Bind the wound.
I came to a point where I knew that I was hurt but it hurt too much for me to feel anymore; like how my hands had gotten so cold that they had not been cold at all, and warming them had spread agonizing prickles over my skin. My whole self was numb and silent. I could not even feel Kazimir’s freezing arms around me.
Adamina had the little bush that had recently been attached to me in her hands, with the vine still trailing inches away and separated from the seeping hole in my stomach. She was tearing the withered branches away, pulling and pulling, until she reached a green, dense knot in the center. It was like a sort of bulb, or onion, covered in filmy green layers, except on one side there was a slight bulge where a silver curve peeped out.
“What have you done?!” shouted Pascha, burning with rage- really burning, his back and shoulders were afire and smoking. “What have you-” He cast a look down at me, where I had fallen back against Kazimir, boneless.
“She is safe now,” said Adamina, cradling the green bulb in her hands like it was some small, frightened animal. “I will bring her back to the forest and plant her in the earth again. My mistress will be pleased.”
I could not move at all, not even to speak, but I stared at the thing in her hands, that bulb with hints of silver. Was that where my truth now lay? But I…
“She’s dying!” burst out Kazimir, and I felt a dull pressure as he wrapped his arms more tightly about me, covering the wound on my belly with one dark hand. “Give it back! Pascha, get it back!”
“Fools,” said Adamina, with a bit more emotion to her voice than normal, I thought. “What you hold is just a vessel. It will disintegrate, as flesh does. But I have saved her, and I will find her a body that does not rot.”
With that said, she covered the bulb with both her hands, and sank slowly back into the ground. With a curse Pascha sprang forwards and struck out at her, but he was left coughing and holding a handful of dust.
“I don’t understand!” Kazimir burst out, clutching at me. “What did she mean by all that? Oh- she really hurt Kezia, I can barely feel her heart beating anymore! What are we going to do?!”
“Hush! I don’t know!” Pascha’s back merely smouldered now, as he paced back and forth. “What did she take with her? She seemed to think it was Kezia- the letters!” He whirled around on his heel. “Perhaps it was the silver letters! Then perhaps what you hold in your arms isn’t Kezia at all anymore, Kazimir!”
“What?” said Kazimir, in a wobbly way. Even in my numb state I was struck with a sense of horror, and tried to speak- tried to shake my head, give some twitch to indicate that no, I was still here. But there was no strength and feeling left in me. Perhaps it was not just that I had gone numb from pain. Perhaps some important part of me really had left with Adamina!
“And if it was Kezia she was holding, then we should chase after her, and get it back,” Pascha was saying, heedless of my silent struggle. “Zakhar, you are the best at getting around underground, so you ought to start following her!”
“I am afraid that is impossible, even for me,” said Zakhar, from somewhere behind me. His voice oozed into my ears with an unpleasant flatness to it. “It isn’t as though she burrowed into the ground, Pascha; she is the ground. And I find myself hesitant to believe that Kezia has somehow turned into a small green onion.”
Thank goodness for Zakhar. I had never thought that I would think those words, ever.
“Well, the golem seemed to think she had,” said Pascha. “And Kezia turned from a golem into a human- plant- thing, so it stands to reason-”
“I do appreciate your concern,” said Zakhar, “but the both of you seem to have forgotten that we three are facing a great deal of trouble now, ourselves. Didn’t we tell our mistress that we wouldn’t allow this creature to be hurt? If it bleeds out on the ground, she will not be able to eat it, and she will be very, very displeased with us.”
Pascha froze midstep, the corners of his mouth dipping sharply, but Kazimir said, “Zakhar, you are heartless!”
“I am practical,” said Zakhar. I saw his white fingers come down over my arm, though I did not feel them. “The thought that Kezia may die in such a cruel way does not please me. But Kazimir is right, Pascha- the life in this body is ebbing away.”
“So we’ve got to find that damned onion!” Pascha stamped one foot on the dirt, childlike and horselike. “Get it back to her! And then-”
“What?” Zakhar’s tone was wry. “Have her eat it?”
“I don’t know! I’m trying to think of something to do, so be more helpful, damn you!”
“Yes, Zakhar, what do you think we should do?” burst out Kazimir.
There was a long pause from Zakhar’s direction- I could not turn to see him, so I could only imagine the expression on his fat face.
“We must stop this body from dying,” he said, finally. “Delay it, at least until sundown, for our own sakes.”
“That isn’t what I-”
“And if you think that the answer lies with the onion, Pascha,” Zakhar continued, smoothly cutting him off, “then I shall do my best to catch up to it. And you should go, as well, to seek out the strigoi and bring her back here.”
“The strigoi…?” Pascha’s brow furrowed.
