The wildness trickles out from the wounds.
“I know where the door is to get out of here,” said Noroc. “Follow me.”
He rose from his seated position, his tail pointing straight up, and trotted alongside the river. After a moment, he seemed to realize that I was not following him, and turned back around.
His voice… I had only heard it rarely before. But it had not sounded like this. This sounded like… like…
“Elan?” I said.
The cat’s face bore no expression, but his tail swished slowly.
“No,” he said. “I, like you, have borrowed a voice. Normally it is difficult for me to speak, but in here…”
He raised his head and gazed around slowly. Again I felt that queer sensation that my eyes were lying to me. Was the river really there- or was it merely a great shimmer, an illusion on a smooth wooden floor? Was the grass not thick green carpet, and the cloudy sky a gray ceiling?
“It is not good to stay in this place for long,” said Noroc. “Elan told the house too many stories, and he lost himself.”
“The other Kezia said that he did it on purpose.”
“I cannot say. Perhaps he knew his time was close to an end.”
It was strange hearing those words said in Elan’s own voice.
“Noroc,” I said, “if he is truly… gone, will you be all right?”
His tail lashed even harder. The clouds murmured with distant thunder.
“I am not sure,” he said. “If you had not brought me here, I certainly would have ceased to exist. All of the people of my village are gone.”
“All… Elan’s father, and his sisters?”
Noroc blinked his single eye. “The father died. The sisters, I do not know. The village where I lived stopped being a home to them, and all the others. Only he- only the survivor never ceased to be mine.”
“Oh,” I said. This was surprising; could Ayla or Hadassah still be alive? “Could you not find them and-”
“I was born of the earth here,” said Noroc. “I am tied to it; I cannot follow anyone.” He hesitated for a long moment. “Or at least, that is how it should have been. I do not know, now. My last survivor has lost his life, but his soul lives here.”
“And Kezia’s soul,” I added. I hoped so, anyhow.
Noroc looked towards the distant houses.
“Perhaps,” he said, “so long as this memory stays, so will I.”
There was something weary to his tone. I could not help but think of this spot as it was now, in the present, outside of Sorina’s sanctuary: all swallowed up by the forest, without a living human soul remaining.
“Will you not stay here too?” I asked. “With them?”
“I will not,” said Noroc. Now he sounded very firm, though his cat’s face was as inscrutable as ever. “I have dwelt on history long enough. My people are all gone now.”
“Oh,” I said, again. I felt that he would not want me to pity him, even though I did, very much. He looked terribly small and alone, a black smudge against the expanse of green grass. “What will you do now, then?”
For a moment he pulled his ears back, then said, in a stiff way, “I thought I might go with you. With your permission.”
“Oh, my!” I clasped my hands together, trying to school the happiness in my voice to a more demure level. “Of course you may! I would be very happy to-”
“I don’t intend to follow you forever,” he interrupted, and paused to lick his shoulder. “But for now, I have more freedom than I am accustomed to, and I would prefer…” Pause, lick lick lick. “It would be wiser to travel with someone I am familiar with.”
“Yes, of course,” I said, nodding, trying to match his solemn tone.
“So long as you do not return to that forest, in any case,” he added, and I had no doubt about which forest he referred to. “But where is it you wish to go, once you leave this place?”
“I will go to find Gabi,” I said, and felt a surge of guilt at the same time; who knew how much time had passed by now? “The strigoi, I mean. She has been captured by Baba Yaga.”
Noroc’s single eye thinned, and he drew back his whiskers and lashed his tail. For a moment I was worried that he would tell me to give up on her, like Zahkar had. But all he said was, “A challenge, that.”
“You know her- Baba Yaga?”
“Of course. Well- I know of her, of the ones who hold that title. The worst to cross. But they have been outwitted before.”
“Really?” I said absorbing all this with sudden hope. Baba Yaga was a title and not a name? Then that meant there was more than one witch like the one we had tangled with. I hoped the others were far away. But if they were not invincible…
“I don’t wish to give you the impression that it is an easy thing,” said Noroc. “I would not attempt to get what you want from the witch by force. She could shatter you into pieces. But you may be able to distract her or trick her before escaping.” He hesitated. “If you knew of something that she desired, or at the very least something that amused her, you might make a deal with her for the strigoi, but I would not recommend it.”
“Why not?” That sounded like the easiest option to me, if I could only figure out what Baba Yaga wanted.
“Deals with witches rarely go well,” said Noroc. “They will trick and trap you in any way they can. Normally I would say that a witch would have no interest in a golem, but you…”
He trailed off. Suddenly I felt a little bit uncomfortable beneath his scrutiny, and shuffled my big feet on the grass.
The tip of his tail flicked gently.
“Never you mind. We must get away from this place now. This witch, too, will try to trap us.”
I thought it was cheating to change the subject like that, but I also thought that he was right about Sorina. It was strange, because I did not think she was really cruel or anything like that. I did not even really dislike her. But she was what she was.
Noroc rose to his feet, his tail high once more, and slunk forward through the grass. This time I followed him.
He took me down close to the river, where the water trickled softly and the soil grew bare and sandy. The sand, I noted, was queerly uniform- almost like a repeating pattern you might see on a rug or upholstery.
Noroc minced around the damp places in a series of little hops and bounds. The little pawprints he left behind in the soft soil charmed me. Oh, it brought back memories, to follow Noroc again! Only this time we were both free beings, and I had a name, and a purpose.
And no ghost inside of me to give me things that were not mine. I was, more than I had ever been, only my own self.
This gave me a queer feeling, but not a bad one, and I mulled it over and nearly ran into Noroc when he abruptly came to a halt.
The river curved ahead of us into a strand of trees, except that they were spaced too regularly to be natural. In fact, further on, I saw that they became columns, and the now yellowed grass became a rug, and the cloudy sky swooped down to become a ceiling. The world narrowed before us as though we were trapped in a giant funnel, and reaching the end. And at the end of the world there was a door.
I looked down at Noroc. He had turned himself slightly to look across the river. It seemed to fade away into shiny floorboards where the scene became a hallway, but that was not what he was observing. His gaze went all the way back to those distant houses, to the hill where the memory of a cat was buried.
I felt that I should not say anything, and waited in silence. Finally Noroc turned away, turned his back to it all, in fact, and led me out of the memory towards the door.
Here he stopped again, but this time it was to look at me, and say, “I should warn you. I do not think that I will be the same once I leave this place. Certainly I will not be able to speak to you so easily. Perhaps there will be other changes as well. Perhaps I shall die after all.”
I raised my arms, in a hopeless attempt to fend off that possibility.
“I don’t think I will,” he added, perhaps sensing the great anxiety that this had caused me. “I simply cannot rule it out. But if I am able to, I shall still follow you. If I cannot, there is no need for you to grieve.”
“But Noroc, I would!”
He blinked, and twitched the tip of his tail. When he spoke again, Elan’s voice was gentler.
“If I cease to be,” he said, “all that it means is that I, Noroc, will no longer exist. But before the I that is me came into being, there were many things that came together to form that I, and after I am gone, there will be many things that were Noroc still in this world. For a creature like me, death is only a brief transformation.”
“I…” My head was reeling from what he had just said. “I do not think I understand what you mean.”
He raised a paw, let it hover in the air a moment, then licked it.
“Never mind, then.”
That was the second time he had told me to never mind. I pulled my clay mouth back down into its customary frown. He licked his paw again, scrubbed an ear, then suddenly sprang up to stretch his claws towards the doorknob.
“Open, open it, Kezia!”
It was such an abrupt statement that I automatically moved to obey, and it was only after I had turned and pushed the knob that I realized how many more things I should have asked him first. But it was too late- the door sprang free from my grasp, and swung open, and the black cat dashed forwards and vanished into the night.
I put one foot over the threshold, then got the strangest feeling that someone was watching me, and turned around.
Behind me, there was only a long hallway; no sign of the memory-room. But Sorina was there, with her hands clasped together as they had been when I had last seen her. I felt that there was some sorrow in her gaze.
“Do come back soon, Kezia,” she said, “if you are able to, that is.”
“Perhaps I will,” I said, though cautiously. “Will you take care of the other Kezia for me? And what is left of Elan?”
“Of course,” she said. “I will fill them with the kindest memories, and brother and sister may play on that hill together for an eternity.”
“That is good,” I said, feeling a kind of heaviness in my hollow chest. “That is good.”
“Kezia,” said Sorina, “good luck.”
I could think of nothing else to say, so I only nodded, and stepped out of the house to follow Noroc into the night.
It was night. As soon as I was beyond the threshold, I felt a little shock, from more than just the cool air hitting me. We had entered Sorina’s house just as the sun had been setting, so perhaps not much time had passed at all. I tried to find the moon for a sense of reassurance, but the sky was dark and cloudy, the tops of the trees black shadows against the muffled starlight. There were, I noticed, no fireflies out, but the crickets were singing in a frenetic way.
I looked behind myself. This time, the exterior of Sorina’s house had taken on the look of something like a humble woodcutter’s cabin, all logs and stolid wood. I suspected that the next time I turned my back to it it would disappear entirely.
Ahead of me, I heard a plaintative meow. Noroc! I would have to see if he was all right, I had nearly forgotten.
So thinking, I stepped forward and nearly tripped over a fallen log. I grabbed the wood to catch myself and it crunched under my fingers.
A fallen log? In the dark I had not quite realized where we were, but now I noticed that we were definitely not within the field outside of Mother Forest’s territory anymore. No, we were amongst some trees now. But which trees? Or rather whose trees?
It made me uneasy, too, to realize that Sorina’s house had been within a forest, even if it seemed only to be the very start of one based on how sparse the trees were. I was unsure just why that made me uneasy.
A black shadow seemed to leap upon the raised end of the log I was holding, and I saw the single glint of his eye as Noroc mrrowled inpatiently.
“Noroc,” I said, glad to have a familiar sight. I was beginning to feel terribly disoriented. “Are you all right? Do you know where we are?”
It was a little difficult to see, but I believe his tail was swaying. He leapt from the log and slunk forward, a little black outline oozing along the forest floor.
“You want me to follow you?” I guessed. He had said that it would be difficult for him to speak again once he left Sorina’s house. I hoped that was all that had happened. It did seem that he was all right. From what I knew of his behavior, ignoring my words was normal.
Flick, flick went his raised tail, and then off he slunk, and I scrambled to follow, noisily stumbling and crunching through the leaves in my haste.
“Mrrt,” said Noroc, and I said “I am sorry,” and tried to move more quietly as Gabi had taught me.
We made good time as I followed him, and the trees got darker and denser, and soon the dark sky vanished beyond their gnarled branches. I kept hearing sounds- scuffling, scratching, chittering- but that was the way of night forests. I tried to ignore it. Sometimes I thought I could hear soft snatches of singing. I tried to ignore that as well.
I had, by process of elimination, at least figured out where we were not– we were not in Mother Forest’s forest. Noroc had said he would not go there, and I thought that I would be able to tell if we were in any case, somehow. I had been born and raised there after all, even if only in the span of a few short days.
The thick gnarled branches above my head also did not bear the look of the thin, grey, weedy trees within Muma Balaur’s forest. So unless we were somewhere that I had never been, I suspected that we were in the place where Baba Yaga had settled.
How convenient. I did not let myself dwell too much on it.
The chittering and scraping sounds were growing louder and more frequent, and once or twice I thought I saw red eyes peering at me through the underbrush like tiny coals. Only Blajini, surely. I was not frightened of them. As soon as Noroc and I drew near the eyes would vanish.
Then I saw two little lights that did not look like eyes, for they hovered and bobbed in midair, independantly. They winked in and out behind trees.
There were more than two. No, many more than two. Here and there, all around, were little winking lights, and soon some were close enough that the faint light illuminated the hands holding them. Candles- tall figures in the dark, holding candles.
I caught a sudden snatch of song.
Horse with white stars beneath,
His feet are fleet, feet are fleet,
Crushed the berries to the ground,
The wine is sweet, wine is sweet,
I drank it all, I drank my fill-
But the soil is still soaked, soaked, soaked!
Where does it flow from, my dear?
The singers dissolved into gay laughter, and though the words seemed bright, there was something slightly discordant about the tune that made me anxious. The dark figures raised their candles higher, and in the flickering light I saw their chins, and their teeth.
Iele! Now I was frigthened. I looked down at the ground at my feet, but I did not see any circles of gray ash, or red grass sprouting, but then again it would be difficult to tell in this blackness.
I could still see Noroc moving ahead of me at the same pace, apparently unconcerned. It occurred to me, though, that for all I knew the little black shape was no longer Noroc at all, and in the darkness and confusion I had begun following some other creature within these wild woods…
I shook my head to dislodge the thought. The Iele were singing again, just little snatches of wordless tunes, interspersed with laughter. Now some were keeping pace alongside me, only separated by a few feet and a few trees. Their whispers seemed to coil around the trunks towards me.
“Look, sisters, the earth walks here again.”
“O! A thing without a heartbeat, how queer.”
“Did it listen to our gentle advice? It seems not so. A shame!”
“Go away,” I could not help but mutter, swinging my arms as I walked.
“Hsst! Did you hear that? Does clay speak?”
“No, my love, ’tis only the wind passing through the holes.”
“What an ugly wind, then!”
Their giggles grated on me. I tried to keep my eyes trained on Noroc. I hoped it was Noroc.
Many mouths upon a hill
‘Twas only teeth, only teeth,
They ate red fruit all day and night
Cry no more grief, no more grief,
And when they lay down ’round the tree
More wine there was for she and thee!
Hard little fingers suddenly brushed against my shoulders, and I jerked away.
“Stop that! Do not touch me!”
This only made them laugh more, their little lights bobbing all around me. I stopped and clenched my fists, but a sound from Noroc distracted me from whatever foolish thing I was about to do.
He had stepped into a small clearing, illuminated faintly now by the candlelight. I was somewhat relieved to see that he was, indeed, Noroc after all. His tail was still raised, and he was looking about himself.
“Oh, a cat!” I heard one of the Iele say, in a tone that made me wonder if she had not noticed him before.
Suddenly all the bobbing little lights deserted me, and went to crowd around Noroc’s little clearing.
“Leave him alone!” I cried, coming forward with anxious speed. One of the Iele stepped into the light, nude and lovely, and knelt before the cat. To my surprise in disgust, he put his whiskers forward and rubbed his nose into her hand. She scratched him under the chin and he closed his eyes with apparent enjoyment.
“Sweet kitty,” purred the Iele. “O, little king of the trees.”
“Noroc!” I called, but he merely turned his head to let her scratch the other side of it.
Somewhat to my surprise, all of them were coming out of the darkness now, arranging themselves around Noroc to pat and coo over him. It was as though he really were a king and they his slavish nude admirers.
“Come back to us,” one said, brushing her fingers over the tips of his whiskers. “You left the forests, and why? See what they have done to you! O, we miss you and your wildness!”
Noroc opened his eye a sliver at this, and responded with a little mrrt. The Iele let out a collective sigh.
“Excuse me,” I said, coming to the edge of the clearing. One of the Iele glanced at me and wrinkled her nose.
“You are still here? Go away!”
I pushed back some indignant words and said, “Not without Noroc.”
At this, all of their heads turned to me. Their eyes burned with a feral kind of light, and I readied myself, stiffening my clay flesh against impact.
Then one of them said, “Ah, well, it has brought us the cat.”
“Yes, yes, we do love them so,” said another, giving Noroc one last fond cuddle before rising to her feet. “I will never understand just why they decided to leave us.”
“Eh! The stink of humans. It is a new fixation amongst spectres. In anther thousand thousand years it will be back to dragons again. I myself am holding out for horses.”
“Horses will never catch on, you fool.”
“Better them than men and women!”
I found an opening in their chatter and slid myself into it.
“If you do not like humans, why do you wear their shapes?”
It seemed that I had said something they disapproved of, for I was given severel odious glares. One of them, a curvaceous blonde, rose to her feet as well and shook out her long hair.
“Well, sisters, must we be human?”
They grinned and clapped and those still sitting jumped up. A sudden rush of wind blew leaves against my eye holes, and as I picked them out I realized that all I could see was a wall of brown, warm fur jostling against me so that I was forced to stumble back out of the clearing.
“WELL, SISTERS,” a hoarse voice bellowed out, the kind of voice that stuck down in your chest and made you tremble. “SHALL WE DANCE AS WE ARE?”
I had to take a few more steps back to comprehend what had happened: there were a multitude of gigantic shaggy dark forms moving in and out of the candlelight. Noroc alone was clearly visible, still sitting serenely in the center of all, sitting with his tail looped over his paws.
One of the beasts reared, and then I knew what it was- a bear, a gigantic brown bear. Round its muzzle was what looked like a queer bridle, except that rarther than reins a candleholder swung beneath its snout.
“Iele can turn into bears?” I said, too flummoxed to move.
The baer gave me a playful swat that twisted my head halfway arond, and then went to stand in the clearing, now much smaller by the fact that a good half-dozen bears were clamoring to keep their ring formed. But then, one by one, they rose to their rear legs, threw their heads, with candles swinging, and bellowed up into the night.
I heard disturned birds screaming and rising from their resting spots in the trees, no doubt terrified out of their wits by the sound; anybody would be. Yet there was a rough melody to it, very coarse and raspy. And, like all the Iele melodies, there was a delicious glee to it, too, even without words to add to the tune.
The bears, which had merely been swaying in response to their song, now raised their arms to clasp the neighbors of their shoulders, which did not look quite natural for a bear to do, and with a chorus of roars and bellows began to walk slowly sideways, rotating the circle.
Rotating the circle- the circle around Noroc!
“Stop! You stop at once!” I grabbed the nearest hairy shoulder I could fine, and its owner rolled her head back at me with a displased grunt. “I will not let you harm Noroc!”
Now the bear dropped down her arms and roared hoarsely right in my face.
“HURT HIM? AN INSULT!”
She shook herself vigorously, as though she’d just been in the water, and in a great cloud all the brown fur seemed to slide down off of her body at once, leaving an ordinary nude woman beneath. As the fur fell down over my feet, I realized it was not really fur at all. What I reached down and picked up was a brown pine needle.
“Bears,” said the Iele, scratching behind her ear (and seemingly unbothered by the fact that it meant the candle she held was perilously close to lighting her hair on fire), “are simply not so good at dancing as humans are. Nobody is going to enter a circle of dancing bears in any case. Nobody but an idiot, that is.”
“We can take any sort of shape,” added one of her sisters, her fur now reduced to needles all around her feet. The clearing was now covered in them as the rest of the Iele shook themselves free. “A human shape is merely the best choice… for now.”
“I suppose that I have learned that,” I said, feeling as though they could have simply used words in the first place.
Noroc gave a meow. He had been unfortunately completely buried by needles, and now his little black head poked out feebly from within the pile. I darted forward and snatched him up, brushing the needles from his sleek flanks, before the Iele even chanced it. They noticed this, though, with their glittery little eyes.
“Faugh!” said one, with a shudder. “How abhorrent! No cat ought to be held.”
“You were just petting him,” I said, but I also checked to see if Noroc seemed to mind being in my arms. He was still, his tailtip hanging down and flicking; perhaps this meant he did not.
The Iele rolled her eyes at her sisters, as though the distinction were quite obvious.
“Like sap bleeding out of a tree,” one muttered. “The wildness trickles out from the wounds. Ai, but do any witches care? No, they hasten the destruction for their greed.”
“I do not know what you are talking about,” I said. “And I have somewhere I must go. So-”
The Iele’s tone struck me like a thrill, and suddenly they were all crowding rather close, their lithe pale forms blurring together.
“Go where? Where does an earth-creature go?”
“What does an earth-creature seek?”
“No, no: whom does it seek?”
At this they all burst into titters, turning nasty smiles in my direction. Noroc made a displeased sound when I clutched him slightly tighter against myself.
“We could help,” one purred, over my shoulder, and I jerked away. She had somehow crawled up the side of a tree to dangle down from a branch just above my head. I stepped away from her grasping fingers.
“I am not foolish enough to accept help from you!”
“Whyever not?” She smiled, moved herself up to a sitting position on the branch, swinging her legs. “We ask for naught in return. Indeed, we have a common enemy. To foil the witch’s plot would be reward enough!”
“I do not care how you try to convince me,” I said. “I am leaving.” I turned to emphasize my point, but found the way forward blocked by another Iele, who was flicking the wax drippings from her candle.
“You shall be lost here without us, you know,” she said, eyeing me from between strands of her dark hair.
“Get out of my way way,” I said, and perhaps she caught the iron in my voice, for she ducked her head, peering at me around her candle’s flame.
“Fiercer it is, this time,” she hissed.
“Good!” That was the voice of the one sitting on the branch, the pale-haired one who seemed to be their leader, or at least their speaker. “If it is to defeat the Baba-”
“The only thing I want to do,” I snapped, “is get Gabi back. I do not plan to defeat anybody.”
A moment of mutual silence. Amidst the rasping insects, I heard the distant, mournful howl of a wolf.
“Ha,” chuckled the Iele in the tree. “Ha! So it is.”
