She is not your mother, whispered the frail voice of the ghost inside of me, and I felt her insubstantial touch, a caress of reassurance. You owe her no loyalty, Kezia. You are your own self now.
I agreed. I did, of course, I knew the truth. And yet…
She wants to make you doubt and suffer, murmured the other Kezia. She wants to make you come back to her, so she can use you again.
Yes, she wanted to use me. But I did not think she wanted me to suffer.
Does it really matter? We must keep away from her.
We? But the other Kezia’s only concern was being sure that she still had a body to exist in.
I felt a stab of her anger at this thought.
I’m trying to help you!
I knew. I knew that. I was sorry. It was difficult to communicate with someone when they heard all your thoughts the moment you had them.
Yes… there’s something ironic about that, she said, mollified. But- perhaps instead of fretting about leaving her behind, think about going back and finding Gabi again.
She was right! Of course, I would be reunited with Gabi soon, a happy turn of events indeed. Well, as long as she was not angry at me for leaving her behind like that. Though it had not even been my fault- Kazimir was the one who had dragged me off. But I could have protested more, I supposed. But then again, she would be so surprised to see me in my old body again! What would she say?
You’ve got it bad, thought the other Kezia, and from her I felt a warm trickle of amusement, but also a brush of sadness.
I mulled on this sadness as I pushed through the trees for Kazimir, who was prone to getting tangled up in brances and vines. It was probably those long thin limbs of his. He had wanted to go out of the forest through the river again, but I had nixed the idea. I was not nearly as fast a swimmer as he was, and though I thought he probably still could carry me it would be very cumbersome. Walking should be all right. Even though with every step I still feared that the ground might suddenly shift beneath me. How had she done that? Again and again I tried to picture the earth as a part of my body, but it would not so much as twitch for me.
Kazimir, too, seemed to be walking on eggshells, stepping very deliberately from leaf to leaf, trying to avoid touching the bare ground. Maybe the golem would come after him again, but I did not think she would be fast enough with him on his guard. He had been more spooked than I had ever seen him, and that was saying something for Kazimir. Closing him in… did it mean that he could be destroyed by putting him somewhere without any light? But he could make light on his own… that could not be all there was to it.
I realized where my line of thinking had drifted, and hastily pushed away any thoughts of his weakness. I did not and would never need to know it! Whatever she might say.
Have you killed anyone yet?
It made me want to shiver. She sounded so terribly certain when she had asked me. As though it was an inevitability for a golem. Could it be? I had no way of knowing… I was a golem, but I knew very little about myself.
I bet she just means the old fairy tales, said Kezia. They’re designed to scare you, or to make a moral lesson, but they’re not real at all.
What old fairy tales? About golems?
Well… the one I know best is about a little clay boy, which I guess is sort of like a golem. It goes… look, I’ll try to give you the short version: an old man and an old woman want a baby, since all their children have grown and gone, so they make a clay boy on the hearth.
Why could they not make an ordinary baby? How is that done, exactly?
Oh, don’t interrupt me! That’s just how the story goes. Well, the clay boy came to life, and they were delighted because it looked and acted like a real child, and they gave it food- I hear you thinking that golems don’t need to eat, Kezia, it’s just a story– anyway, they gave the clay boy every bit of the food they had in the house, and each time he ate he grew a little larger, and a little larger, and still he wanted more food.
They took him outside and said he could have a chicken, so he ate it whole and clucking, and then another; the whole henhouse, then the cattle- everything but one goat, which ran away. Then he told his mother and father he was still hungry, but when they told him they had no more food, he called them liars and ate them too.
But he was still hungry, so he went out into the village and ate everyone and everything he saw, the milkmaids, the dogs, bales of hay, and all the while grew larger and larger. Soon he was a giant. Soon the only creature left alive in the village was the white goat that had run away from him before.
