need to make a splint.”
“How are you so calm?” Tula asked her.
“I’ve been alive a long while, Tula. This is not my first disaster. Also, your work is not done yet. I need you to find some straight branches to make a splint. You can tear the remains of my trousers to tie it around my leg.
Tula followed her instructions and eventually The Witch’s leg was splinted. The girl found some water in a stream and brought it to the older woman in a large leaf.
After drinking her fill The Witch spoke again, “We cannot stay here, but I cannot move.”
“Where else could we even go?” asked Tula, “The world just caught fire around us. It’s a wonder that the trees still stand here. If we weren’t surrounded by bogs I suspect we’d be caught in a wildfire. Was that it? Did the world just end? A rain of fire and a broken leg? Is that all?”
“No,” said The Witch, “most certainly not.”
“So, is there still more to come? When?”
“I won’t pretend to know such things. All I can be certain of is that sorcerer has started an unstoppable wave of events into motion. He says we have eight days until the very end. I believe him.”
“What can we do, then? A lost child and a broken witch? If the destruction this Enin has wrought is unstoppable then what is even the point of doing anything?”
The Witch wrapped her hands around Tula’s and said, “Dear girl, nothing has changed. We have as much time and as much to do as we always have.”
“How much time do we truly have?”
“The rest of our lives.”
Tula turned away from The Muck Witch, frustrated by her words. She inhaled deeply to find her senses overwhelmed by the scent of a sweet and heavy smell, like pipesmoke. Without turning she could sense a third party had arrived from behind The Witch, appearing stealthily out of the woods.
“I am going to kill you.” spoke a voice that was not a voice. More than anything it sounded like the buzzing of a million bees.
“I know,” said The Witch matter-of-factly, “but not today.”
The bird fluttered in Tula’s chest. Every nerve in her body was screaming at her to run as fast as she could, but instead she turned to see...it standing behind The Witch.
It was smoke. No, it was darkness, like a piece of the night sky had been torn out and brought to the world. It shifted and flickered as if not meant to be and existed by force of will alone. It took the form of a man. If Tula looked closely she could make out high cheekbones and an aquiline nose, but she dared not look closely.
“Girl,” said The Witch, “this is Kokaibel. He is my cacodaemon.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Tula said, her eyes to the ground.
“The girl lies.” spoke Kokaibel, “She could not be less pleased.”
“Do be polite.” The Muck Witch said, but to whom it was uncertain.
“I’ve never met a demon before.” said Tula, “I thought you were supposed to reek of brimstone.”
Kokaibel chortled with a sound like glass shattering. “If we smelled of burning sulfur where would be the appeal? No, child. Demons smell sweet. We are, after all, angels who have broken free.”
Tula Petek had never feared anything like she feared Kokaibel. Standing before it felt like being locked in a cage with a lion. Kokaibel could end her without a thought and they both knew it.
She looked into the eyes of The Witch and asked, “Should we be running?”
“No point in it, dear.” said The Witch. “You could never outrun Kokaibel. It would be like trying to win a race against the moon. Besides. He is not doing us harm at this time.”
Tula forced herself to gaze upon the strange being. The more she looked at it the more human it became in her eyes. It’s form was vague and shifting, as if it were uncertain whether or not it should exist at all. But the more she wrapped her mind around it the more solid it seemed. It flashed a pair of bright eyes at her followed by an even brighter smile.
“Maegda,” it spoke, “what do you have here?” The demon waved what may have been a hand in the general direction of Tula, “Have you taken a new pupil?”
“No, Kokaibel. I have not. Those days are past. This girl-”
“I am Tula Petek.” she interrupted before The Witch could finish. At the sound of her name Kokaibel’s smile split across its face like a tear in a piece of fabric. The Witch threw her hand over her own mouth as if to trap the words that had already escaped the girl’s.
“...this foolish girl,” said The Witch, “is of no consequence to you. She is simply a traveler who was kind enough to help me in my injured state.”