“So get out of my way!”
“O! Be not impatient. Do you not care to listen to us at all? We have seen her, you know, in the witch’s garden.”
Noroc made a soft sound; I had turned around very abruptly.
“Gabi? You have seen her?”
The Iele’s smile reminded me that I was being a fool, but I could hardly walk away after hearing that.
“We have all seen her. The witch has her bound, fixed in place; she suffers the sunlight and the rain. It is quite cruel to see.”
Her tone was detached in spite of her words. Noroc leapt out of my arms.
“Is she- how badly is she hurt?!”
“She has ceased to move, these last few days,” said the Iele.
“A quite strange affliction has come over her, as well. She seems…” The Iele paused, then flashed her teeth at me. “Not at all her usual energetic self.”
I hesitated, but for only a moment.
“You will take me to her?”
She inclined her head, slowly, her eyes going hooded.
I looked around for Noroc, and saw him perched on a nearby tree root, his head tilted skyward.
I hoped very dearly he would give me advice, or some sign that he approved or disapproved of what I was doing, but he merely lowered his head and gazed at me. It did not seem like he was going to speak to me again anytime soon.
But the Iele had said that Gabi had been in Baba Yaga’s garden for days. Not merely one night. Sorina’s house had again warped my perception of time, and now I had no more left. I had to rescue her, as soon as possible.
“Then- take me to her!”
The Iele licked her lips, then smiled all-too-broadly.
“Sisters, you hear?”
A whirl of wind brushed past me, chilling the clay on my back. I turned, and to my confusion saw no more ethereal women, only bobbing lights illuminating gray, skeletal trees.
“Come,” said a voice, and icy fingers closed about my own. The Iele had silently slipped down from the branch and taken my hand in hers- tiny and pale it was in my giant, dark palm. “The witch hides herself from intruders like we. To seek her out, we must find lower ground.”
“Why?” I asked, but she tugged me forward with surprising strength. The wind picked up, the trees creaked, and the crickets went silent. The tiny lights bobbed and swirled around us. Beneath them, a black streak: Noroc, running along the forest floor.
Now the Iele pulled me forward, with vicious speed- I was swept behind her, stumbling to keep up. The trees slashed by us, snagging through my clay with their sharp branches; the undergrowth cut stripes in me with thorns. Eyes winked in and out of the darkness at us- round ones within the trees, red ones from the earth. The whirling lights showed me flashes of the forest; always trees, made grotesque by the darkness: knotted burls, fathomless crevasses in bark, leaves like withered skeletons. I heard a gleeful shriek from one of the invisible spirits surrounding me, and we passed over a cracked, rotted trunk, wet and glistening at the bole, something black shivering its way out of the dark spaces.
“No time for that!” crowed the Iele holding my hand, and thrust her way forward, whirled me around and around in the lights, and then suddenly let me go.
I stumbled forward, suddenly in utter darkness. The lights had vanished, and there was nothing to show my way. I groped about and felt only emptiness. A thread of panic began to fill me.
His answering voice startled me, for it was stronger and deeper than I recalled. It was nothing like Elan’s. In the black I felt the brush of something very warm, and very large.
There came familiar laughter, and then shards of light- the Iele was removing her fingers from my eyes.
“Only a tease, don’t be angry,” she said, but the thought had not entered my mind. I was far too distracted by where we were, for I had been there before. A shimmering cauldron of water, with the night sky exposed and naked above- the lake where I had first met Kazimir. Only this time, the stars were mostly concealed behind gray clouds. Shafts of bright moonlight lanced from between them as well, but the moon itself was invisible.
The lake reflected this mottled dimness, and the moonlight looked like rippling white silk on the water.
“Why have you brought me here?” I asked.
A meow at my feet: I looked down and saw Noroc there, rubbing against me. He was ordinary-sized, and I wondered if I had only imagined hearing his voice.
(But I did not think that I had.)
“We have brought you here so that you may find the witch,” said one of the Iele. She had stepped out of the trees onto the lake’s shore, but I thought she seemed a little bit uncomfortable in the open space, her shoulders hunched, her eyes darting. The others- who I could see once more in human form- lurked back within the safety of the trees, peering out at us wide-eyed.
“That I may find her?” I said. “You told me that you would lead me there!”
“Hsst! Speak not so loudly, O clay one. As I said, the witch hides herself from our probes, but not yours. She does not yet understand what you are.”