He was just about to catch it, too, when the goat turned around and told him that it would make things easier on him by jumping into his mouth. (It can talk because this is a fairy tale, of course). The clay boy was pleased, and closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and at once the goat rammed his horns into his great belly and shattered him into pieces. Everyone he ate jumps back out and they all have a grand celebration. The end.
I did not much like that story.
I liked it better as a child… But it isn’t real, Kezia.
No, it was not. I never had any reason to eat, much less eat someone living. If I put somebody in my belly it was to keep them safe and not the other way around.
I suppose so. But it might seem frightening to someone who didn’t know.
I did not very much understand what a story like that had to do with what the other golem had told me. Nobody was killed in the end.
But you see, it says that golems can be dangerous. I know of another tale-
Was this one happier?
I’m afraid not. This one isn’t a fairy tale, or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. A famous rabbi is said to have constructed a golem to do dangerous work for him, and to protect the Jews of his congregation. He could bring it to life or shut it down by removing the name of God from its mouth. One day he forgot to deactivate it on Shabbat, the day of rest, and the golem was struck with human curiousity, the same sin that drove Adam and Eve from Eden. It left its resting place and went about the village, and when the rabbi tried to stop it, it struck him a terrible blow that left him scarred for the rest of his days. It went on a rampage and destroyed most of the town before he was able to destroy it.
This was a true story?
I don’t know. My rabbi told it to us, and he said afterwards to remember that pride and unwillingness to do one’s own work will destroy a man. That makes me think that it might be rather embellished to fit the moral.
But what if it was true? Why would a golem suddenly go on a rampage? It did not make any sense.
Maybe there are missing parts to the story that I never heard. Or maybe it was all a pack of lies. You shouldn’t worry about it, Kezia. I could never see you going suddenly mad like that.
I did not think I would either. But I also could not help feeling strangely anxious. What if there were hidden parts of myself I could not contain? Could not control? If I really did start hurting people, who could stop me?
The other Kezia had no answer for this, so she stayed quiet, withdrawing slightly to her own corner of our shared mind. I felt a little guilty for burdening her with my troubles.
Do not go, I thought. I am glad that you are here with me. It is nice not to be alone anymore.
I felt this stir an odd complexity of emotions within her, like mud swirling in a puddle. Her voice, when it reached my mind, was thin and wispy.
Do you think that I will be here with you forever?
I did not know the answer to that, in the same way she had not known how to answer my questions. But would it really be so bad? To stay here with me?
Not to be with you, Kezia, but… It’s difficult to explain. Before, all I wanted was to get to my own body again, but now that I know that I am dead…
There was an uneasy welling of fear within us- no, not so much fear as something else, something wearier.
You don’t really understand, she said. I am… I have nothing before me. I have no will of my own, no body- I don’t begrudge you that anymore, this body- but am I only to be a voice in someone else’s mind for the rest of eternity?
Maybe I could let you tell us where to go sometimes-
It wouldn’t be the same, and you know that, Kezia.
I did know that. For the brief period of time that she had had control of my voice, I had felt that terrible helplessness of only being an observer, never an actor: it was like being trapped in a glass box, shouting and shouting and never being heard.
I do not think that the other Kezia meant for me to notice it, but I felt something else from her too, the very edge of something wild, of a desperate urge to go back the way things were, and to deny death, to take over this body again, and…
She closed that part of herself away from me quickly once she read my thoughts. But now I, too, had to wonder: how long could we really exist together like this?
Do not be sorry, Kezia. You have given me so much, the least I can do is let you stay here for a while.
For a while.
We left it off at this gloomy, trailing thought, for Kazimir was tugging on my arm. We had reached the edge of the treeline, and with the next step, we were out of the forest.
“Ah, finally!” he sang, raising his arms towards the sky. The sun was high and shining warmly down on us, with only a few wisps of cloud marring the blue. Behind us, the tall stalks in the meadow flickered golden as they bent gently in the wind. I looked across the river at the village and noticed a few lines of smoke trailing upwards into the sky.
