Once upon a time, the village of Ulath Kai lay in a valley accessible only through the dangerous Bargath Pass. The story went that for many years the citizens of this hamlet lived in peace, maintaining a harmonious relationship with one another and with the world around them. The expansive fields, bountiful orchards and pastoral farms that composed the valley belonged to all. Children ran free through lush meadows of blue poppy, swung across sweet-smelling hay in the cavernous barns that dotted the verdant landscape. Resources were shared communally, and the town’s magistrates guided the populace with a fastidious commitment to a universal well-being. Yet like so much in this world, nothing lasts forever; and so it was with the fate of Ulath Kai. The solidarity that had once unified the citizenry began to splinter as time went by. And they forgot about their relationship to the natural world: damming rivers, enclosing the fields and coming to fear the thick forests that encircled the valley, despite the trees having once been a place of ceremony and worship.
It was at around this time that Evolet, daughter of Evelleen, was born. A wily and rambunctious child, Evolet loved to chase three-horn frogs that nested in the Kwinoque Creek or look for buried treasure among the loam-caked reeds of the Balatine Bog. Such behavior raised the eyebrows of some Ulath Kaians – but Evolet’s mother never joined them. Evelleen herself had always gone her own way. A talented craftswoman and baker, Evelleen could be counted on each week to cart her various artistic and culinary creations into the local market, becoming a reliable fixture in a space long dominated by men. Her husband, Mothad, never discouraged this. In fact, he seemed to relish the opportunities it provided him to quietly tend to the family’s small parcel of land at the edge of the forest.
As Evolet grew into adolescence, and as Evelleen gave birth to Evolet’s two younger sisters, Adora and Apolline, Ulath Kai’s vital trading relationship with the city state of Nadirian collapsed. Such a disintegration exacerbated long-growing disparities, throwing into question the Ulath Kaians’ relationships both with themselves and with one another. But despite this tumult, Evolet passed through childhood in relative happiness. These were days filled with whimsy and devoid of responsibility, where Evolet was able to race throughout Ulath Kai unencumbered by questions of who she was or who she was supposed to be. She wore outfits largely of her own design, ornate patchworks that sported bizarre amalgams of color and texture. She also styled her own hair until it was little more than a garish shock. And on most afternoons, she could be found in the Field of the Northern Star, playing lightning tag or engaging in mock battles with handmade rapiers constructed from hardened reeds. And on most nights, she could be counted on to be the voice in her parents’ collective ears, urging and pressing them for excursions under the stars. During these evening walks, Evelleen would retell the cherished stories of Ulath Kai’s origins that went further back than the popular mythology, harkening to their very beginnings amongst the heavens, when everything was seamlessly interwoven into one.
But then her mother’s work stopped paying dividends, and the tithes on her family’s farm were increased dramatically. Her parents bore these adversities with an almost preternatural grace, calmly replying to Evolet’s questions and doing what they could to sooth her fears.
“Mom. Are we going to lose our farm?” Evolet asked one evening while they were sitting around their oaken dinner table.
“We might Dove,” she said, reaching out and grabbing Evolet’s small hand. “But we’ll always have each other.”
A year later, unnatural warming crept into the valley, affecting its flora and fauna, provoking crop loss and triggering massive flooding from the snowpack that loomed in the mountains above. Such inundation destroyed many of the community’s fields, drowning livestock and threatening portions of the community with starvation. Consumption then set in, burning its way through household after household like an unchecked brushfire. Evelleen herself was eventually plagued by a consistent cough. The cough was quickly followed by intense fatigue, turning a woman of indomitable spirit into a shadow of her former self.
But only physically.
Despite being bedridden, Evelleen continued painting and weaving, and she continued to be there for both Evolet and her younger sisters even as she grew progressively weaker. One day, Evolet came home from school fighting back tears. The boys that had once been reliable playmates had been growing progressively more hostile the older they got, and had just stated that she could only continue playing with them if she made a solo foray into the forests surrounding Ulath Kai. Generations of Ulath Kaians had been instructed from an early age that the forest was a place of danger, teeming with fearsome creatures and unhindered by the laws of nature. And thus, the boys’ declaration virtually guaranteed Evolet’s ostracization from the group, as they assumed she would never have the fortitude or bravery to mount a solo excursion.
“They have something to prove,” her mother said calmly upon hearing her daughter’s distressed story. “You don’t. And you don’t need to be scared of the woods; the truth is in the forest.”