“I still do not understand what you are talking about.”
“The earth here is rich and dark. You should be able to seek her out through it.” The Iele gestured out towards the lake, where the waters gently slopped against the shore. I could detect a very faint stink there, where the land and water converged, and see a multitude of half-rotted things, twigs and leaves and such, encrusting the banks.
But I still did not understand what she meant for me to do, and I was beginning to feel frustrated. If this was all some kind of diversion for them, I would be very angry.
Perhaps the Iele sensed this, for she made a clucking sound and grasped my hand again.
“You do not even know how to touch the earth, do you? Ah, your poor mother- she must have been crying out to you all this time!”
“I have no mother,” I said, stung, and tried to pull my hand back, but her fingers squeezed my clay like a vise.
“No mother! Another cruel thing to say!” Abruptly she jerked me forward. “Down, down, crouch down!”
Surly feelings were building within me, but I crouched down nonetheless. Noroc came to stand beside me with mincing steps, looking askance at the mud, which made me feel a little bit better.
“The other golem is not my mother,” I said, sticking to my point.
“What on earth is a golem?” The Iele snickered, then without warning shoved my clay fingers into the wet, rotted earth.
“She is your mother!”
I made a sound- I believe I made a sound- I had to have made a sound. Plunging into the earth sent a jolt through my fingers, a real jolt the like of which I had only ever felt an echo of in Kezia’s memories. It was a life jolt. And- and- and-
The Iele’s hand was wrapped around my wrist still, her grinning face close; but her flesh was translucent now, and I could see within her arm braided woody vines, and through her cheeks only warped wood. And somehow to her I felt a strange connection but also a disconnect– like I ought to have been closer, somehow, than I was getting- but I could still feel the fluid seeping though her inhuman veins, the prickling expanse of her reach, the sultry longing for and the hatred of light.
“What have you done to me?” I managed to say.
Listen! said the Iele, without speaking out loud- o, her voice was in my head just like the other Kezia’s had been, except that I knew she was still outside of me; how was this possible? It was like the time that I had touched the other golem- the one that had attacked Gabi- I had felt the consciousness of it then, as I felt her now.
But that was not all I felt- that was not what was truly overwhelming me, paralyzing me in place as the hard spurs of her twig-fingers dug into my arm. I could feel more than only her. I could feel… I could feel…
Nearby, just at my feet, something was moving. How had I not noticed it before? It moved so loudly… I felt the contractions, one after another, the scrape of minute bristles. It pushed and pushed at the earth, made all wet and slick, rose up towards the faint moonlight. It was gigantic. It was monstrous! It was moving toward me, up towards the surface of the earth! One segment after another emerged, the tiny, humble head finally protruding, and when I saw it for the first time with my eyes I could not believe it. It was only an earthworm.
The little worm, glistening in the very faint light, selected a half-rotted leaf and began the slow process of pulling it back down beneath the soil. Contraction by contraction, bit by bit, pushing earth with such incredible strength.
There were hundreds- no, thousands- of earthworms all around, hundreds of tiny undulating bodies, pushing and pushing away at the soil, cris-crossing it with tiny tunnels, dragging down the decaying matter to be consumed in the moist silence underground. I felt their scraping little bristles like a million little itches. Oh, but here- here was something that was not an earthworm. It seemed more fragile, without the all-consuming strength of a worm, and in a tiny little pocket below the earth its many legs tickled me, with fur softer than a kitten’s. I felt the delicate, sticky silk lining its burrow and understood what it was…
There were so many small things living beneath the earth, and I had never noticed them! Tiny black beetles, little grubs, mites, slugs, hordes of dancing ants; but not just small things, either- here a burrow of mice, silken mother wrapped around her hairless children, there the slime-slicked burrow of a dozing frog, here a fox crawling underground to- to- kill a badger kit.
The fresh blood felt warm.
Here I tried to draw back, for now I realized that I did have some say in what I felt, for there was so terribly much to feel, and I tried to draw myself back to my own body, back to where the Iele grasped my wrist. But it was difficult. I floundered, confused: how did I know where the earth ended and my body began?
No, no, I could find it, I could, or if I had to I could just cut- sever- I could get most of my body back. I just had to get to it, to withdraw myself, like a receding wave. If only there were not so many strange, fibrous nets blocking my path…
What is it?