“Then I will stay with Kezia,” said Kazimir.
“Yes,” said Zakhar. “I don’t care how cold you must keep her. Slow the dying, stop the flood. The needle doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Then why do you want me to find the strigoi?” snapped Pascha. “Shouldn’t I stay with Kazimir, or go with you?”
“No,” said Zakhar. “Gabi may know something that we do not about this creature that could help save her. If not, Baba Yaga will want to have her as a consolation prize.”
Pascha visibly recoiled.
“And she will want to see Kezia again, I have no doubt,” said Zakhar, in a softer voice.
“You want me to lie to her again!” Pascha snorted, shook his head. “Your first little lie never worked out so well, did it? Pah!”
“I don’t care what you say to her,” said Zakhar, his voice sinking back into a monotone. “Bring her here. Either way, we will be the ones who must catch her.”
Pascha growled low in his throat, and turned his back on us, clenching his fists tight at his sides. His back and shirt flickered with sparks of violet, and tendrils of smoke curled up from his sides.
“Damn it all!” he burst out. “We were so close! So close!”
“We always are,” said Zakhar.
“And damn you most of all,” muttered Pascha, and with a bright flicker he became the red horse and galloped off into the trees.
After a brief moment of silence, Kazimir asked, “What did he mean, about lying to the strigoi again?”
Behind me, Zakhar gave a long sigh, and then stepped into my field of vision. I was surprised to see his florid face sunken, with a sickly blue pallor to it.
“Pascha and I had a little ploy,” he said. “The next time we were set free, I would trick our savior by letting myself get caught, and then changing the color of their ribbon back to white. Thus confounded, Pascha could seek out the individual and persuade them to become the catalyst to break our curse instead.”
Kazimir hesitated a moment, and then, to my surprise, he laughed.
“I didn’t think you would defy Baba Yaga in such a way.”
“Neither did she,” said Zakhar, and then, with a grimace, “before now.”
“You should have just been honest,” said Kazimir. “Kezia would have tried to help you. Maybe the strigoi, too, since she loves Kezia.”
“Trying is beautiful, my love, but seldom breaks chains,” said Zakhar. He leaned down, and I heard him kiss Kazimir above my head. “I must seek out Pascha’s green onion. Who knows, maybe it will cure her? Try to keep her heart beating in the meantime.”
Kazimir was silent, and Zakhar, too, took the shape of a horse and trotted off.
After he was out of sight, Kazimir gave a little quiver, and sniffed, and took one hand off of my belly to wipe his face. In its absence I was able to see what had become of my navel. A dreadful, ragged welt rose up where the vine had been ripped away, and in the center was a hole thick enough to put my finger through. Pale pink liquid oozed from it in spurts, like wine from the neck of a bottle.
Kazimir put his hand back over the hole, pressing down hard to stay the fluid. The translucent stuff was smeared over his palm and fingers. My blood? Blood did not look like that. But the other fadua bled clear. Golems did not have blood, they only had silver letters. My silver letters had gone with Adamina. What if I had gone with her too, in the form of a little green onion? What if what lay here, trapped in this dying, frozen body, was only a pale shade of myself? Was I the real Kezia- or only an empty fadua?
Thoughts went round and round in my head in a dizzying manner, and my vision became hazy. It was growing weaker. The dirt, the trees, my belly vanished into a prismatic blur. My senses- my sight- they were going- I was dying. I was really dying. Oh, now, I wished so badly that the other Kezia was here! She would have at least heard my voice… known my fear… before it all slipped away…
“Kezia,” said Kazimir, his voice soft. “Are you crying?”
His hand swept over my eyes, and suddenly my vision grew clearer.
“Are you still there?” he asked, putting his cheek close to mine. “Please, don’t cry. I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you better.”
He sniffed, very loudly, right in my ear. I blinked- oh, I blinked! The tears that had been filling my vision fell away.
Movement. My chest was rising and falling of its own accord. In a dim, faint way, I could feel delicious air filling my lungs, breath in time with the faint pounding in my ears. My heartbeat- it was weak, and slow, struggling along like a crooked wheel. I blinked again. Look- I could shut my eyes and open them, and I could pull in stronger breaths… I had done this before, I could learn to make myself move again and again, as many times as it took…
But as I took another, deeper breath, pain struck my navel like a knife.
I cried out, and felt the muscles in my abdomen clench, and fluid spurted out from between Kazimir’s fingers.
Kazimir pressed down harder, to stop the leak, and I made an agonized, pathetic sound, because it felt so awful! Oh, as the movement came back so did the pain, and the pain was wretched; and not just the pain, but the sickening dizziness in my stomach, the throbbing ache in my head, the helpless weakness of my limbs. I coughed, sputtering on the fluid filling my throat, and Kazimir hastily tilted my head forward so that a pinkish filmy slime fell from between my lips onto my own chest.