“I wonder if they are all right,” I said, referring to the people of the village.
“You mean Gabi and Zakhar- and Pascha? I’m sure they’re fine,” said Kazimir, putting his arms down. His eyes traced the horizon, but he did not seem perturbed by the lines of smoke. “If either of my brethren come to you, though, I shall have to leave. I think Pascha, at least, is near.”
“He is? How can you tell?”
“I smell, he sees, and Zakhar can taste,” said Kazimir, “but we have been around each other for so long that we more or less always have a general idea where everyone is.”
“Do you still think you will have to go back to the Baba?” I asked. “I wish that you would not. I do not think it will help much.”
He scowled. “I don’t want to go. I’m afraid, because I know she is going to do something dark and deadly with us once we are all back together. But- I can’t stand being so cold!”
He suddenly slouched to the ground with a great miserable sigh, balling himself up in the grass.
“What am I to do? I longed to be set free for so long, free from them as well as she, but now, alone and free, I… I find that I am just as empty.”
I thought that I could relate, oddly enough, but I also felt that if I said so he would tell me that I did not really understand. Such was Kazimir.
“Stay with me instead,” I said, “and help me find a way to free the other two. That way, you can be with them or away from them depending on how you feel.”
He tilted his head to look up at me with one green eye, slightly teary, and seemed about to reply, but then suddenly his expression changed into one of alertness.
“Who?” I asked, looking all around. The golem? Baba Yaga?
He raised a slender arm and pointed. The stalks of grass were trembling as they were parted, and a very short figure was making its way towards us, one arm raised to shade their face. It was- it was a miniature version of Gabi! No, wait, this was the ordinary Gabi- probably. Had she always been so small? I knew that I had gotten taller, but…
Never mind that. Suddenly I felt a rush of happiness, and ran forward the last few meters to greet her.
She did not seem ready to be swept up into my embrace, and made a garbled sound when I hugged her close, but oh, I was just too pleased. It was really so nice to be nearer her size again! To see her face, not as a giant’s, but just an ordinary face, to be able to match strides with her! And to get to pick her up and hold her safe and warm to myself, yes, that was very nice.
“Oi!” She was thumping on my shoulders, sounding slightly winded. “Put me down, you great clay oaf!”
Reluctantly I deposited her back onto the ground, where she staggered back a step before getting her bearings. Her face was flushed, and she rubbed the back of her neck, staring up at me.
“How on earth- when did you get so big again, Kezia?”
“I found the rest of my body!” I chirped, spreading my arms to show her. “It was down by the river in the forest!”
“Down by- how did it get there?”
“Well-” I hesitated, recalling how little Gabi seemed to like the other Kezia, and decided to omit her presence for now. “Kazimir showed it to me!”
She narrowed her eyes for a moment, looking me up and down, but then suddenly a little smile crept in from the corner of her mouth.
“Well! It is nice to see you like this, I must admit. Now you can carry me again.”
I was so pleased by this that I made a grab for her again to demonstrate, but she stopped me with an outstretched palm and a stern look.
“Not just now! Where is that black horseman?”
I put my arms down slowly.
“Kazimir? He is sitting behind me, do you not see…” I turned to show her, and found that he had vanished, leaving only a depression in the grass behind.
“Has he scampered off?” Gabi rubbed at her neck around the edges of her headscarf. “I have something I want to say to him.”
“He was here just a moment ago,” I said, looking very hard at the empty spot where he had been. “Kazimir, you have not made yourself invisible, have you? It is only Gabi… Gabi, what did you want to say to him?”
“I have a message for him from… from Pascha,” said Gabi. I thought her tone sounded rather cool. But that made more sense to me, that it was a message; I would not have thought that Gabi had much to say to Kazimir on her own.
“What message?” came Kazimir’s voice, from the air. I looked around and saw him standing in the grass a little ways away.
