I should have been more careful.
I should have been more careful. The other Kezia had been so kind to me for the last day, and she had even helped me when I had given up on removing the white tree. She had told me that I would not be alone anymore.
I know that I trust people too quickly. It happened before with Pascha. It even happened with Mother. But it is hard to be suspicious.
After Pascha and Gabi left to go to the village, I began trudging the long way around to the hills on the other side. There was a gradual slope downwards towards the river, and the grass was not tall enough to hide me, which meant I would be visible for a long way away. So I had to walk even further around.
I would not say that I was upset that I could not go to the village with them. Only… what was a good word for it?
Sulking, supplied the other Kezia.
“That is not it,” I said, rolling my shoulders. Sometimes it was unnerving, having someone around who could read my private thoughts. I thought it would be better if it at least went both ways, but she barely let me see anything of herself.
You don’t want to see, she said, rather darkly.
I supposed she was not entirely wrong about that. There was something terrifying in her memories, like a great beast in the shadows. I had only glimpsed the edge of it, and I did not want to see the whole thing.
I stayed quiet and pensive for the better part of the trek, watching the birds and insects fly up out of my way. The afternoon sun was warm, and I could feel my clay skin stiffening. I had been walking in the nighttime or in the shade of the forest for so long that I had nearly forgotten the effect that the sun had on me. I flexed my arm- it still moved all right.
A thought occurred to me, and I looked down at my hand as I walked, at the five fingers that Gabi had helped me make. After a moment, my thumb stretched longer and thinner on its own.
Don’t do that!
“Why?” I pushed my thumb back to its original length with my other hand. “It is a good skill to have. Maybe if I can change my shape like Gabi does, I can go into villages with her.”
Mud animals are just as strange as mud people, said the other Kezia. You can’t hide what you are.
“Maybe I could paint myself as well.”
She did not respond directly, though I could feel something like laughter at the back of my mind. I felt embarrassed, and squatted down within a little copse of trees. We were just about all the way on the other side of the village.
“I wonder how long it will take Gabi to find someone.”
I wonder if she’ll kill the person, was the other Kezia’s thought. I wished she would not think things like that. Besides, Gabi had told me that sometimes it was better not to kill people.
You know, I feel as though it hasn’t occurred to you that she is a monster.
“Gabi is not a monster!”
A shapeshifter that feeds on human blood? That’s the very definition of a monster!
I hesitated. I was not completely sure if that was true or if the other Kezia was using a figure of speech.
Not that I don’t believe she’s gotten fond of you, she continued, sounding aggrieved, but it’s only because she knows she can use you. If you get too rebellious, watch out!
I said nothing. I think that those words were meant to bother me, but they did not really. First of all, Gabi had no choice but to depend on me. There were many ‘rebellious’ things I could get away with, probably. Like the time I had grabbed and squeezed her.
Second of all, I did not think that Gabi was really fond of me. I had hurt her twice now. She did not even want me to carry her anymore.
Golem, you are a fool.
“My name is Kezia,” I said aloud.
And a thief.
I used my fingers to pull my mouth into one of Gabi’s scowls.
That’s just a deeper frown!
She was right. Hastily I drew some downward-pointing eyebrows over my eyes. I felt her laughing again.
Shouldn’t you be able to do that without using your hands?
“Yes,” I said. Though it took more effort.
Hmm. There was a kind of buzz of activity from the other Kezia, though she did not show me exactly what she was thinking.
“What is it?”
For the first time, I felt her hesitate a little.
Can you make yourself look… human?
I was not sure what to say to this. I thought that I looked close to human right now. I had five fingers and I had toes…
That isn’t what I meant. Suddenly I saw a strange vision: somebody looking down at themselves, naked.
“Is… is that you?”
Try too look like that, Golem.
I blinked, but the image stayed fixed in my mind. It was so peculiar… breasts hanging downwards, a round belly jutting out underneath, and then the feet. And it was not only a vision: I felt a little bit of heat. My own heat. Body heat.
Skin that could feel things much stronger than my own. A sense of touch that rippled and whispered and crackled like electricity. And when I blinked again, I could feel moisture underneath my eyelids. I turned my hand and saw five slender, exquisitely detailed fingers. Fingernails. Minute folds and winkles on the knuckles. Tiny little hairs.
A real body.
The sensations and the image started to fade, because of course it was only the other Kezia’s memory. I flexed my hand and it was numb, drying clay.
“I cannot give all of that to you again,” I said. “Even if I change the way that I look.”
It’s all right, murmured the other Kezia. Just try. Try it.
I felt a brush of trepidation, because behind her words there were stronger emotions, much stronger- a sense of desperation, a longing. This body was wrong. So wrong! It needed to be fixed- it needed to be fixed- it needed to be fixed-
Please. Please, just once. Let me remember myself.
I was frightened. But I obeyed. Because I felt her fear and her pain. I pulled my clay close, feeling through her memories, copying the shapes. I began to change. My clay flesh grew thicker and thicker as I shrank. I was nearly solid. My crudely-shaped face began to define itself.
Yes- Kezia. It’s Kezia. It’s me.
Don’t stop! Please!
I said nothing, but I knew she felt my anxiety. Suddenly her thoughts turned sharp.
Give me my body! You took my name, you took my memories-
“I do not have your body!”
It’s mine! It’s mine, damn you!
I clenched my fists, feeling a shudder pass through my clay self.
“You are dead! You are dead, Kezia! I can not give you back what you lost!”
A beat of utter silence- not even the leaves in the trees rustled, and the grass did not wave. Then, a howl– a howl like wind passed through my insides, whirling around in my head, and there was nothing but grief and rage and I felt her striking at me with the only weapons she had.
Too late. That glittering coin, dangling above the well- a man’s frightened face- laughter-
“I do not want to see it!”
Too late, too late. Even she could not stop the memory from unfolding now, because it is the nature of memory to play out in full once it is called. And we were together trembling and crying as it came back- I was crying and crying- I wish he hadn’t told me. I didn’t want to know. I never wanted to know things like that.
They all told me not to forget about it.
Selig was a Jew that came to our village in the late autumn, and left in the spring; a rotund bearded man with a hollow look to him all the same. I think that people were glad to see him go, because aside from his nervous temper and his hermit-like existence, he was altogether too Jewish.
Too Jewish? But our quarter was filled with Jews; that did not seem possible. Yet we survived, in large part, by not being too Jewish. It’s very hard to explain. But the goyim watched for anybody who was too Jewish.
Selig never let you forget he was Jewish. With wide-eyed conviction he would approach you, wearing his yarmulke and tallis, winding the fringes around his fingers as he mumbled under his breath. He had a scent of sweat about him, and his beard and hair were grimy and unkempt, and he was always staring slightly to the left of your face.
He was a man of peculiar habits, one of which being that he would never go to draw water from the well. He would always pay a boy to go fetch it from him, though his temporary home was not twenty steps away; none of us could fathom why. But he would not go near that well, nor look at it; and he drank a great deal of wine, and often tried to give wine to his horse as well.
I should not have asked, but I was curious. I had it in my head that I would probe Selig, because he interested me, as foul as he sometimes appeared. I, too, was something of a loner, and I felt that I could be called an outcast, even, when it came to certain things. Of course I had my twin brother and the rest of my family at all times; I was never alone. Selig was alone.
I would go to see him occasionally- not in his home, but just out on the street- and strike up a conversation. The poor man was starving for contact. I never even had to do very much talking; I could wind him up like a toy and then just listen. It suited me just fine. All of his stories were interesting.
One afternoon I asked him, smiling, why he never went near the well.
His face, which had brightened upon my approach, fell dramatically.
“It is bad,” he said. “Dark, deep, and bad. I don’t like wells.”
“But why?” I asked, leaning upon the hitching post. “Did something bad happen around a well? Did you fall in one?”
I was laughing at my own words, but his face sank even further, and he moved as though he wanted to grab my arm, arresting the motion at the last second. His body jerked from the inertia.
“Listen!” he cried. “No, listen, Kezia. This is bad, bad, and I should not have to tell you but I think you should know. Everybody here should know. I shouldn’t keep it quiet anymore. But it is bad, bad!”
I did not know quite how to react, and I might have felt the first stirrings of fear then, but I also had that sick curiosity- that sick human curiosity for all things terrible.
“What do you mean?”
He told me the story.
Selig had been a traveling peddler for most of his life. He never took a wife, and separated from his family at quite a young age, but that suited him fine. Back then he wore the clothes of a goy, and would sometimes pretend to not be Jewish- though it was hard to completely disguise his own features. Still, the more goyish he behaved, the more wares he sold.
He came to one village in his goy clothing and his goy mannerisms and was glad for it, for the Jewish quarter in that place seemed recently emptied. Selig was not unfamiliar with the times when goyim decided they didn’t want Jews around anymore. It could happen very suddenly, and there was nothing to be done about it. So Selig was careful not to let his try identity show through. Let them think he was, at worst, a recent Christian convert. Being treated like a monkey in clothing was better than being treated certain other ways.
One evening after he had finished peddling his wares, he packed up his supplies and began walking back to the tavern he had been lodging in. Here he came cross a man playing in the street with several laughing children. Selig smiled, because he loved watching children play. It was his one regret about not marrying- that he could not have his own children. He paused to observe for a few minutes.
The game they were playing was peculiar: the man had tied a coin to a string, and was flicking it into a well in the village square, as though he were fishing for something. Every time he cast his odd lure, the children would fall over into peals of laughter.
Selig could not resist, and he walked over to one of the children and asked, “What are you fishing for in that well?”
The child looked up at him, but he was laughing so hard that he could not answer. So Selig walked over to the man, a lanky fellow, grinning and dangling his coin this way and that.
“What do they think is so funny?” he asked, and fished out his handkerchief to put it over his mouth. The well smelled quite foul.
“Oh,” said the man, and he put a finger to his lips. “You mustn’t tell their parents what we have been playing, because they won’t like it very much; it is a naughty game.”
“I won’t say a word,” Selig said easily, ruffling one boy’s blonde hair.
“Well,” said the lanky man, winding his string partially around his arm (he wouldn’t have known, but it was reminiscent of the way Jewish men wound their phylacteries around themselves), “a fortnight ago, there was some bad business here…” He lowered his voice, flicking his eyes at the children. “A girl was attacked by a Jew.”
Selig did not say anything to this, just inclined his head.
“We knew the bastard did it, of course, but he wouldn’t confess, and then the family offered to pay the girl. Imagine! As if money can wipe that sort of thing clean.” He spat down the well. Selig pressed his handkerchief tighter against his nose and mouth as the fetid scent wafted up to him.
“So a bunch of us men, we decided- here’s what we think of your money, you greedy creatures-” The man was getting increasingly more agitated as he spoke, and his eyes grew hard, and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well, we butchered a number of them, and the rest fled, and good riddance, though I wish we’d killed them all.”
Selig was silent, standing perfectly still, simultaneously aware of the violent conviction in the man’s smiling mouth and the children still giggling behind him. His chest was burning as though he had just been branded with a scalding iron.
Finally he said, “But what does this have to do with your game?”
At once the man’s face relaxed, and he gave a little laugh and jerked his chin towards the well.
“That well’s been dry forever, you see, and we were in a hurry, so we threw the bodies in there. They put a lot of dirt on top to try and stifle the smell, but as you obviously noticed it’s still quite bad. I think it’s because they threw the children on top, and most of them were still alive, so they’re just now starting to rot. See, if you look closely down there-”
“No, thank you,” said Selig, in the most even tone he could muster. Sweat was trickling down his neck, his back, pooling in his underarms; he prayed it did not yet show through his clothes. The horrible scent stabbed at his sinuses.
The man may have noticed his discomfort all the same, for he suddenly reached out and caught one of the children by the shoulder, and said, “Lad, tell the man what we’re fishing for!”
He swung his shiny coin out on its string, and the boy laughed and grabbed for it.
“We’re fishing for Jews!”
I do not know what Selig did after that. Once he reached that part of the story, he began to cry, his words stuttering, tears and spit leaking into his beard. I stood frozen. I could not believe what he had told me. I was almost certain that it had to be a lie.
He reached out and gripped my shoulder, and I wanted to recoil from the stinking, leaking mass of him- no, no, get away, no, no, it’s not real, those things don’t happen to people, people don’t do those things to each other.