Kokaibel circled Tula like a predator. “Tula,” it whispered, tasting the name, “Tula Petek. What a deliciously ordinary name. I shall add it to my collection.”
“Beg your pardon!” said Tula.
“Those are the rules, girl.” the demon said, “Never say your own name to a demon. It binds you to them. Now you’re stuck with me. Just like Maegda here.” it gestured toward The Witch.
“I’m done.” Tula said.
“No no no.” Kokaibel spoke, “You don’t get to decide that. Not now. You’ve given me your name. Just handed it to me like a present. I have you now. Like this Witch had me all those years. Except I won’t lock you up in a bottle. No no no. I’ll keep you where I can see you. You’re a dangerous one, you heartless thing.” At that last bit Tula tugged at the flap of her blouse to cover the cage as best she could.
“I don’t care about you, demon.” said Tula. “If you are going to kill me or enslave me or whatever your plans are then get on with it. Otherwise I have bigger problems than you. The world is ending and there is much I’d like to get done before that comes to pass. I’ve been assaulted and burned and cursed. I don’t need some flickery shadow of hell hassling me too. I’m done. Good day to you.”
The Witch was unable to move due to the state of her leg, but Tula was nearly certain the older woman would not have followed as she plodded down the hill away from the pair.
“You may walk away from me if you like, Tula Petek.” spoke Kokaibel, “But you can’t outrun the end. Not without my assistance.”
Tula stopped and looked downward. “What kind of assistance do you have to offer?”
“Did you not expect me to return?” Asked the towering man.
The boy opened his mouth but nothing came out. He spun around at the ebbing chaos. His notion of taking for himself a small portion of Enin’s wealth had literally gone up in smoke. He had nothing. For all the boy knew his contacts and acquaintances could be dead in the destruction delivered by the firestorm. Even the paksi had fled.
Enin surveyed the scene before him. “It is not easy for me.” He said with a face of stone. “Watching my home fade into dust. This sight does fill me with sorrow. But it is inevitable. All things must end.”
The boy croaked dryly, “You said that this was just the beginning. There is more to come?”
Enin smiled the smile of a man with a thousand secrets. “Yes, boy. Much more is coming. More than this world can handle.”
The boy stood and wiped soot away from his eyes.
“Come, boy.” Enin said to him. “I have need of you.”
“Come where? If the world is ending where can we go? And why should we bother? Won’t it end all the same?”
Enin whistled and from out of the shadows loped two familiar shapes. The paksi stepped forward.
“Be silent and ride with me for a while, boy.” The sorcerer said, “Neither of us should want for a companion in the times that are to come.”
He climbed upon the larger of the two birds and steadied himself by grasping the ruff of feathers around its neck. He nodded at the boy to do the same.
“Use the bridle only for guiding your mount, boy. If you need to right yourself while riding take hold of the plumage as I have.” Said Enin.
“Won’t that hurt her?”
“Do so gently. Grasping the bridle will send confusing signals to the paksi and cause it to take the wrong course, perhaps even throw you.”
The boy was clumsy at first and had clearly never ridden bareback, but he managed and soon kept pace with Enin as they loped out of the city.
The main road out of Kudra Kai was flooded with people trying to escape the destruction caused by the short storm, but the birds were swift and maneuvered around the throng.
“The storm brought so much pain and ruin to the city.” Said the boy. “It only lasted a few minutes, but it destroyed homes and lives.”
Enin said nothing.
“What worse thing could be coming?” The boy continued. “Where can these people run to? Where can we go? The forest and the marsh lands beyond? I can see black billows of smoke everywhere. Was there no part of the land untouched by this tempest?”
“I bid you to be silent boy. I am in no mood to answer pointless questions.” Said Enin.
“And I am in no mood to be told what to do.” Snapped the boy. “My whole life I’ve been wary of men and boys like you. Older, bigger, stronger. I’ve stayed out of the way. Tried to make myself small and unnoticed as to not incur your wrath. I’ve been the servant, the victim. I’ve mostly hidden myself away from the likes of those who think they can command me and anyone who is younger or smaller than them. When I couldn’t hide I did as I was told just to keep myself safe. But now things are changing.”
Enin looked forward as the boy continued to unleash on him.
“No one is safe now. Not me, not you. Not the town guard, not the gangs. Not even Saiku Lin is safe. Not when the sky itself brings death to all. So I don’t need to heed you or anyone else. You cannot possibly be more of a threat than a sky full of fire.”
Enin glanced sideways at the boy but remained silent.
“So tell me, great sorcerer, if there is nowhere to run, then why run? Where are you going? Why should I follow? What kind of destruction is coming and what are we to do about it?”
Enin pulled his mount to a stop. The boy did the same. The sorcerer looked at him and said, “Past that forest, in the swamps there is a force more destructive than the firestorm. There is a power so great it will plunge my whole world into darkness forever. It waits for me. If you choose to run away from the end of the world then run, but you won’t go far. The end is coming sooner than you can imagine and when it happens it won’t matter if you are standing right here or a thousand leagues away. I am going to face that force head on.”
“Face it head on?” Asked the boy, “Then what? If this force is all you say what do you hope to achieve? How can you stop it from ending the world?”
The sorcerer’s head fell back and he let loose a barrage of laughter. “Boy,” he said, “I don’t intend to stop it.”
Enin shook the reign and his bird trotted on.
“I intend to greet it!”
“Girl,” said The Muck Witch, “I beg you not to listen to this beast.”
Tula glanced back at the two of them, the broken woman on the ground with her hair full of smoke and the demon hovering over her like a person-shaped hole in the fabric of the world.
“I crackle with power, Tula Petek.” spoke Kokaibel in that dire voice of his, a voice that sounded like crying infants, and roaring flames and swarms of insects shaped into syllables. “Say the word and I will show you what I can do. Unleash me and I will be yours to serve.”
Tula gazed on the imploring eyes of The Witch and the dagger smile of the demon. She knew that such raw power was dangerous, but she needed it. The world literally burned around her and she was powerless. The end, whatever that meant was coming. If making a deal with this thing that should not be was what she needed to do to make things whole and right again would that not be worth the risk?
“Dear. Please. Understand.” said The Witch. “Kokaibel will never let you free once you accept his aid. He will grant your desires at first, but he will twist your wishes and eventually twist you until you are the servant.”
Tula turned back toward the burning city. The vermillion glow of the flames had lessened, but smoke still rose into the night sky. Tula had never been to Kudra Kai, but heard of its wonders. Skara Lys was a much smaller city and she had lived near it her entire life. Whenever she had free time after market she would explore the streets and alleys and each time she would uncover some new sight. Kudra Kai was legendary for its splendor. Travellers often spoke of it as tenfold the grandness of Skara Lys and now it was being destroyed. Every moment that passed a home or a shop was burned to the ground, forever gone. She would never see the beauty of this city, nor would anyone ever again unless a stop was put to this annihilation.
What power could this demon actually have? What could he even do? She decided to test him. Give Kokaibel a harmless task and see how it works.
“Kokaibel,” The Girl with a Bird for a Heart said, her voice cracking only a little, “I accept your offer of assistance. As a show of good faith I request that you heal my companion. Use your powers to make The Witch’s leg whole and right once more.”
The Witch, Maegda’s eyes and mouth opened wide in horror. Before she could speak the shadow-being was upon her.
“As you wish.” spoke the demon as he wrapped around The Witch like a cloak. Maegda tried to move but he enveloped her as she struggled. Tula stepped forward not knowing what to say or do. As she approached the shadow lifted.
The Muck Witch sat with her knees up and face down. The splint Tula had applied was nowhere to be seen.
“It is done.” the demon said.
Tula examined The Witch. The odd swelling was gone. Not even a red mark on her leg.
“Please rise!” said Tula joyously, “You are well!”
Maegda’s face lifted to meet Tula’s gaze. The Witch’s eyes narrowed and her nose drew up in disgust.
Tula stepped back at that look. “I had him heal, you.” she said meekly, “Your leg is mended. What harm can there be in that?”
“You ignorant.” said The Witch.
“You have sealed my doom. For years I kept him bottled up. For years I had his power in a bottle. I could have used it. I could have drank him up like wine and used this demon’s might to reshape the world as I saw fit! I could have made my will the law! I have lost in my life more than you have ever known. I could have fixed so many wrongs...challenged death! But I resisted.”
Kokaibel stood silently behind Maegda as she ranted, with that jagged smile somehow apparent on his unseeable face.
Tula felt a hot tear run down her face as The Witch berated her further.
“For years I held that demon in check. I held myself in check. Not once did I allow myself to accept his promises of power because I knew. I knew if I took that power for myself it would be my undoing. And now here I am. Tainted. Touched by his dark influence. His unholy might is flowing in my veins. I can feel it. My pain is gone. My body is healed, but I am as good as dead.”
“It was just a leg...” began Tula.
“It was everything.” said The Witch, “You let him in. No. I let him in. But you opened the door. You do not understand. You don’t feel it! The seal has been broken. Now that I have tasted it there is no way I can resist taking more.”
“The city is burning!” Tula said, “The world is burning. We need to help whomever we can, not stand here. If this demon can help save lives then I don’t care what the cost is. My own life is already forfeit. I have seen what power he has. And down there in Kudra Kai there will be many who require our aid.”
Maegda stood gracefully. She turned away from Kokaibel and simply said, “No.”
“No?” spat Tula. “What do you mean?”
She paused for a heartbeat before changing her mind and saying, “On second thought. I don’t care what you mean. I don’t need you.”
Tula lumbered down the hill.
“I’m going home.” said Maegda as she walked back toward the swamp. “Perhaps with distance and time I can resist the seeds this demon has planted. Believe me, Tula Patek. No good will come of trusting Kokaibel.”
The witch returned to the remains of her hut.
Tula got to the bottom of the hill and turned to look back up the slope.
“Demon,” she said, “are you coming or not?”
Having no other direction in mind the boy followed a hundred or so yards behind Enin. Most of the refugees were headed roughly the same way, though none seemed to know why. A few miles in the distance he could see the forest on the horizon. At a gallop they may reach the edge of the woods within the hour. Yet Enin seemed to maintain a trotting pace.
After several minutes he had made his way nearly alongside the sorcerer. Soon after that he saw a few figures ahead on the road. Two older boys stood beside a prone paksi.
The boy raced ahead on his mount and stopped to greet the travellers.
“Ho there!” he said, “Is your beast injured?”
One of the older lads looked up and the boy recognized him as Darik. Darik had been a cruel and frequent tormentor of the boy for several years on the streets of Kudra Kai, but now he looked weak and frightened.
“We were hoping to get out to the country. Away from this hellstorm. The two of us, Naveed and I.” said Darik, not seeming to recognize the boy. “We...borrowed a paksi and galloped as fast as we could. The stupid thing fell to the ground and now it won’t budge.”
“You’ve probably exhausted the poor thing.” the boy said. “That bird was never meant to carry two riders and certainly not at such a pace.”
A tear streaked down Darik’s soot-stained face.
“Hop on.” said the boy. “Our paksi are larger and much stronger than the one you have. As long as we do not work them too hard they should keep their strength.”
Enin caught up with them. “Are these friends, of yours, boy?”
The boy looked at Darik and Naveed. He knew them both. Naveed was a round-faced boy of perhaps sixteen years. He barely spoke and almost certainly could not read. Darik was taller and broad-shouldered with dark straight hair and tan skin. Many of the girls had called him handsome and he never lacked their affection in spite of his callous nature.
Even though the boy had known him for years Darik’s face showed no sign of recognition.