“I’m not telling you from that distance,” said Gabi, a little color rising to her cheeks. “It’s of a- a personal nature. Let me say it in your ear.” She shot me a quick glance as she said this. Of course I was only more curious, and a tiny bit hurt: what would she say to Kazimir that I could not hear?
I bet I know, murmured the other Kezia, with a kind of snicker in the back of my head, but she would not show me her thoughts on the matter in any detail when I probed.
Don’t be nosy! Kazimir and Pascha were lovers, weren’t they? That’s their own private business.
In that case, it seemed odd to me that Gabi should be the one to pass on the message if it was so private- but then again, Kazimir was not letting Pascha get near him at the moment. Gabi herself did not seem very comfortable with the whole thing- she kept rubbing her thumbs and forefingers together and swallowing.
Kazimir turned his head to look at Gabi through one eye, like a nervous animal.
“You smell like Zachar,” he said, “and I know that he is near… Did he lead you here?”
“I came to find Kezia,” she said, “and he told me the way, that’s all. Do you want to hear the message or not? Otherwise Kezia and I can be on our merry way.”
Kazimir took a step forward, glancing at me as he did so. I had no advice for him. I only wished that people would stop looking at me like that while discussing things I was not allowed to be a part of.
“Well?” said Gabi, frowning.
Kazimir let out a thin breath, and then made his way slowly over towards her, picking a delicate path through the tall grass. Gabi tapped her fingers together in an increasing, impatient staccato. I wished she would stop looking sideways at me like that- did she think I would hear what she was about to say? I took a deliberately large step away from her, but that did not seem to satisfy her: rather, she swallowed and looked down at the ground.
Kazimir came about a foot away from her, and then stopped, hugging himself. He was frowning now too, and he also looked at me. I took another step away, and kicked a rock for good measure. The rock flew quite far.
“What message did Pascha have for me?” asked Kazimir, his lower jaw jutting slightly. It was actually quite funny to see him standing right next to Gabi, now that I thought about it. He was so tall, and she was quite short. Her head barely made it past his stomach.
“Bend down so I can say it in your ear,” she insisted, scowling up at him.
They look like two mortal enemies who’ve been told to kiss each other, snickered the other Kezia. I did not think that was very funny.
Kazimir did lean down, his arms still wrapped around his chest, and turned an ear towards Gabi’s mouth. Gabi raised her arm, and I thought she was going to cup it to her mouth to whisper something, but then something strange happened- Kazimir hit her in the chest and sent her flying.
It happened so quickly that I had hardly any time to react, to understand what had just happened, until Gabi landed on the ground on her back with a cry. I heard something give a crack.
I shouted her name, feeling a sudden, vague sense of horror, and ran to where she had fallen and curled up with a grimace. Kazimir was standing over her, his fists clenching and unclenching, greenish mist leaking from his mouth.
“LIAR!” he roared, so loud that birds took flight from the grass all around us.
Gabi flinched, and I saw that she was cradling one of her arms. I crouched over her, shielding her with my body.
“What have you done, Kazimir?! Why- why-”
She had not even said anything to him yet! Why had he struck her? She was not like me- she could feel pain, and get hurt! A solid fury was solidifying within me- I wanted him to step back, away from her, right now.
“What have I done?” he asked, and I saw that he was trembling slightly. “Look at her hand! Is that what you meant- is that the gift Pascha sends me?!”
I was almost to angry to look- and frightened, too, of another inexplicable attack if I took my eyes off of him- but I chanced a quick glance at her arm, the one that was bent not quite the right way, and saw that she held something clutched in her hand. Something black. A black ribbon.
“She came to collar me!” Kazimir hissed. “Liar! Liars! Help us? You said you would help us!”
He made as if he was going to strike out at her again, but I caught his freezing hand in mine.
“Do not touch her, Kazimir!”