That was the last time she had a substantive conversation with her mother, as Evelleen’s violent cough returned later that night. The next day, she was largely unresponsive, drifting in and out of consciousness and withering in a pile of sweat-soaked blankets. A week later she was gone, her lungs ravaged, mouth smeared with crusty blood. Evolet stood silently in the rain as her mother’s lifeless body was wheeled out of the family’s home. But she didn’t cry, not even when her father started sobbing uncontrollably the next time they sat down to dinner and noticed Evelleen’s now empty chair, and not even when they finally lowered her mother into the ground, marking her resting place with a simple yet elegantly-carved tombstone.
Years passed and Ulath Kai continued its slow decline, the bonds of community unraveling further, particularly as another batch of warming triggered a new round of flooding. Surveying their ruined and inundated farms following the storm, it was painfully obvious that the town had changed in a fundamental way. The Ulath Kaians were no longer who they had thought they were, and this trauma destabilized them further than the floods ever had.
At around this time, a man named Claw Kassian appeared in the valley. Nobody knew where he had come from or how he had found his way to Ulath Kai in the first place. The bones of many intrepid explorers lay at the bottom of the Bargath Pass, their chalk white surfaces long picked clean by the devil birds that infested the path’s floor. But appear the man did, singing, snapping and waggling a long, polished staff while waltzing into the devastated community.
A deeply emaciated man, Claw had a fragile and malnourished look, with slick, ashen skin and thin strands of greying hair on both his head and face. His eyes, however, burned with intelligence and wit, and his posture and body language belied a confidence that compensated fully for his wasted appearance.
The townsfolk were torn by the appearance of Claw, with some drawn to him and others repelled. However, about a month after his arrival, another small flood coursed through valley, endangering the local school. Without a second thought, Claw plunged into the surging rapids, struggling through frothy, sediment-choked water and using his long staff to ground himself. Reaching the school’s entrance, he plucked several of the smallest children from the waves and with what seemed like supernatural strength delivered them to safety and solid ground.
Following this act of undeniable bravery, public opinion of the enigmatic visitor turned almost universally positive. Claw was quickly invited to address the town magistrates at the village forum, and his appearance was met with considerable interest. The night of his speech, a sizable crowd from nearly every corner of the valley assembled to hear his words and consume his message.
Many of the attendees were a rancorous bunch. The Ulath Kaians had once again seen their livelihoods decimated, their fields turned to rot. Children had gone hungry on far too many nights and the community’s dreams had turned sour and poisonous – transforming into noxious phantasms that made a good night’s sleep impossible. And so on the night of Claw Kassian’s remarks, the forum’s atmosphere was heavy with foreboding and the credible possibility of violence.
Claw seemed to draw strength from the crowd’s toxic ire. It may have been a trick of the light, but his emaciated body appeared to fill out as the crowd became gradually escalated. The color also returned to his cheeks, giving him the look of someone ten years younger. And when he at last spoke, the rich timbre of his voice was undeniable, dripping with smooth, velvety power and forceful alacrity.
“Friends!” he began, his voice booming clearly into the crisp night air that was illuminated by endless visions of celestial wonder.
“I have only been in your town a short while, but already I have seen a people who have born great suffering, who have seen what they deserve ripped from their grasp. You know too well the biting pains of hunger, the heartbreaking sting of a future made uncertain. But that is over, for I am here; I alone can fix it. I alone can restore what you had. And I alone can give you back what you once were.”
At this point the head magistrate stepped forward, his long, bony and liver-spotted arm outstretched in an attempt to usher Claw off the stage. In response, the forum attendees stormed toward where the rest of the magistrates sat, beating them without mercy and tearing at their clothing and beards. Stepping back, Claw began to laugh uproariously, a high-pitched cackle that spread throughout the valley, ricocheting off every tree and bouncing off every stone.
Evolet was getting water from the Amazo Creek when she heard the laughter, which caused her to shiver in her simple, brown frock. It whipped across the flower-coated field, eventually colliding with the wall of trees that lay beyond the creek. Evolet looked at the forest that she had never entered. The trees seemed to almost be growing before her eyes, their branches reaching out into the valley itself.
But there was little time to dwell on Claw’s ominous arrival. In the years since the death of Evelleen, Mothad had grown progressively weaker. At first, his affliction had seemed purely psychological. Following the funeral, the poor man had taken to his bed, displaying an utter apathy toward the crops in his field, the tobacco in his pipe or the cozy interior of his workshop. In fact, only his dear daughters were still able to roust him. Through Evolet’s urging, he could occasionally be compelled to take an evening walk or eat a bit of supper. And through the gay chatter of the two younger girls, his old, wiry smile would even occasionally reappear, a transformative event that seemed to ease his burdens and mollify his wounds.