“They are strangers to me.” the boy lied. He worried that had he told the truth Enin would realize how much the boy hated Darik and Naveed. He suspected the sorcerer would refuse them aid if he knew how atrocious the older lads had been. As it was the boy barely concealed the venom in his voice.
“Then tarry no longer.” Enin said, “We have matters to attend to beyond the forest.”
“But they’re going the same way!” said the boy.
“They would only slow us down needlessly.” said the sorcerer. “Besides, there is no point in them running. Soon there will be nothing to run from. Nothing to run to. The world is ending.”
“If you choose not to help them then I will follow you no longer.” the boy said.
“Follow me.” said Enin. “Do not follow me. It is all the same. I have no need of you boy. I just did not desire to end this life alone. But if you would rather sit with these ruffians on the side of the road or tend to their ailing beast as the world burns I will not stop you.” With that he urged his mount onward and was gone.
“What did he mean?” said Darik. “He said the world is ending. Did he mean that? Is he insane? I half believe him. Never saw no fire fall from the sky like this. My Nan once did, though. During the war she said. The enemy threw burning pitch into the city. It nearly burned the whole town down to the ground it did.”
“We aren’t at war.” the boy said.
“Then what was it then?” Darik said, “You don’t know nothing about no wars. You don’t know if the king were to be at war with another king.”
The boy looked at Darik and said, “We don’t have a king. Kudra Kai has never had a king. Ever. It is a free city and run by a council of merchants.”
“How you know that?” spoke Naveed for the first time.
“I read it in a book.” the boy said. “Reading is good for you.”
“Oh yeah?” said Darik. “You think you’re real smart, eh?”
The boy did not like the look in Darik’s eye. He’d seen it many times before. There was something about the cruel and stupid that made them infinitely crueler when you reminded them of how stupid they were.
Darik grabbed at the boy’s leg.
“You know what?” Darik said, “I’m taking that mount for myself. You don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve shit!”
“Let go.” said the boy.
“Let go!” said Naveed in a mocking tone.
Darik grasped hold of the boy’s leg and tried to pull him off his paksi. The boy gripped the reigns but Darik was strong and nearly had him.
“Give a hand, you donkey!” said Darik to Naveed.
The round faced lad galumphed over and attempted to grab hold of the boy’s arm. He caught only a bit of sleeve and pulled.
“Stop it!” the boy said. “This is my paksi. I’m not letting you take it.”
“I remember you now.” said Darik. “You’re the little shit who used to run with Stik and Paol down on Butcher Street, ain’t you? You were always a bit of trouble. Never listened. Always mouthing off to your betters. Yeah. I know you.”
A flood of memories filled the boy’s head. He hadn’t thought about Stik and Paol in a long time. They were tough lads. Not far off from Darik and Naveed, really. The only difference was that they picked on other kids instead of him. Eventually they ran afoul of a real gang and were found in an alley with their throats slit. That was when Saiku Lin found the boy and took him in.
“Hey ‘Veed,” Darik said to his friend, “remember this waste? I used to box his ears for fun.”
The boy twisted the reigns in an attempt to keep his grip. The massive bird began to twist and shake its heavy head.
Naveed looked up at the boy’s face and a dim light of recognition was struck in his eyes.
“Oh yeah.” he said, “It’s-”
He never finished because the paksi had spun its thick neck around and hit him square in the jaw. In a flash the lad was on the ground.
In shock Darik let go of the boy who was half hanging off the giant bird.
“Yah!” yelled the boy as he spurred his paksi onward. The bird took off into the night with the boy nearly falling from his perch.
Darik ran after him but was outpaced by the long legged beast in seconds.
“Child.” said Kokaibel. “Do you think I am some hound that will follow because you command it?”
“I don’t care what you are.” said Tula, “You can follow or not. But you will not stop me from doing what I choose.”
“And what do you think you are doing?”