His mouth twisted, and he jerked his hand out of my grasp, bending some of my fingers back with the force of it.
“Very well!” he shouted. “Very well, then, Pascha! I’ll go back to the witch- I’ll go back!”
Gabi began to cough. The black ribbon, writing like a snake, had suddenly begun twining itself around her neck. I tried to grab it, but my mangled fingers passed straight through it.
“Kazimir!” I shouted, as she coughed and choked beneath me. “Kazimir, I do not know why she did what she did- but- please!”
“NO!” he roared. “LET HER SUFFER!”
In the blink of an eye he had changed, a gigantic, frothing black horse, eyes gleaming like witchfire. He champed his spittle-covered lips together with a terrible whinny, and then launched himself over my head to thunder away through the grass.
He was fast disappearing, and I could not leave Gabi’s side- but I did not understand, I did not understand how it had all turned so wrong so fast! How- why-?
Gabi grabbed my arm, her fingers digging into my clay. Her headscarf was falling off, and I could now see the ribbon constricting her throat, cris-crossing from her chin nearly to her shoulders. Her flesh was stark red around it.
“It’s all right,” she said, voice hoarse, “it’s all right, Kezia, she said she wasn’t going to kill me-”
“Who? Baba Yaga?! Gabi, what happened?!”
“I made a stupid decision,” she croaked. “Oh, I should have seen it, the witch surely knew that this would happen- I knew it as soon as he bent down, that he would see through me.”
“But how did the ribbon get back on your neck?!”
She looked at me for a long moment, and then gave a choked laugh.
“I- I agreed to it! I thought she would get rid of the white tree if I did it!”
I had no words to say to this; even if I had, the raw fear in her voice would have silenced them. I took her crooked arm carefully and laid it on one of mine, then pulled her into an embrace. Our second of the day.
I was only beginning to lift her up when there came a soft voice behind me.
“Give her to me now, Kezia.”
I whirled around, holding Gabi tight. There stood Pascha, as a man, his expression curiously blank.
Gabi tensed up in my arms, her fingers curling over them. I pulled her closer to my chest.
“My mistress is calling,” said Pascha, in a dull way. “The terms were agreed upon, and now the strigoi must pay her price.”
“No!” I snapped. “That is not fair! If Gabi offered to help the witch on her own, and Kazimir went back, she should not have to pay anything!”
Something stirred in Pascha’s face for a moment; it might have been pity.
“Kezia,” came another voice- Zakhar’s, from the other side. I did not turn to look at him, though. I kept my eyes on Pascha.
“I will not give her to you no matter what,” I insisted. “Go and tell your mistress that!”
“I don’t think you understand how this all works,” whispered Zakhar’s voice, suddenly close against the back of my head. His white hand began snaking over my shoulder, but I jerked angrily away.
“Do not touch me!”
“We must take her,” said Pascha, and he stepped forward: suddenly I realized how close I was caught between them. “Even if it is by force.”
Gabi let out an exhale, her eyes were wide and darting. A kind of heat was rising up within me.
“Nobody has ever been able to take anything from me by force! If you try, I will have no choice but to hurt you!”
“Kezia!” cried Gabi, twisting in my grip.
“Hurt us?” repeated Zakhar. He almost sounded amused. I felt the heat still growing. No. I would not let them have their way. I could push Gabi into my stomach to protect her and fight them with my fists. They could feel pain and I could not. They did not know what it took to destroy me.
But Mother taught me how to destroy them.
A tiny voice, irritating, tickled at the back of my mind: She is not your mother! I brushed it aside, pulled Gabi in tighter, so that she began to sink through my clay.
“Don’t do that, Kezia!”
Her shout stopped me, and I stood there for a moment, frozen and confused. And then Pascha moved. I did not see it, but I felt it: his sharp fingers digging into my arms, trying to force them apart.
They did not move for him. Not an inch. His hands merely sank into me, and I raised one leg and shoved him back. The breath flew out of him in a sparking whoosh. But even as he stumbled backwards, I felt Zakhar’s hand drive through my back.
I whirled around, and he came flying with me, heavy as he was. But his hand stayed stuck fast, his fingers groping at the space within me. I felt a noxious sense of disgust and kicked backwards, my arms still full of Gabi. I hit his legs, but my angle was bad, I could not get good purchase.
Something hot licked my face: fire! Pascha had run up and grabbed me, his fingers curling through my eye holes, flame searing the clay on my head. Zakhar wormed his hand upwards, cleaving through my back.
I jerked and spun them both, and Zakhar finally fell away from me, but Pascha thrust his hands down and with his heated touch hardened both my arms and shattered them.
Pieces of me fell into the grass, and so did Gabi. I staggered, momentarily half-blinded, for Pascha had ruined the orientation of my eye holes. The tear in my back was widening under the weight of my own flesh, and my flame-hardened head was sinking through my shoulders. And my arms- my arms were just gaping holes in my torso now.
In a flash of bright light, Zakhar was holding Gabi, though she hissed and struggled in his pearly embrace.
“Wait!” she was saying. “Wait a moment!”
“I cannot,” said Zakhar, and then he changed into a horse.
I stood there, utterly ruined, in the single instant it took for his flesh to warp, and I knew: as soon as he had changed, he would gallop away with Gabi on his back.
But Mother had said that golems were STRONG!
Zakhar gave a strangled whinny, rearing up, for I had wrapped my arms around his neck. My new arms: they were ugly, jagged with hard edges, formed in seconds. I held his slippery neck and squeezed, and Zakhar gave a wheeze as his windpipe closed- my arms began to sink through the runny lukewarm mass of him- I squeezed and there was a grinding noise and he glittered all over with blue.
The roar was Pascha’s, and he hit me a moment later, but I was ready this time and threw the twitching Zakhar down into the grass. Gabi fell with him, clutching her arm, but I had no time to worry about that now! I grabbed Pascha’s arms before he could grab mine, saw his eyes- wide, furious- and ripped downwards as he had done with me.
His arms detatched, dissolved into hot sparks, and he screamed: his holes, unlike mine, leaked with glowing-hot liquid. And unlike me, he shook with pain, unimaginable pain, and I grabbed his frail body and threw it hard against the ground.
I heard Zakhar moving, his neck still glowing painful pale blue, and rushed to him. He tried to get away, whining and dragging his head, his horse eyes showing white all around the blue, but I linked my fingers together and brought both my fists down on his side.
“LEAVE US ALONE!”
I had not even thought to speak, but the voice that came out of me was so strong that more birds flew out of the grass. Zakhar’s chest had collapsed within itself beneath me, oozing blue, and he was not even moving at all: not dead, no, but no longer strong enough to give the semblance of life.
Maybe I should have felt bad for his pain. But they had pushed me to this point, they all had! They wanted to take the one I loved- they threw the living children down the well- they burned all our homes- they made my father into something ugly and terrible- THEY DESERVED IT.
“If you do not leave us alone,” I said (and there was a kind of echo, inside my hardened head: Leave us alone), “I will kill you both.”
Kill them all.
“No, you will not,” said Pascha, from behind me.
I turned, slowly, to tell him that yes, I would, because I knew how to destroy him. But the words never came out. He had changed into a horse- a dreaful patchwork of a horse, all held together by jagged purple lines- but he was standing over Gabi and both his forelegs were made of fire.
Zakhar made a wheezing sound, which might have been speech if his neck had not gotten so mangled. Parts of him seemed to be fading away into mist. I saw Pascha’s eyes flick to him before resettling on me.
“For god’s sake, Kezia,” said Gabi, caught underneath Pascha’s belly, flinching back from the flames, “don’t make him burn me.”
