THE FOREST WAS hot and insects buzzed about Avestine’s ears. Harmless plant eaters hopped across her path, occasionally landing on her, but flies mingled among the variety, seizing the opportunity to snatch a bite. Sores ringed her wrists.
She walked through a spider web at one point and spent most of the day picking its tickling strands from her skin before she discovered hundreds of baby spiders inhabiting her clothing. She ripped off her shirt and rinsed it in a river. The following day, dozens of itchy bumps appeared in a ring across the back of her neck, but the spiders were gone.
When she lay down to sleep, she heard restless wolves, and when she walked, she saw the scat of bears, but nothing large made itself visible to her. She ate opportunistically—fruit and nuts—until she felt herself weak, so she spent some time with her net at the river. After she cooked a fish, she felt renewed.
She had been in the Demonforest for days, having taken a ship around The Breakland to Agate Bay. She traveled alone, with nothing but a survival pack and hope. Gerard had tried to talk her into leading a division, even just a scouting party, but there was no point. Soldiers would only make Kami’s mood worse.
Kami said she would give Avestine until Mon was full. Avestine estimated that was only another few days away. She wasn’t sure what would happen at that time, but she guessed Kami would set her bestial army loose upon the world. She figured she had a week to find Kami. So the following day, she began to shout and carry on. She drove whatever beasts she could ahead of her and kindled a large campfire.
The next day, she began hurling insults, comparing Kami’s skill in bed to the cheapest whores in Queenscourt. Later, she compared Kami’s family lineage to the less honored beasts in the animal kingdom. Her voice was growing hoarse by the time she made camp. She sucked on some berries and thought how good a lamb chop would taste when a wild pig wandered toward her from the trees.
Avestine reached for her sword as the pig rooted through her blanket. The pig was large, black, and ornery, as pigs tended to be. Its two oily tusks seemed unusually large. After a while, it wandered back into the trees.
Before she fell asleep, she felt an itch and a sting, followed by a dozen more. She leapt from her blanket to find herself surrounded by ants—so many ants that the ground seemed to be moving. She stripped off her long-sleeved black tunic and brushed the small bodies from her skin, which had begun to burn.
“Kami!” she shouted, as she danced around frantically. “Stop it!”
But Kami didn’t respond, and the ants continued to mass, so Avestine set out toward the river. The wind gusted heavily in the treetops, sending seeds and leaves down onto her. Before she reached the riverbank, she was swinging at every unexpected floating thing. She was angry.
“I hate this place!” she shouted and had to spit a flying beetle from her mouth. “Do you hear me? This place is nothing short of hell. Bala’s Hell. Your hell, you bitch! A filthy infested shithouse of vermin. Why give up everything for this shithole? Why do you love it more than me?”
She had shouted herself into a rage and nearly stumbled over a snake, whose tail twitched as it dropped from a branch. It grew into Kami, and Avestine stepped back in surprise.
“My mother was not a cockroach.”
Avestine tried to recall when she had said that.
“There’s a wolf pack not fifty paces from here and the bears are stirred near to madness by your smell. You’re bleeding.”
Avestine was about to deny she was hurt when she realized what Kami meant. She was near the end of her woman’s cycle. She wiped sweat from her forehead and dropped her pack on the ground. “I came to tell you my soldiers are leaving. I’m leaving for the Dark Quarter.”
“You didn’t need to tell me that.”
“I came to say good-bye.”
“You didn’t need to tell me that, either.”
“What happened to you at Adonja’s Temple? Why do you hate me?”
“Have you come here hoping for forgiveness?”
“I don’t need your forgiveness, child.”
Kami glowered, her eyes fierce in the moonlight. Avestine glanced upward at Mon’s face, which lit the entire clearing where they stood. She saw silhouettes rocking among the trees—the wolves Kami mentioned.
“I’d never make a pretense of guilt I don’t feel,” said Avestine. “Besides, you’re the one who’s rebuilt yourself from the inside. Before you left me at Fivefold Woke you said the truth had caught you. What did you mean?”
“I’ve tried to see you in the light of what you’ve suffered, but I can no longer ignore what you do. You have hunger where a heart should be.”
“I wasn’t hungry when you were with me.”
“You’re always hungry. You had only one thought the entire time I was with you: more. For so long, I thought I needed you.”
“You do. You’ve been looking for a savior. I am that savior. I am that person. I will rule this world.”
“Only after you kill everyone who disagrees with you.”
“Is it true that Bala has no mercy?” Avestine spread her hands. “Then kill me. I won’t try to stop you. I’ll stay here, long past Mon’s fullness.” She gazed upward and pointed. “Even now she waxes. Tomorrow? The next? When she shines her brightest, you’ll kill me, and I’ll let you.”
“Bala.” Kami stepped back. “You’re the only one who calls me that. You know. You’ve always known.”
“I won’t ask you to be anything other than what you are,” said Avestine. “And you must not ask that of me.”
