VERIS MADE HIS way from the iceward tower where he lived with his mother, passing several checkpoints, guards, and servants as he entered the darkward tower. The guards were gone. The entrance to Avestine’s quarters was the entrance to a suite that filled the center of the top floor. The outer ring of rooms were storerooms, so the corridor and stairway were almost always busy with servants, but the tower was strangely empty.
When he left the winding stairway and entered the dark corridor, he saw the demonfell standing outside Avestine’s main door. The ornate double doors reached to the ceiling, and two guards usually stood to either side ready to announce visitors or turn them away.
The demonfell’s head turned. The authority of her gaze made him doubt once again that the person before him was a girl. Whatever she called herself, she had lived hard. Her clothes were common and worn. Her face was gaunt and her hair uneven, short, and scruffy. She was exceedingly thin.
He clutched the bundle of clothes he held more tightly and thought of his mother. She needed him, and he wasn’t going to let a thief get in the way. He made his way to the door. The demonfell blocked his path.
“You’re wrong,” she said. He was about to reply, but she continued, “You’re an abomination, a beginning when this is the end.” Her manner was uncomfortably Avestine-like.
“Get out of my way,” he said, puffing himself up, “or I’ll move you myself.”
He watched her face, searching for motivation, for the moment when she might yield or attack. His peripheral scans told him she had no weapon, but he thought she must. She moved one hand, and he crouched defensively, but she merely reached under her eyepatch and came away with something in her hand. In her palm he saw the glitter of what appeared to be a diamond. He had seen one only once, when Avestine had given one to his mother.
“Did you steal that?” he asked. “Is that what you wanted from my mother’s room? A common thief—“
“Far from common.” She was laughing at him. Again. She held up the diamond with two fingers and looked at it with intent. “This is why you need a demonfell.”
“I thought you were the only one.” Her confused look pleased him. She wasn’t as clever as she wanted him to believe. She wasn’t careful with words. And that meant her use of “abomination” was simply a provocation. He reached out his hand. “Give that back and you can leave.”
She curled up her fist. “I wouldn’t normally interfere. It’s not my place to decide these things.”
“What are you talking about?”
She squinted and turned her head slightly as if listening. A moment passed.
“Where are the guards?”
Her one eye looked at him but didn’t focus. It was bluer even than Avestine’s.
“Let’s knock and see what the Warmaster has to say about you.” When he stepped nearer to knock on the door, the demonfell blocked his way.
She shook her head with a stern gaze. “You don’t want to do that.”
“Are you going to stop me?”
He had expected an argument, a fight. Instead, she yielded. What did she mean by never?
“It hasn’t emerged.”
“If there’s a monster in there, we need to help. Now!”
“Sound deafens the ear.”
Veris clenched his jaw and steadied himself. He took a breath and prepared to push through the demonfell, but she nodded and said, “Now.”
Avestine watched Kami and Timur circle the room. Kami touched objects with her wrists, then glanced at Timur, who only cocked her head each time Kami looked at her. Avestine couldn’t resist smiling at Kami’s irritation.
“What is it you sense?” asked Avestine.
“Something that isn’t here.”
“Maybe you just need more time in my bed.”
“You think that solves everything.”
“It usually does.”
Kami frowned, and Avestine offered a shrug. And then she sighed. Kami’s sensitivity wasn’t frivolous, just inconvenient. “If you insist, there must be something amiss, but you’re not finding anything. Is it even in this room? You seem to know about places that no one else does. Could there be something odd in one of those places?”
Kami glanced toward the ceiling in thought. Her eyes were golden and bright in the dim room. Avestine wondered again at the affect that had accompanied the god and should have left along with the god. “Something’s wrong because something is missing,” said Kami, “but I can’t find where the missing thing is.”
Avestine bit her lip. “But what’s missing?”
“No. Where is it missing?”
“You’re making less sense than usual.”
“We are surrounded and filled with life.”
Avestine shuddered. “I’m quite aware of the things you say are inside me and in the walls and in the dirt and even in the aether that appears empty to everyone but you.”
“The Wild is everywhere. But there is a spot in this room where it is not. Such a thing isn’t possible.”
“But you can’t find that spot?”
Kami nodded as she continued to glanced about. She returned to the cabinet where Avestine kept cups, trinkets, and a few bottles of whiskey. Her wrist brushed over a drawer and touched the bottles. She glanced back at Timur, who barked. The unexpected sound startled Avestine and caused Esme to shift and grumble.
Avestine watched Kami’s struggle to open the drawer, a part of her pleased, as always, with her vulnerability. Kami managed to grip and draw out something small with her wrists. “When did you get this?”
Avestine left her chair. When she reached Kami, she took the gem from her. “Do you like it? I didn’t think such things mattered to you, but I would be happy to give you all you wanted.” Avestine examined the gem. “It’s one of the more beautiful rubies I’ve seen.”
“Not really,” muttered Kami. “It’s dead.”
“I didn’t know rocks were alive.”
“Everything is alive except what isn’t.”
“Are you telling me rocks are alive?”
“Covered with life. But not this one. Don’t you feel it?”
“It’s smooth and cool like any cut gem.”
Kami used her wrists to close Avestine’s hand around the ruby. “Close your eyes and squeeze it. What do you feel?”
Avestine sighed and focused and failed. What value was there for her in understanding the Wild? She was glad she didn’t. “It’s a rock.”
Kami shook her head slowly as she stared at the gem. Avestine rolled it between her fingers and said, “Do you still have the diamond? You didn’t feel that was dead.”
“If this bothers you, I’ll find another place for it.”
Kami’s tone made Avestine angry. “No?” she echoed, her eyes narrowing. Before she could respond with a suitable threat, Kami touched her arm and the expression on her face was so unexpected that Avestine forgot her indignation.
“We should leave.” Kami turned, shouted at Esme, and rushed to the bed to rouse her.
Avestine glanced from Kami to the glittering stone just as the door opened. Veris rushed in behind a strange girl. They came at her from her right. Kami was jabbering at Esme to her left. Timur barked at Avestine’s back, and her guards were nowhere to be found.
Avestine curled her hands into fists, but the ruby grew hot and heavy, forcing her to drop it. When the ruby stopped its roll across the marble floor, it cracked and from within the small disk emerged an oily coil of writhing flesh. The pulsing red coil grew, fattened, and flattened. Rows of black pincers unfolded on each side of a giant insect body. A monstrous centipede curled high over Avestine, its back cracking the ceiling tile and acidic fluid dripping from its mouth onto the furniture. The cabinet sizzled and fell into several pieces, scattering wood and glass across the floor. Whiskey puddled in the floor’s seams.
Avestine dove toward the bed and seized her favorite sword from its sheath.
The grotesque monster lunged forward. Timur bit one of the chitinous legs and growled as she tore it loose. Avestine plunged her sword deep into the beast’s head, skewering the mouth. The powerful head yanked the blade from Avestine’s hands, flinging red blood onto the walls and cracking more of the ceiling as it snapped the blade in two.
Esme clung to a blanket and screamed, but Kami dragged her toward the door. Veris was immobile with awe. Timur wrestled with another of the black legs. The strange girl was glaring up at the monster, her hands cupped. She seemed to be speaking and drawing the monster’s attention. Avestine took advantage of the moment and helped Kami get Esme out along with Veris. She turned back, going for another sword that rested beside the table.
The beast twisted and spit fluid across the room. A large splash dropped with the weight of a boulder on Avestine’s arm. A patch of skin liquified with excruciating pain. The shock dropped her to her knees. She hadn’t felt pain like that, perhaps ever, and she lost track of everything around her. Drips from another splash of the acid saliva dissolved skin on her cheek and she fought to stay conscious.
And then everything was silent.
She fell backward, her body trembling with shock. The creature was gone. The room was destroyed. Cracked marble and splintered, blackened wood littered the floor. The room smelled like death and fire. Avestine realized she had passed out because Kami was kneeling over her and saying her name. She pressed a blanket to her bloody face. The pain was still excruciating.
The strange girl stood looking down at her with one icy blue eye. Veris stood nearby with fear still wide in his eyes. Avestine wanted to hit him. He was a coward. He was weak. Such a weak boy.
“Weak like water,” said the strange girl.
Avestine looked at the girl. Not a girl. She was a god. A god with one eye. A god with the power to subdue a demon too powerful for even Arujan.
Avestine passed out again.
© 2021 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.