All around me there was life and goodness; the birds sang and the people laughed and chatted with one another, a cat meowed at the butcher’s doorway. My sisters would be sewing or sweeping or helping my father, my father himself would be painstakingly editing his accounts for the day, kneeling with his knobby fingers clenched around a quill, his face in that familiar funny grimace of concentration. Elan my twin brother was somewhere with his friends, joking and wrestling one another.
I did not want it all to feel so fragile.
“I’m sorry,” wept Selig. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
I was standing in the copse, looking down at my hands- my perfect hands, like flesh etched in clay. I had been standing there for some time, reliving that horrible memory. A memory I had been told not to forget. A reminder. We are never safe.
But I had my body again. Or if not my body, the best imitation of it that could be mustered… A body I could use to walk back to the river. I could find myself. I remembered it: buried in that deep, thick mud; choking one moment, in the golem the next. It was still there. It had to be still there. Not much time had passed.
I would go to the river. I would retrieve my true body.
I stepped forward and then I heard the church bells ringing.
Gabi rescued me from the other Kezia, or at least brought me back, because after she showed me the terrible memory I got so confused and lost. I thought I was her. I thought she and I were the same being. We cried and we raged and we wanted to escape back to our own… to her own body.
Even now, with Gabi’s warmth fading away from my arms, I could feel a trickle of doubt. Because how would I ever be absolutely sure? If I was only a part of her, or if she was only a part of me… Everything I knew about the world came from her, and golems were not supposed to have their own souls.
It was frightening. It was very frightening. I hugged myself, gripping my arms, and began searching for her in the back of my mind. I did not even mean to, I just had to. But I could not find her. Gabi had scared her deep into hiding this time- or else she was gone forever.
If she was gone forever, though, what was I left with?
That was Gabi, and I saw that she was frowning at me. Her eyes seemed to be a darker blue than I last remembered; I supposed she had gotten something to eat after all.
“Yes?” I said. I kept tight hold of myself as I spoke, of my own shape.
“Is the ghost coming back?” asked Gabi. She was frowning even harder, and her forehead had furrows in it. “If it is, and it shows itself, I am going to find its dratted bones and crush them to-”
“No, she is not coming back,” I interrupted. “I do not feel her anymore.”
“Oh! Then is it gone for good?”
“I do not know.” I looked down at the ground.
“What a troublesome spirit,” said Pascha, digging one hoof into the dirt. “The church bells banished it, though, didn’t they? Perhaps that’s the trick to it.”
Gabi twitched and glanced over at where he was standing; it seemed like she had forgotten he was there.
“Maybe so,” she said. “But there won’t be any church bells where we’re going.”
“The bells did not banish her,” I said. “They make her remember how she died and she becomes upset.”
Pascha flared his big nostrils. “Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Make dead things remember that they’re dead?”
“They certainly don’t have that effect on me,” muttered Gabi.
That was not quite right anyway, but I did not think it was worth arguing about. And I wanted to stop talking about the other Kezia because it conjured up more of her bad memories. I knew the one she had shown me was far from the worst. The worst one happened when the church bells were ringing.
“The sun is almost down,” I said, and indeed it was. “Are we going to go find Kazimir?”
“Yes, yes,” said Pascha, tossing his head. Gabi said nothing, only kept looking at me in a way that made me a little bit uncomfortable.
“Of course we’re going,” she said, but she did not sound as eager as she normally did. She raised her arms above her head in a long stretch and rolled her eyes over towards Pascha. “You know the way, so lead it.”
“I do know the way, but you two will have to stay close to me,” said Pascha. “These woods are different. It’s not the Starving Forest or Muma Balaur’s blighted trees.”
“I thought you said there were no witches in these woods,” I said.
“None that I know of,” said Pascha, “but that makes it worse. These are wild woods. Nobody has yet tamed them, and they’ll try to trick you and eat you up.”
“Has the sunlight gotten to you?” inquired Gabi. “You sound feverish. Any forest without a witch is a good forest to me. Trees are trees.”
Pascha snorted, passing a few sparks of light from his nostrils.
“Keep close behind me,” he said.
We left my little copse and began to scale the first hill, which was covered in scattered trees. I did notice that they felt a little bit different than the ones I had been around before. They had a kind of stink to them- not an entirely unpleasant odor, just one that you could not help but notice, rich and woody.
The valley on the other side of the hill was littered with stones, and the hill on the far side was even steeper than the first. Pascha leapt across as nimbly as a goat, his flickering glow getting brighter as the last bit of the sun vanished behind us. Gabi became a little red dog with a tight-curled tail and scampered after him, finding her footing among the rocks. I was left to stump behind them both, slipping and sliding on the shale.
It was hills, hills, and more hills the further we went on, and soon I was glad that Pascha had warned us to stay close. The trees became so thick and the ground so uneven that at times even his bright glow would vanish entirely as he moved forward. He was going quite slow, but even so the three of us had different paces. I was the slowest of all. The spaces between the trees were growing narrower and narrower and it was a struggle to find gaps large enough to force my big body through. I probably could have gone much faster if I just changed my shape again. But I could not bring myself to do it.
It was dark in that forest, and wet-feeling. My feet and clay skin were quickly soaked, and drops of cold water shivered their way down my arms. The trees were getting progressively larger, their roots more knotted, making me stumble and trip in the blackness. Even though Pascha’s glow and Gabi’s bouncing tail were always just in sight, I felt strangely alone.
Gabi came to a stop very suddenly, her pointed ears pricked up, and I was able to scramble to her side. Ahead of us, Pascha looked over his shoulder.
“What’s the matter?”
In response, Gabi uttered a soft whuff. My hand twitched. She would probably not like it if I tried to pet her.
“Just so you know, I don’t speak dog,” Pascha said, voice sour, but then stilled. There were not very many animal noises in the forest- the occasional owl, infrequent insect chirps, and the soft clicking and squeaking of bats- but now came a new, more threatening one. It was a distant, guttural cry.
“It’s only a lynx,” said Pascha, after a moment. “Caterwauling.”
Gabi changed back, scowling and squatting on all fours. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Pray tell, then, what did you mean?”
Gabi squinted out into the shadows between the trees, and did not answer. I looked as well, but I did not see anything aside from the occasional twinkle of Pascha’s glow reflecting off of a spider’s eyes.
The lynx warbled again, somewhere off in the distance, and Pascha stamped his hoof.
“Can we be getting on?”
“Fine,” said Gabi, and straightened up. “Kezia, give me my woman’s clothes, it’s curst cold out here.”
I was surprised by the request, but reached into my stomach. I had put Gabi’s male and female sets of clothing inside myself for safekeeping, though I still was not entirely clear on what the male set was for.
“Hurry up!” called Pascha, who was dancing a little bit further ahead, his light bobbing.
“You just wait!” called Gabi, her voice muffled as she dragged the shirt over her head. “Ugh, this is scratchy. Kezia, give me the skirt.”
I did, and provided her an arm to lean on while she squirmed to hitch it up over her waist. It was slightly too large for her small frame, and draped well below her ankles. She leaned down to roll it up, muttering, and I hastily grabbed the back of it before it slipped down and revealed her bare behind.
“Just turn back into a dog!” called Pascha. I couldn’t even see the shape of him anymore, just the glow shining from between the thickly clustered trees.
“What I wouldn’t give for a pin,” said Gabi, who was adjusting herself somewhat frantically. “He picked these on purpose, I know it! Ah-”
Something shiny dropped down from between the folds of the skirt, and Gabi snatched it up, letting the fabric ride dangerously low down on one hip.
“I forgot I had this,” she said, clutching whatever it was she’d picked up in her fist, and hiking the skirt back into position with her other hand. “Not that it’s going to be terribly useful out here.”
I leaned down a little to try and see. “What is it?”
Gabi looked up at me and narrowed her eyes, that furrow appearing again between her brows. Then suddenly she smiled.
“Do you want to have it? You like pretty things, don’t you?”
I put my fingers to my chin, suddenly eager, and nodded, but when she opened her hand I recoiled.
“What’s wrong?” asked Gabi, her smile disappearing, but I could not explain. In her palm was a large silver coin, dully reflecting Pascha’s light. The sight of it made me feel as though my stomach was collapsing.
“Nothing is wrong,” I said. “I- I am glad you are giving it to me.”
“You don’t sound glad,” said Gabi, suspicion in her tone. She began to close her fingers again but I quickly placed my hand over hers.
“No- I am happy. I will take it.”
It was a gift from Gabi, after all. I pushed the other Kezia’s foul memory as far back into my head as I could. It was hers, not mine. I was not her.
I put the coin into my stomach, but Gabi did not seem quite mollified. She was staring at me slant-eyed.
“You’re acting queer, Kezia,” she said.
“I do not think I am,” I said. “It was a good gift and I-”
Gabi waved a hand sharply in front of my face.
“It was a pretty stupid gift, considering all you’ve done for me. Tell me what you’re really thinking.”
I was stunned. I had never expected words like those to come out of her mouth. She had almost… she had almost thanked me. It occurred to me that nobody, not even Mother Forest, had ever done that.
“See, now you’re quiet again!”
“I am- I do not mean to be,” I stammered. “It was- it is a good gift.”
“You haven’t gotten very many gifts, have you?” said Gabi, though at least she was starting to sound amused. She stood on her toes to reach up and pat the top of my head, which made her skirt slip down again. “Well, I will have to give you others. But only if you tell me what has got you so worried. It’s that ghost, isn’t it?”
I touched the top of my head as she withdrew.
“Yes- no… I am not sure…”
“Well, if it-”
“Are you two coming?” bawled out Pascha, making Gabi jump. “Hurry up! We haven’t got all night!”
“We have too!” I called back, suddenly feeling a little bit irritated. Gabi was scowling too, and she turned around with one hand gripping the fabric at her waist.
“Dratted horse! Come along, Kezia, before he shuts off the light. I don’t think even my eyes can penetrate this pitch.”
She darted forward, surprisingly spry even with the cloth threatening to tangle up her legs. I had to stump quickly forward to catch up. Pascha’s light was already on the move.
It was difficult to tell how much time passed as we struggled through the dark forest. The canopy closed over our heads so tight that I could not see a single star, and it made me wonder if we would even notice if the sun began to rise. At least Gabi would not be bothered. My clay flesh was beginning to sag from the damp and the cold, though.
Some of the trees grew massive as we moved further into the forest’s interior, their trunks stretching into walls of cracked bark. Little things chittered and darted around our feet, and Gabi hissed once and smacked something small and squealing from her arm. The low-hanging leaves that battered across my face were covered in shining slugs, and more than once we would be startled by the sound of something large crashing away through the undergrowth nearby.
“Only fallow deer,” Pascha reassured us, after the third or so incident. But he seemed distracted, turning his head this way and that, nostrils flared. Sometimes he would stumble over roots and stones in a way that made me slightly nervous.
Gabi seemed to share my anxiety, for after we had been traveling for some time she sang out, “Do you really know where you’re taking us?”
“Of course,” said Pascha. Both of their voices were quite loud in the close forest, and I heard the night sounds quiet down as though a thousand tiny ears had turned to listen.
“Then how close are we to getting there? I haven’t seen any lake, only tree after dratted tree. If the black-”
“Hush!” said Pascha, his voice uncharacteristically sharp. “Don’t mention who we’re searching for out here.”
“Why?” I asked. A sudden spark of suspicion ignited in me. “Who do you think is listening?”
“Just hush, both of you,” said Pascha. “We’re close. We’re terribly close. We mustn’t spook him.”
“Spook him?” Gabi repeated, wrinkling her nose. She shot me a look, as though she wanted me to agree on how ridiculous he was being. I wished my face was mobile enough for me to silently respond. His words were making me feel worse and worse, like we were about to catch some kind of trouble that he knew about and we did not. I inched closer to Gabi.
“Come along,” said Pascha, more quietly. “Just a bit further. Just-”
Something flew out of the dark and hit his chest. I saw a flash of bright teeth, a glint of green, and then Pascha’s light was engulfed in blackness.
It was total darkness, not a kind I had ever experienced before, for even in the darkest nights my eyes could still discern shapes. I fumbled forward, hearing no words spoken- just the sounds of snarling, crashing, scraping, and worst of all, tearing.
“Kezia!” I heard Gabi call, from strangely far away.
“Gabi!” I stumbled towards the sound of her voice. She sounded frightened. I had heard nothing of Pascha after the moment he was struck.
“I am coming!” I called, reaching blindly into the darkness. My fingers touched something soft.