“You’re going to Sahrdon.”
“I’ll have my war. I’ll rule my kingdom and one day the world, and it will know peace and prosperity.”
“The tyrant always begins as a protector. Violence can’t remove violence. One tyrant replaces another.”
“One tyrant can be better than another.”
“You don’t have to go to war.”
“Shall I buy a farm and raise sheep?”
“You can live here with me. You’ll have everything you need.”
Sadness settled on Avestine like a heavy snow. “I hate this place.” She took Kami’s arm and kissed her wrist. Kami’s enticing smell radiated from her warm skin. The ground shuddered, and Avestine stepped back. “Thunder?” she whispered and looked skyward.
“Drums. Did you just notice them?”
“That sound is drumming?”
Like an agile monkey, Kami’s mood leapt lightly from somber to playful. She started to back away, her arms reaching to draw Avestine along as her eyes danced. “Let me show you.”
“No. No more trees. Come to my ship. You’re already so very naked.”
Kami darted off and wound along a trail, hopping over roots, and scuttling down a ravine, where she followed a dried river bed. Her bare feet kicked through sticks and bracken without a sign of pain before she slid into the form of a monkey and began to climb a tree. Falling quickly behind, Avestine followed into the canopy, and when she reached the place where Kami stopped, she saw a fire some distance away.
A circle of women tended the flames, and at the far end of a clearing stood ten men beating drums as wide as tree trunks. Other women danced, while men hauled wood. When Avestine finally reached Kami, who had shed her monkey body, she balanced on a wide branch overlooking the dance. “Who are they?”
Kami continued to watch the ceremony. “My votaries.”
Avestine’s eyebrows rose. “They’re worshipping you?”
Aglow with an internal light, Kami’s eyes blazed as hotly as the fire. “They perform this dance every month, when the face of Mon brightens.”
The drumming was deep, a bass that Avestine felt as much as heard, and she recalled how the drums of Harvest Festival had once possessed Kami. She touched Kami’s flushed cheek and told her to go. Kami looked perplexed, so Avestine added, “You want to dance.”
Kami’s confusion resolved suddenly, as if the thought to join had never occurred to her. “Come with me,” Kami said, reaching out.
Avestine squeezed her arm. “Dances are for the young.”
Kami’s excitement dimmed. “What will you do? Your brother? Why do you care? You could stay here with me.”
“I belong in Sahrdon. I’ll defeat Avestar, if he’s there. Send him to Guldivah to tend the effigies.”
“I don’t want you to be evil.”
“If ever there was one to curse me it was Rook, but even he doesn’t condemn me.”
“That’s because he’s not immune to your manipulations.”
“You always think the worst of me. Do you remember when I told you about the prophecy of the Elumen? It was already too late for us then. My father infibulated my brother, but he already had a child, although it was the only one he was to sire, long before you ever met him.”
“You think that child is alive?”
“That child will become the Darklord.”
“Who is he? Do you know who he is?”
“I just want you to understand why I feel so compelled. I don’t have the choices you think I do, but you can come with me. You can; make short work of my victory. Save lives.”
“I won’t help you kill anyone.”
“Come with me, just for the company.”
“Stay with me. We can dance. Make love. Eat our fill. It’ll be paradise, and no one will die.”
Avestine took Kami’s face in her hands and kissed her deeply. When she pulled away, she said, “Oh, I’ll miss your breath.” The eyes once intoxicated with the seductive rhythm flinched with pain, and Avestine could barely stand to look into them. “Don’t be sad.”
She turned Kami’s face back to the dance.
Kami asked, “Will you wait?”
Kami leapt from the tree, and her diving form slid into that of a hawk before circling down into the center of the dancers.
Her arrival caused a commotion of surprise, fear, and soon silence as every woman and man threw themselves to the ground. Avestine couldn’t hear the words, but she saw Kami’s arms waving, as if she were angry, before she drew one woman after another to her feet and then pointed emphatically at the drummers. The timid men returned to their drums and soon, their rhythm. Avestine watched until several of the women had joined Kami in an erotic gyration that looked as if it would erupt into an orgy.
She climbed down the tree quickly, not wanting to see Kami in the embrace of another. She knew jealousy had nothing to do with love, but there were many feelings she had for Kami besides love.
Kami would undoubtedly have many lovers in the years to come, as would Avestine. She didn’t begrudge Kami pleasure, but she didn’t have to watch it.
Kami would always love the ceremonial moments of unbridled passion, but Avestine knew Kami would come to hate being a god. Worshippers. Ceremonies. Supplications. The needy would find her. The weak would seek her. The strong would claim her as their own. A god can’t hide.
Avestine made her way through the jungle—its high, ragged canopy revealed in glimpses by the bright face of Mon. She didn’t feel the sting of insects or notice the wolves tracking her. The demons were coming and the Darklord would find a way to enslave the kingdoms.
Avestine wasn’t about to leave the fate of the world in the hands of the gods. She had a war to plan.
Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |