Though Shy tried to hide it, she was nervous. They’d been traveling for a week, and every day the expected ambush didn’t come, Shy’s behavior got a little bit more erratic. She wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around normally, and as she got meaner and snippier, Mira found herself fondly daydreaming of smothering the demon in her sleep.
“He has to do it today,” Shy muttered to herself as they packed up one morning. “There’s no choice left.”
“Why’s that?” Mira asked.
Shy glared at Mira, but when she returned it with a flat stare of her own, the demon deflated and sighed. “Because in a few hours we’ll be out of the woods, so to speak. This whole region is heavily forested, and we’re going into flatlands. Nobody will be able to get within a mile of us without being visible. If the mercenary is going to take his shot at us, he has to do it before we get that far.”
But it didn’t happen. By noon, they had left the woodlansd behind. It was like the world had forgotten the color green. The ground was the color of dried mud, without even a speck of grass in sight. There were no trees, no houses or fields, no animals, just a flat expanse of brownish-grey. Even the road itself washed out into the featureless landscape.
“What happened here?” Mira asked. “This can’t be natural.”
Shy shrugged. “This was all under water, once upon a time. Maybe when the sea receded, it dragged everything off with it.”
“That’s… uh… not really…” Mira trailed off. She wanted to say that it was impossible, but for all she knew, that could have been exactly what happened. It wouldn’t even be the weirdest thing she’d seen in the last few months.
“How long ago did the sea recede?” she asked.
“Supposedly, it was a result of the war between the Five Sons and the demons, so I’d guess a few thousand years.”
“Well that doesn’t make any sense. If there’s been thousands of years for plants to grow here and animals to migrate, why hasn’t it happened?”
“It probably has. But every now and then, the whole area floods again and drags everything away when it drains.”
Mira stared out at the flat mud-colored earth stretching out around them. “This doesn’t happen instantly, does it? I mean, people know? There are signs? I’m not going to have to worry about waking up in the middle of the night to a wall of water smacking into me and drowning me, right?”
“How should I know?” Shy snapped. “Just keep walking. The faster you move, the less you’ll have to worry.”
* * *
Kull hung upside in a cave somewhere. His chest was covered in fine cuts, and blood dribbled down to drip off his shoulders and into his hair. The rhythmic splatters had kept him up through the first night, but by the time his tormenter had returned, fatigue and loss of blood had let sleep claim him. By all rights, he should never have woken up.
But he did, if only to be cut a hundred more times. He never saw the person working on him through more than a blood covered haze. It was human-shaped, for what that was worth, and that was all he knew. It didn’t ask any questions or make any demands. It simply appeared, cut him over and over again, and then left when it was apparently satisfied.
He didn’t know how big the blood pool had gotten underneath him, but the splatters no longer sounded against stone when they struck. Morbidly curious, he gave a feeble stretch of one arm, trying to reach the ground with an outstretched finger. The tip swished through the blood puddle, which was too deep to dry out, and too deep for him to feel the stone under the surface.
“Yes, you should be dead,” a voice said, the first he’d heard since being ambushed. Whatever it was had taken him out before he’d even known it was there, and he hadn’t woken up again until after it had strung him up and started flaying his skin off.
“Should be, but you’re not,” the voice continued. “Lucky for me, not so much for you. It’s rare I get to have fun without breaking my toy.”
Kull opened his mouth to talk, coughed instead. It felt like he’d swallowed a mouth full of sand, but he pushed through it and said, “You always talk this much?”
The voice laughed. Definitely female, he decided, not that that information did him any good. Something pierced his cheek and started slicing up to his jaw. It followed the contours to his neck and paused at his jugular. Kull barely felt the pain or the hot splash of fresh blood running down his face.
“Are you immortal though? If I bleed you fast enough, will you die? It would be a shame to kill you so soon when you can still be so useful to me.”
“One way to find out,” he said.
“Maybe you’re hoping I’ll kill you. Let me lay your concern to rest. You will not die accidentally under my care.”
“Barbroc’s balls, that’s touching. Can’t tell you how much better I feel knowing there won’t be any accidents.”
The voice laughed again. Kull almost thought he could see the creature it belonged to, but his eyes were still so caked over in blood that he could barely open them, let alone see through the constant film that no amount of blinking seemed to be able to clear up.
The cutting began again, this time on his legs and working toward his groin. Kull gave his torturer a fierce, teeth-clamped grin.
* * *
“How long will it take to get through this?” Mira asked.
“We not going through it. We’re going to the middle of it.”
“Oh… well how long will it take to get there? And how long are we staying?”
“A few more days, and with any luck, not long. That depends on you though. We’ll be there however long it takes for you to break the Toshi clan seal.”
“I thought we already did the Tosh-”
“Quiet!” Shy held up a hand. “Something’s coming.”
“I don’t see anything,” Mira whispered.
“I can feel the vibrations through the ground.”
Once Shy said it, Mira could feel them too. It was slight, not something she’d have noticed on her own, but unmistakable. They looked around, but there was nothing to see.
“It’s got to be big to shake the ground,” Mira said. Shy didn’t respond. “But we can see for miles. There’s nothing.”
“It’s underground,” Shy said. “Burrowing. Stay still, make no noise. Maybe it’ll pass us by.”