But then Mothad began to decline physically. First, he exhibited a debilitating fatigue, followed quickly by a violent cough that left his bedsheets and shirt sleeves flecked with blood. Soon, he was perpetually ashen and chronically weak, throwing the family’s already precarious future into even more serious doubt.
Despite having her own grief to contend with, Mothad’s decline forced Evolet to look for ways to help the family eke out a living. She tried every type of vocation, acting as a charwoman for local estates, collecting nuts and berries to sell at market and even taking in an occasional load of washing and mending. All the while, she tried diligently to fill in for her father on their small plot of land, a responsibility that siphoned off what little energy she had left and further weakened her already damaged spirits. Opportunities for more lucrative work, however, repeatedly eluded her. In and around her odd jobs, Evolet did her best to find something more stable and sustaining. She asked several local businesses and artisans to consider taking her on as an apprentice, to see her as someone different than from who she was supposed to be, only to be met with haughty skepticism at best and open hostility at worst.
After the debacle at the forum, there were soon calls for a new election. Claw received unanimous support and was eventually appointed as the sole village magistrate. The news was received positively, even joyously in many corners, and this jubilation gradually brought the town and the valley to a standstill. Farmers threw down their scythes and abandoned quickly ripening crops. Tanners and tailors, weavers and blacksmiths put aside the tools of their trade. Nearly the entirety of the populace seemed elated at the tantalizing possibility of a new beginning. From across the valley, people then began to gather in order to raise a wooden goblet and toast the health of the new town magistrate.
While this was happening, Evolet was in the middle of a trip to the apothecary, hoping to procure proper medicinal herbs to help bring down Mothad’s latest burning fever. But as she tried to cut through the center of the village, she found herself lost within the swirling press of the communal celebrations. Looking around, she was shocked at the changes Claw’s election seemed to have initiated in the townsfolk’s character and candor. She spotted Orla Haven, the midwife of the valley’s high country, who was drinking what had to be easily her weight in merri mead and laughing uproariously. Then there was Abner Wallis, the chaste reverend of the valley’s eastern parish, who was grabbing and kissing Theodora Smolet with a hungry relish and reckless abandon.
Closer to the city center, the hedonistic fray began to intensify, with leering, lascivious figures congregating around the community’s main square. The night was muggy, the various bodies oppressive, yet just as Evolet was thinking about turning around, circumventing the insanity by alternate route, the crowd parted. Ahead of her, near the village’s ornate Fountain of Obsedian, sat Claw – who had the same bemused twinkle in his eye that had been present on that awful night at the forum. He was even bigger than he had been then, looming over the adjacent townsfolk. His beard, which had been scraggly and unkempt like a threadbare rug when he first arrived in the town, was now thick and luxurious, each follicle possessing its own dazzling sheen. Looking back and forth at the libertinism, Claw’s mouth slowly opened, revealing rows and rows of sharply pointed teeth that gave him the terrifying appearance of a native bazzar shark.
Evolet turned away from the main square in disgust, looking for a side street to take her away from Claw’s orbit. Then she heard a subtle crack behind her, a surprising, alarming sound that caused her to turn on the soft leather of her shoe’s heel and look around for the source of the noise.
“Looking for someone my poppet?” came a laughing voice to the left of her.
Evolet jumped at the question. Claw was standing next to her, having transported himself from his position near the fountain in seemingly the blink of an eye.
“What?” she croaked.
Claw snatched up her arm, pivoting on his robust staff while wheeling her forward with a grasp made of iron. They spun through the air, whipping across space as an unseen band began to play. Claw was half-dragging, half-leading Evolet around, his long, black cloak swirling and encircling them in its billowing depths.
“Do you like what I’ve done with your town?” Claw asked her, his mouth breaking into a frightful grin. Evolet felt the bottom go out of her stomach. Her knees also felt week, as if she would crumple to the floor at any second. Claw’s breath was horrible, smelling of something noxious and putrid.
“I don’t … don’t think anything about it,” Evolet finally managed to stutter after taking a deep breath.
“You see, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out about you. I was immediately drawn to this town poppet; and do you want to know what drew me in?”
Evolet felt cold, fatigued, lost – as if she was sinking beneath the icy waters of the Amazo Creek. She didn’t say anything – couldn’t say anything.
“Let me tell you poppet. It wasn’t because I heard of your fields of poppy or your pastoral farms. I felt a nasty yearning inside of you, found myself salivating over the chaos that yearning can bring. I knew I had to hunt for it, possess it and, once it was mine, never let it go.”