Could I have imagined that? That strange… voice?
Is it dangerous?
No… I had not only imagined it. No. I hesitated, my consciousness caught up in that fibrous tangle again- no, not really a tangle, it was roots. I had been so fascinated with the animals that I had neglected to notice that they were there, too; in fact there were everywhere, they were the earth, almost, for if I had taken out all the soil beneath the forest anyone still could have walked along just fine over all those entangled roots…
The spider’s silk-lined burrow was paltry compared to this web, the one I felt now: thousands and millions of probing feelers, searching, feeding, drawing forth new information, moving slowly, yes, but moving. I had been impressed by the strength of the tiny worm, but these roots overshadowed it completely; they could bore through stone. And there was intention to them. A deep and powerful thirst.
And they spoke. I could not believe it. It was like a slow, deep murmur, barely understandable, but I could hear the voices calling out beneath the earth.
A rich patch here…
There is a nest of termites there, stay away…
My fruit only falls to my roots, what sorrow…
Please, let me at the light, please…
Out, you creeping vine…!
Like a trickle, then a flood, their endless whispers overwhelmed me, and I could hardly think for myself. I was confused, lost, tangled in their web, caught up in tiny fibers and the connecting threads of fungi.
Do you feel it? What is it?
I feel it…
Is it only soil?
No… no… it is something more.
Something seemed to prod at me. Dimly, I heard someone saying something out loud.
“Do not forget why you came here, clay one! Ask them where the witch’s hut lies!”
It was the Iele. Oh, yes, the Iele! I flowed back through the roots as memories resurfaced, not all of them my own. I suddenly understood that the Iele had once had the power to connect to this great web, but had lost it… no, they had given it up… How strange and sad.
But- my question. Yes. For Gabi! Yes! I had gotten so overwhelmed that I had nearly forgotten all about it, but there was simply no time to waste. I tried to concentrate, to force my thoughts outwards, into the lattice of roots cutting through the soil.
The reaction was not immediate. Information here moved sluggishly, like sap, and it took some time for it to permate into the network.
What is that…?
If my message was reaching them, they did not seem to understand it. I sought around for a simpler way to phrase it; of course this web would not understand my words, or even my images. I had to give them something they could feel.
Slowly I dredged up an old memory: the feeling of a little white tree, deeply embedded in my clay, the hairlike roots probing everywhere.
This time, the response was faster, and more direct.
And suddenly I knew exactly where Gabi was.
Thank you, I tried to say, or to convey, but it did not seem to soak into the web. I was not sure they had even shown me Gabi on purpose, or if I had only made them think of it. For they seemed to do nearly all of their thinking out loud.
I am nearly awake… who are you?
I withdrew more rapidly now, doing my best not to get caught in the underground nets along the way, searching for my body- I felt it sagging dangerously from my lack of attention, and that would not do. I was nearly there again when I felt something. Something large moving over the surface of the earth towards where my body stood motionless, fingers still stuck into the ground.
I jerked them out again, nearly fell over backwards from the force of it. All of my dizzying awareness cut off, as though a flame had been abruptly snuffed out.
“Well?” hissed the Iele, as I tried to become accustomed once again to my duller senses.
“I know where to go,” I said, “but-”
“She knows!” exclaimed the Iele, turning back towards where the lights of her sisters bobbed within the trees.
“Wait,” I said, “wait, something is coming this way very quickly. Something large.”
The Iele turned to look at me, in a nearly haughty way.
“What? Nothing is coming! We would hear it long before you did.”
“I did not near it,” I tried to explain, “I felt-”
Noroc yowled. Every black hair on his body seemed to stand straight up all at once, and his mouth gaped in a flash of white teeth.
He had oriented this inexplicable fury to a patch of undergrowth. As I saw, my words died within my mouth, for the throny bushes were trembling.
I heard a chorus of cries, and to my dismay, the lights from the Iele began winking out one by one, and so I had barely enough light left to see by when a gigantic black shape burst out of the bushes.
It was a wolf. But not merely a wolf. A giant, gaunt wolf with blue eyes, and a severed human head tied to its neck.
It looked at me, then lunged.
Note: Earthcast is going on a brief hiatus yet again after this chapter. I hope to be back by October 21, but there are a lot of circumstances out of my control right now. If the break is going to be longer, I’ll make a post letting you guys know! Thanks for reading…