The stray thought that Baba Yaga would want her alive, so he could burn her but not kill her, passed my mind, but I let it pass right back out. I was not going to let Gabi be hurt further. There had to be a way to get her out of there- and destroy them.
While I was considering my options, Gabi spoke again, trying to lean around Pascha’s flickering legs.
“Kezia! I have been trying to tell you, you’ve got to stop this, it’ll only make the witch angry at you- her mark is on me, I cannot escape it!”
She had escaped it before. She would again. I would find a way. I would not let them take her away from me. Not again.
Pascha moved, the grass all around his legs scorching black, and crouched down, his his head snaking towards Gabi with a click of teeth. She rolled out of his reach and raised a hand to stop me when I took a step forward.
“Wait, I said! There’s something else I must tell Kezia before you take me!”
Zakhar gave another wheeze, and Pascha’s ears pinned back.
“Then say it.”
His voice was liquid rage. I had never heard him sound like that.
Gabi’s shoulders jumped, and she gave him a startled, fearful glance, but then set her eyes on me once more. I was bound to them.
“I’ve done another stupid thing,” she said. “Kezia, forgive me. I left Elan behind in Mother Forest’s territory.”
I raised my arms, for my head had just exploded with a cacophany of soundless noise, and I felt the sort rending feeling of falling away from the other Kezia. When had we come together? But now we were separate once more, and my hot fury seemed to be trickling away through the still-visible hole in my back, replaced by confusion. For the other Kezia was banging around inside of me, nearly insensible.
“There’s something wrong with him,” I barely managed to hear Gabi say, through the filter of the other Kezia’s madness. “I shouldn’t have left him behind like that. I am a weak little fool, my dear. I’ll take the witch’s punishment.”
I forced the other Kezia from the forefront of my thoughts, for in Gabi’s voice there was something aching. Her hands were shaking, and she looked near tears. I had only seen her like that once before. Another fleeting fury started to stir within me. If only I could-
NO! We must rescue Elan! Ask her where he is! Ask her!
Elan was not my brother! The only person that I had was Gabi!
She struck out at me with waves of anger, but I was equal to it: I had had enough anger for the moment. I pushed mine back down and looked hard into Gabi’s eyes.
“If you have to go with them, then I will-”
“Get the old man first and sort him out!” she snapped. “The witch, I’m sure, will take her time punishing me! But when you’ve done what I asked, then you come to Baba Yaga’s house and you fetch me. I don’t care what state I’m in, or what words she tries to spill into your ear- you fetch me! You’ll be there, won’t you, Kezia?”
She was shaking so hard that all I could utter was, “Yes, I will.”
“Good,” she said, though no relief showed on her face. “Then that’s all I needed to say. I’ll see you later, Kezia.”
I was cut off. Pascha’s back had suddenly grown a clawed hand, which he snatched Gabi with, and threw her onto his back. The hand burst with shining copper feathers and became a wing. Another emerged beside it, and I could not see Gabi on his back at all for the size of them.
I started to call her name, but Pascha thrust his head at me: it was rounded, with a hooked muzzle: more birdlike than horselike.
“My mistress will remember this,” he snarled. “And so will I.”
He burst into the air with a great clap of those magnificent wings, and if I had been anyone else I think that it would have knocked me off of my feet. But I was a golem, so I only tilted my head back and watched how small they got, so quickly.
Another wheeze came from my left, and reluctantly I tore my eyes away from the sky. Zakhar was still there. But what did I care for him now? I had failed. Mother had told me I was the strongest thing there was and I had still failed miserably. The strongest thing in the world would have been able to break Gabi’s curses.
Elan, insisted the other Kezia. Save Elan!
Be quiet! I thought, and suddenly a prick of anger returned to me. This is your fault, Kezia! You made me lose control!