At once something slammed against my chest and I, who could not be moved, was shoved bodily backwards, my feet slipping and sliding on loose rocks and scree, tumbling down a hill I had not even realized was there.
I fell for a long time, my heavy body slamming through sapling trees and battering against the sturdier ones. I grabbed and kicked for some kind of purchase, but everything seemed to slip through my fingers, and I fell and fell until suddenly I was touching nothing at all- just falling through the air.
That did not last for very long. The next instant I slammed face-first into the ground with an earth-crunching THUD.
I lay there for a moment. Blades of grass were poking up through my eye holes, tickling the inside of my head. I had landed so hard that my body had all but flattened. It took a little bit of effort to unstick myself.
When I was finally able to raise my head from the dirt, I felt as though I had fallen a second time.
In front of me lay a vast, glittering expanse of stars. Not just the exposed sky, but below it, continuing past the horizon and extending like a celestial tongue so close I could nearly touch them. If I had breath, it would have been caught in my throat. If I had eyes, I might have cried. It was beautiful in the purest way.
I slowly pushed myself to my feet. It did not take me long to realize that what looked like stars below the horizon was really just a trick of the light- before me was a vast lake, bounded by mountain and forest on all sides. I had fallen, somehow, onto the shore. I turned around and saw a steep cliff jutting up behind, shading me in the overhang.
I stepped through the thick feathergrass waving in the sandy soil towards the lake. The water was liquid starlight, and I was mesmerized. The reflected sky was the color of dark velvet, the stars ornamented with splashes of color, like milk poured into dye, making swirling, smoky streams. I dipped my fingers into the water, expecting almost to feel something otherworldly, but was disappointed by the shock of cold water and the ripples that distorted the reflection.
Something splashed in the lake, and I quickly withdrew my hand. It had been a large splash, and the stars on the surface were all trembling from the disturbance.
I looked around. I had lost Gabi, and Pascha had been attacked by something dark- I had no idea where either of them were now. I would have to find a way to climb up that cliff. The spell of the stars was broken; I was not keen to meet whatever had made that splash.
But as soon as I had made up my mind on what to do, the surface of the lake shivered and broke, and something rose up- something much darker than the sky or the glittering stars. It was a horse’s head, sleek and long, with a tall mane that stood in wet spikes along the neck. It had gleaming green eyes.
I thought that I knew without a doubt who it belonged to.
The black horseman stepped through the water, hardly making a sound- it moved like liquid itself, a dark, seeping liquid. As soon as I saw the shoulders emerge I knew that it was not fully a horse; rather, its thick legs looked like those of a dog. A horse-sized dog, with a terribly long tail, and stripes under its black fur that seemed to glow greenish.
It rose up onto two legs, using that thick tail for balance, its forepaws tucked awkwardly against its chest. Like this, it was even taller than me, and its horselike nostrils flared and gave off glints of slivery light.
It stood there, watching me with those unnerving eyes, and I had no earthly idea of what I should do. There was no doubt in my mind that this was Kazimir, but without Pascha I could not imagine how to approach him, and without Gabi I was at a loss for words.
In truth the horseman looked almost like some sort of illusion, or hallucination, standing there like a dark blot in the lake of liquid stars. It was quite still, aside from the occasional soft breath, its narrow chest rising and falling.
I took a step forward.
Instantly the horseman dropped down onto all fours, and it let loose a terrible growl- the same kind of growl I had heard when Pascha was being attacked. It vibrated through me like thunder. But my fear was quickly replaced by anger, and I found my words.
“Why did you attack Pascha? What have you done to him? And where is Gabi- the strigoi?!”
The horseman merely stared at me, its long tail curling and flicking over the surface of the lake as water softly slopped against its limbs. I was losing my patience, and I took another step forward. At once I was greeted with another growl.
“Speak to me!” I cried. “I know you can speak, Kazimir!”
Finally I was greeted by a larger reaction; the horseman jerked as though it had been struck, and then vanished under the water.
“Come back!” I called, but there was no need, for a green glow began to blossom outwards where the horseman had vanished underwater, and then a very different figure stood up.
I blinked as the pale glow began to fade. The figure was human, and tall as I was, but incredibly thin. And he had pure black skin, so black it seemed to shine, and his face with his green eyes was beautiful.
“How do you know my name?” he asked.