“Oh great, I landed in the middle of a fucking Tremors movie,” Mira muttered. Shy shot her a warning glare, and she shut her mouth.
The vibration didn’t disappear though. If anything, it got stronger as the minutes stretched on. Pictures of a giant sandy-brown worm big enough to swallow her whole popping out of the ground beneath her feet ran through Mira’s head. She shuffled uneasily in place once, which got her another glare from Shy.
“Hey, is the ground cracking over there?” Mira whispered.
Shy’s face went white as she looked over. A spiderweb of hair thin cracks a hundred feet wide was forming close enough that as they spread, they passed under Mira’s feet. Shy looked around frantically for a way out, but apparently wasn’t happy with what she saw.
“No other choice,” she muttered. She cocked her arm back and whipped it forward like she was hurling a baseball. Instead of a round white ball though, an oblong blob of color arced through the air. It formed into something red and brown and blocky that crashed to the earth fifty feet away. Where it landed, shards of mud-colored earth broke apart and flew into the air.
Mira didn’t get to see what happened next. Shy grabbed her arm and sprinted in the opposite direction. Mira stumbled the first few steps, but she could feel the ground shifting underneath her, and that was all the motivation she needed to speed up. Even as they ran, it started to drop out from under her.
It was almost a thirty degree slope of loose earth by the time they reached the edge of the cracks, and a few seconds after that, the ground had collapsed completely. They stood at the edge of what looked like a sand pit, if there’d been a giant blender in the middle stirring it up while water that came from nowhere slowly turned it into a frothing bowl of mud.
“Come on,” Shy said. “We don’t want to stick around here.”
“What is that?” Mira asked, but Shy ignored the question. The two of them turned and ran around the outskirts of the pit and deeper into the flatlands.
* * *
Miles later, they finally slowed down. Mira was breathing heavily, but not for the first time she was a little bit impressed with herself. Six months ago, she never could have ran for miles straight, especially not with a backpack full of camping supplies strapped to her.
Shy, of course, didn’t look the least bit tired. She’d been sporting a tight-lipped grimace the entire run and more than once had had to slow down when she’d started to leave Mira behind. She hadn’t bothered chiding Mira for being slow though. Maybe she just thought the giant sink hole forming under their feet was enough motivation by itself.
“Ok. We’re stopped,” Mira huffed as she leaned forward, hands on her knees. “Are we safe?”
“For now,” Shy said, not looking at her. Her eyes were trained on the flats behind them, even though there was nothing there to see.
“Great. So what the hell was that?”
“Something that lives under the surface of the flats. There are veins of water crossing this entire region. It swims them, hunting for food. No one who lived through an attack has ever seen what it looks like.”
“You didn’t think to tell me this before we set foot in here?” Mira demanded.
“What difference would it have made? It doesn’t change where we’re going. If we’d gotten lucky, you’d never even have known about it.”
“You know, this is what pisses me off. You never volunteer information. I have to drag everything out of you, and I don’t usually know to ask until after the fact. Why didn’t you think telling me about this ahead of time was a good idea? Instead, I’m getting snap instruction with no reasoning or explanations because there’s no time. And I get that, but if you’d just told me before we got here, we wouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with!”
“You stupid, ignorant little child,” Shy said. “You want me to warn you of every single danger you face in this world? You think I have time to tell you the hundred different ways we might die this week? It would take a lifetime to educate you.
“There’s every chance a blue taloned condor might be ranging off the coastal bluffs looking for food and spot us. The pygmy warb tribes who live north of the flats constantly exile the losers of their endless war games out here. We might run across a tribe of them starving to death who think we look tasty. The shoal scuttlers who live on the coast sometimes get stranded by tidal surges and buried in the silt. You might step on one and have it cut your foot in half.”
Shy stopped for a breath and stared at Mira with undisguised disgust. “I will keep you alive,” she said. “If I have to drag you out of danger by your hair, kicking and screaming, then that’s what I will do. You will reach our meeting with Jorath. That’s all you really need to know.”
Mira started to say something, but Shy turned away and walked off. “Move,” she said without looking back. “Unless you want me to haul you there by your hair after all.”
* * *
His torturer was doing something different this time, but Kull had been in perpetual pain too long to care anymore. He didn’t even know how long he’d been strung up upside over an ever-expanding puddle of his own blood. It had been long enough that he’d moved past hunger and thirst.
She, if it was a she, pulled back a flap of his skin. It wasn’t a small flap either, but one two inches wide and almost a foot long. The incision started at his knee and went all the way up to his hip. Each fraction of an inch of flesh that she peeled away from the muscle underneath was agony.
Finally, the flap hung loose and Kull felt something hard press against the muscle. It tore through it, probed until it hit bone. Something curled around it, fingers, he thought. The pain overwhelmed him and he passed out.
When he came too, he was no longer hanging upside down. A water skin sat next to him, in plain sight and easy reach. A distant, foggy part of his brain recognized it as part of his travel supplies, but that thought was buried under a primal need for nourishment.
Kull reached for the skin, even managed to hook his fingers around the strap. But he didn’t have the strength to move it. A hand came into view and picked the skin up.
“Yes,” a voice said. “You’re mine now. Don’t worry though, I always take care of what’s mine.”