“Sh, sh,” he was saying, putting one cool hand to my pounding forehead, and it did feel better- my skin seemed to be burning. The spot where he pressed his hand against my navel was icy, and I was glad for it, for it had to be taking away some of the pain.
“You’re still there,” he murmured. “You are still there- aren’t you? Zakhar should come back!”
I moved my lips- a line of spittle still hung from them, and I wished I had the strength to wipe it away.
“‘Azimir,” I said, my words thick with slurry.
He pressed a cold kiss against my temple in response.
I felt my eyes filling up with tears again, because in my head I could feel the stuttering of my failing heart.
“I’m sorry,” he said, with a quaver to his voice. “But I won’t let you go. I’ll keep you here with us- and not for the witch- I’ll take you away from her, and let her punish me for it!”
I tried to shake my head, failed, and croaked, “No.”
“I shall,” he insisted, but fell silent as I tried to garble something else out.
“Fadua… the fadua…”
With a kind of painful prickling feeling, I found myself in possession of a working left arm. I clumsily wiped the drool from my lip.
“The fadua…?” Kazimir prompted.
I tried to explain more. The fadua, I was one of them, and maybe they knew more, maybe they knew something that could help me, or maybe simply being near that quiet grove could save me, or maybe I simply could not stand lying there sobbing and helpless in the dirt with him any longer… But I could not make my lips fit around the words to say any of that, so instead I lifted my wobbly arm and pointed deeper into the forest.
Kazimir’s face was out of my view, so I could not see his reaction, but he sounded as though he were biting his lip.
“I shouldn’t move you when you’re hurt like this- they’re expecting us to be here-”
My arm flopped weakly back down, and he put his hand against my cheek.
“But it doesn’t matter! You know something, don’t you?”
I knew nothing at all, but he seemed assured of it himself, and moved his hand from my cheek to grip me behind the shoulders. Another arm snaked beneath my legs, which was odd, because he still had a hand pressed against my stomach, and that seemed like too many.
“I’m sorry for this,” he said, and with a great lurch lifted me up. My head snapped back and lolled, and I coughed again and whimpered as great spasms of pain passed through my clenched muscles. Kazimir used a hand- a different one- to turn my head so that it rested upright against his shoulder.
“I am going to walk quickly,” he warned me, as in my dizzy, hazy state I struggled to remember how many hands he had normally. “I’m sorry. But we cannot lose any more time.”
I moved my lips- he seemed very sure that I had an idea that could save us, and it felt as though I had lied to him- but he began moving, and again my head snapped back, and he caught it and pressed it back against his shoulder. He was walking- I think that he was walking- but in great, land-eating strides that made the scenery whir past us much faster than I thought it ought to have. My aching stomach churned, and I groaned. Kazimir squeezed my shoulder, but kept moving- the trees whipped by in a spiky blur, branches cracking against his sides, whipping green stripes across his arms. My eyes teared up again, but in the blurriness I thought I saw faces- rat faces, peering from the branches, bark-covered faces staring between the trees, and one green eye from a black cat-
I squirmed in Kazimir’s grasp, but it was too late, we had already moved on, and now the tree trunks grew pale, and grass struggled up through the leaf litter, and the sky was blocked out by a reddish fog.
Abruptly we came to a stop, and Kazimir squatted down, and laid me on the grass, keeping hold of my shoulders so that I was still sitting up. I had to blink to recover from my disorientation. The heel of my foot brushed crumbling dirt, and I looked down at it. It was poking out over the lip of a large, jagged hole in the ground, like the one in my stomach. Broken roots poked up through the sides. Ah- I knew this hole, did I not?
Kazimir was making a curious snuffling sound, and I turned my head slowly to see him with his nose in the air.
“Smells strange here,” he said. “Like sweet fruit… But that is the smell of the fadua, isn’t it? That hole smells like you.”
He looked at me with expectation clear in his eyes. I found myself needing to look away. My heart seemed to squeeze and sputter in my aching chest.
“Ah- then I should find one for you,” he said, starting to rise. “A fadua. There must be others near. I hear the vegetable lambs bleating. Surely-”
He stopped, for I had reached out to grab his arm, with a grunt of pain.
I coughed, sputtering my way through another sickly whine; with the loss of his hand my navel was weeping again. He looked stricken, reached down to cover it once more- and suddenly howled with pain.
I fell onto my back- he had jumped away- and stared upwards openmouthed as he snarled and tried to shake off the reddish thing that had landed on his shoulders.
“Just what are you doing to my darling Kezia?”