I put my hands against the sides of my cracked head, but I could not block out her insensible cries. Damn her, this was not her body! This was never meant to be her body! If it had not been for her infecting me, I would- I would never have had to bother with any of this! I would have stayed Mother’s golem for ever and ever, dumb and mindless…
And if Gabi had tried to give that version of myself free will, it would not have matter, because my lumbering, stupid self would not even have known what free will was. And I would have been happy.
No you wouldn’t.
Shut up, you are too busy moaning about Elan.
You wouldn’t have been mindless and you wouldn’t have been happy without me, she hissed. So don’t blame it on me! D’you honestly think you’d have no personality or mind without me?
I did think so. Everything I had had been taken from her-
Wrong! You are so very wrong. I hate bats, I don’t like talking to strangers, and I certainly never would have fallen for a vampire. You, on the other hand-
I should never have left Gabi’s side. I should go get her back right now.
You will find Elan first!
I tried to shove the other Kezia’s thoughts away. How could I save Gabi from Baba Yaga? How could I fight off the witch? Oh, why had Gabi gone and done this to herself? She could behave so recklessly! If only I could- if only I could force her to stay put! Why did I not? I was much stronger than she was, I could have forced her to do anything!
That’s a terrible thought!
Not if it would save her life! Or her unlife- herself! She would be unhappy, but she would still have something to be unhappy with… If I could just stop her from hurting herself…
But I did not need the other Kezia’s appalled thoughts to see that this was a wicked way to think of things. Who was I, anyway, to think that I had the power or the right to control someone else? Especially Gabi, whom I… I…
“Come with me,” whispered a cracked voice.
I whirled around, feeling air whoosh through the hole in my back. Zakhar had stood up, forming a shaky, blurry version of himself. He was the horse-headed serpent, like I had first seen him, though now his curling coils looked more like mist upon the grass.
“Come with me,” he said, in that same hoarse, pale voice. “I will show you where your strigoi left the old man.”
The other Kezia clamored loudly at this, so that I had to focus hard to get my next words out.
“Why would you do that? You are lying, are you not?”
He tilted his head, his features shimmering.
“Why do you think I would lie?”
I would have liked to furrow my brow to show that I was still angry at him, but my head was still too solid from Pascha’s baking.
“Because I choked you and hit your chest and ripped Pascha’s legs off.”
His chest, in fact, still looked partially caved in on one side. He touched it absently with one of his clawed hands.
“I’m not angry about that,” he whispered. “I know why you did what you did.”
I stared at him, and he stared back at me.
“Did I not hurt you?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, “more than I thought you could. I am all the more certain you could do it again if you wished to. But the pain is passing, and matters little in retrospect if you have lived as long as I do.”
“Pascha did not seem to feel that way,” I pointed out. “And neither did Kazimir.”
“I love the both of them for it,” whispered Zakhar, “even though I do not understand it. They are hot or cold, I am only middling. They both like to hold on to wrongs for a long time, long after I have forgotten them.”
I considered his words carefully. He seemed so calm that he was affecting me, too, and even the other Kezia had quieted down. I did not think he was lying. Then again, I thought that he could be walking around the edge of the truth, especially since he still served the Baba. But maybe- as frustrating as it was- maybe I should go and make sure Elan was all right before attending to Gabi.
I spoke quickly before the other Kezia’s sense of relief could overwhelm me. “How far away is Elan?”
“If he is still there,” said Zakhar, “not very far. I am afraid that leading you there is the only assistance I can offer you. I must return to my mistress.”
“She is not the one telling you to do this, is she?”
“Certainly not- she is wrapped up in her victory over having Kazimir back, and a new victim to torment, but she will not forget about me forever.”
I wished he had not said the thing about torment, and it was not lost on me that the witch could have told him to lie to me as well. But I was running out of patience to try and sort through any more layers of deception. I reached around to my back and clumsily closed the hole he had made there.
“All right. Take me to Elan. And then-”
“You would be better off giving her up, Kezia.”
“And then I will go fetch Gabi from the Baba. No matter what.”