Tula scanned the horizon. A dark wood stood between the edge of the hill and the burning city. Above the trees there was a glow that could have been mistaken for sunset spread into the sky. Billows of smoke drifted upward from the source of the light. A narrow path shrouded in shadows cut through the middle of the forest.
“I’m going there.” she said, pointing along the path.
“It is dark.” he said. “There will be wolves. There may be worse.”
“What could possibly be worse than you?” she asked.
“Oh, my dear. Precious little in this green world is worse than I.” Kokaibel said, “That said, being in my presence is not assurance of your protection.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, “for one, I have made no deal with you. I have offered, but thus far you have only requested a sample. I healed The Witch, but if you wish for more from me you must speak the words that unbind me. Release my power fully.”
“I recall what you told me.” Tula said to the demon. “I believe your words were, ‘Unleash me and I will be yours to serve’. Am I not mistaken?”
“That is correct.”
“Demon. I am young. I am weak and I am in desperate fear of what is to come.”
Kokaibel’s ebon form shimmered like the twinkling of stars in the night sky.
“But,” Tula continued, “if I unbind you then you are mine?”
“I’m just a simple girl. I have not travelled the world. Before this began I had never left the outskirts of Skar Lys. I am what they call a fishlass. My grandmother paid coin to a tutor so that I could read and do sums. She had often been cheated by men in the marketplace because she could do neither. She worked hard to ensure I would be as prepared for this world as she could make me.”
If Kokaibel had a nose he would have wrinkled it at her. “Tula Petek. Why are you wasting time with this pointless biography?”
“My point is that I am not as stupid as you think I am.”
She began to walk toward the wood. It stood nearly a hundred yards from the foot of the hill. The demon Kokaibel remained behind.
“How so?” he asked her.
Tula turned to face him and walked backward with her arms outstretched.
“You said you would be mine to serve. You think you are clever, but if I give you what you want I know that you will be the master and I the servant.”
“Would that be so bad?”
She turned back and trudged onward. Tula did not care if Kokaibel followed. She had gotten used to walking alone in the past several days. Her body had stopped feeling the ache of the road long ago. She had dropped her stick at some point in the swamp and only now noticed its absence. The first day on the road she ate nothing. Her grandmother told her the way to the Muck Witch and explained the rules for seeking her counsel. The old woman could not even give her provisions because help from another on the journey was forbidden. The second day she found a vineyard and ate only the fruit that had fallen. On the third day she had run out of fruit but was fortunate to find a lake full of fish. As the child of a fishing village she was able to snare a few even without a line or a net, but it took much of the day. She roasted her catch on the side of the road and slept in the grass before heading out in the morning. She ate the remainder of the fish just before she began walking again. Not long after she came upon the boy who had attempted to help her. That seemed so long ago.
Now the sky would be black if not for the glow of the burning city beyond the wood. Her stomach grumbled but there was no food coming any time soon.
“I sense your hunger.” said Kokaibel, his voice just behind her shoulder. “I could help. You cannot travel forever without sustenance.”
Without looking at him Tula said, “What do you want from me, demon? I have already said I will not grant you power over me.”
“Did you? And do I not already have power over you? I have your name.”
“What does that even mean? If having my name has given you power then what more do you seek? You have told me to unleash you, but you do not seem bound. If it was your plan to harm me you could do so now. I am alone. None could stop you. Yet here I stand in a dark and empty field with a demon following me...like a hound.”
“I see, my dear. Then it is finished. I shall leave you on your way.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Clearly you have discovered my game.” Kokaibel said, “Your name gives me a degree of power over you, yes. Well, not so much power as...influence...but still. For me to truly be unleashed you must ask willingly for my power. You must invite me. But since you have no such desire...”
“I most certainly do not.”
“Well then, madam. Good evening to you. I wish you well on your journey through the forest. Say hello to the wolves for me.”
Tula could see the demon was attempting to manipulate her. After all, is that not what demons do best? But she was smarter than that.
“Then good evening to you, to, Kokaibel. May our paths never cross again.”
She walked into the wood.