I tried to pull myself back up onto my elbows, an exercise in agony, as Kazimir finally shook the thing away. It landed nimbly in the grass and rose to its hind legs- coughs sputtered out of my chest like steam from a teakettle- it was Gabi!
But it was Gabi like I had never seen her- her eyes were wide and dark and mad, and there were black welts all along her arms and one cheek, and green blood dripped from her sharp teeth. Across from her Kazimir was gripping one shoulder and letting a thunderous growl rumble out of his chest.
“I’ll kill you,” hissed Gabi, hunching forward like an animal, her fingers curved like claws, and I sucked in air with a great gasp.
She startled visibly, whipped her head around to look at me- I flinched. Her pupils were so dilated that there was nearly no blue left, and with the marks all over her cheek she was barely recognizable. What had happened to her? My heart was hammering and stumbling, and I gasped again as more pink fluid pulsed out of the hole in my navel.
Gabi’s eyes widened even further, and with a furious shriek she flung herself at Kazimir, who met her with a snarl- I had to close my eyes and heard a great, ground-shuddering thud.
The roar was Kazimir’s, and when I opened my eyes again I saw that he had pinned Gabi against the splintering trunk of a tree by her shoulders. She hissed and squirmed like a little imp.
“I would kill you,” Kazimir growled, “because I feel that this is all your fault- again– but Kezia may still need you! Now wake up!”
With that he pulled back his palm and gave her two great slaps against both her cheeks. I flinched as the tree splintered further.
“That HURTS!” screamed Gabi, and shoved him away. “How dare you! You’ve done terrible things to Kezia, and now I’m going to do the same to-”
She was interrupted by a loud crunching sound as the tree she’d been backed against split completely and toppled over, the red crown landing on the grass with a crash.
The both of them were silent for a moment, staring at the fallen tree, and Gabi rubbed a hand over her eyes and seemed to blink, and I thought I saw a change in them.
My voice, though it came as an unpleasant croak, seemed to draw her attention at once, then, with a swift glance back at Kazimir, she hurried to crouch by my side.
“Oh- Kezia! What happened to you? What is this- your stomach- where is the rest of you?! What has he-”
“I didn’t do a damned thing!”
“-you’re bleeding! Oh, God!” She put her hand over my stomach, and I tried to recoil- unlike Kazimir’s, it was hot, burning hot. My chest seemed to squeeze and compress as my heart thundered, and a ripping pain ran up and down my arms.
“You’re hurting her!” exclaimed Kazimir, and yanked Gabi back and away, so that he could replace his cool hand against the spot. At once I felt slightly better, though my chest still seemed pinched too tight for me to breathe easily.
Gabi had tumbled over backwards from the force of his shove, and now sprang to her feet, a glint of the earlier madness present in her eyes, and shouted, “Explain this! What happened? When did you appear? Who did this to Kezia?!”
“Shut up!” said Kazimir. “I didn’t hurt her, and there isn’t time to explain all that- she’ll die before sundown if we don’t find some way to stop this bleeding!”
Gabi put a hand to her forehead, pushing back her hair, and made a garbled noise of frustration.
“Then- something to bind the wound with!” She cast around wildly in the clearing, and flinched when I coughed again. “And why have you brought her here, to this accursed place?”
“Gabi!” I called, my voice thick, and Gabi seemed to quiver before coming to crouch beside me obediently.
“What is it?”
Weakly I reached out and grasped her wrist, and after a moment she put her other hand on mine.
“The fadua…” I said. Her skin seemed to burn against mine, and yet somehow I drew strength from the touch. “If… I am a fadua, maybe they can…”
Gabi looked towards my navel.
“Yes… Crina was separated, and she survived, didn’t she? We were going to find her before, but-”
Her face suddenly twisted up into a strange expression, and she touched the dark welts on her cheek.
“Fadua… I’ve just had a most wretched idea.”
“What?” I asked. Perhaps it was just my pinched chest making everything seem foul, but a feeling of trepidation was filling me up at the sight of her expression.
Gabi gnawed on her lip, and her hand moved to drum her fingers on her hip in the familiar way.
“I don’t think the fadua themselves could help you,” she said. “In any case, we’d have to seek one out and convince it not to gobble us up first. But… perhaps… their mother…”
“Their mother…?” I could not understand what she meant, until it dawned on me. “You do not mean-”
Abruptly Gabi stood, dropping my hand back down into the grass.
“Wait here,” she said, and glared at Kazimir. “Take care of her. I’ll be right back.”
Heedless of my cry, she sprang up into the air in a flutter of red feathers.
Earthcast will take another week-long break as the author moves out of state. Updates will resume on Monday, March 21. Thank you for your patience!