They were dancing faster now. Other denizens had also joined them, their bodies turning into brightly colored blurs of linen and leather, baubles and silk. The town had clearly put on their best for Claw’s election, beloved articles they had held onto despite the years of endless flooding and economic malaise. They were unconcerned with the violence of Claw’s dance, barely noticing Evolet at all and winding around the majestic fountain with a blissful, carefree ignorance.
Claw’s hand tightened around her wrist, causing a sharp flash of pain that almost made her cry out. But they kept dancing, and the band kept playing, its speed reaching a dizzying, unhinged rapidity.
“Let go of me,” Evolet finally hissed, her arm twisting in Claw’s grasp.
“But why poppet? But why?”
“You’re hurting me!”
“Oh but there is so much more to say poppet – so much more.”
Evolet now felt as though she might pass out. There was no way she could take much more of this. But then she thought of her father, as well as the two little girls who needed her desperately to return home. Somehow, this broke through the disorienting fray that had blitzed her mental faculties, obfuscating her thoughts and stymieing her aptitude for calculation. Remaining on her feet, she looked Claw dead in the eye.
“Then get on with it.”
Claw suddenly looked startled at the strength of her words – but only for a moment. He quickly regained his haughty sneer, and the toothy grin once again danced across his face, causing his thick mustache to jump up and out in response.
“I first felt Ulath Kai long ago, and it was exquisite. For years I searched for it across the Seven Realms of Cygnus. I scoured the Red Cliffs, only to be turned away by the dreamer. I trekked the dark halls of Orhan and even traversed the shores of Cravenmoor. And through it all, I found nothing; through it all, the hunger only grew. But right as I nearly gave up hope, I found it poppet. I found you! And it was better than I ever thought possible!”
Claw’s arm was now on the small of Evolet’s back, pressing her close while holding his waggling staff at the same time.
“You’re not well,” Evolet whispered, her throat tight.
“I’m more well than I have ever been poppet. And it’s all due to you, your people, everything you think and everything you believe.”
“Not just yet poppet; not just yet because you are unique. I so rarely get to meet anyone like you – so startlingly empty. I have to know why.”
Evolet twisted her restrained arm as hard as she could, while at the same time using her free hand to push roughly against Claw’s broad chest. His grip loosened slightly, giving her the opportunity to wrest herself fully out of his control. The sudden freedom of movement was too much for her, however, and she stumbled forward erratically before falling painfully to the ground.
The music cut off immediately, and their fellow dancers abruptly came to a stop. Everyone was now staring at Evolet and Claw – their faces impassive, their bodies static; nobody made a sound. In the almost thundering quiet of the square, the clatter of the Claw’s hardened staff as it fell from his hand and collided with the cobblestones was nearly deafening. Evolet looked at it, noticing how it appeared strangely smaller than before. Claw himself was largely expressionless; although his eyes shone with a contrasting mixture of amusement, delight and hostility. Evolet scooted backward from the man and picked herself up. Then she turned around and pushed her way through the crowd, leaving the square and finally the city center itself.
“It doesn’t matter!” came Claw’s voice behind her, causing her hair to stand on end. “I’ll find out!”
Claw’s tenure began by installing himself in the ruins of the Sumatara Monastery, a forgotten citadel built into the cliff-face that rose above the snowpack. The monastery was a place of deep historical importance for the Ulath Kaians, constructed initially as a backwater outpost when they had dwelt in the lands beyond. It had long been said that the Sumatra Monastery was also a place of magic and wonder, where was lost could be found and what was hidden could be seen. However, the monastery was additionally a totem of a past that was now foreign to them, removed and isolated due to their paralyzing fear of the forest. The decision to adopt it as his home ensured that Claw would receive total privacy from anyone seeking to inquire into his affairs.
And the potential for controversy and uproar is just what Claw appeared to be aiming for. In the weeks following his move into the monastery, Claw unleashed a blistering array of new laws and decrees, each destined, seemingly, to be as disruptive as possible. First, he abolished term limits, followed by the decision to raise tithes on some and lower them for other – all without rhyme or reason. He struck down barriers to the Ulath Kaian’s relationship with the natural world and obliterated all remaining vestiges of shared history that had provided commonality or community. The old gods of the valley, including the Oong Ha and the Spider Women, whose statutes and shrines had long ago become marred by weeds and ivy, were toppled and left to rot. Everywhere he went chaos and confusion seemed to reign supreme, as the community reeled and attempted to adjust to a stark internal and external instability.
But then something happened. Relations between Ultah Kai and Nadirian slowly and tenuously started up again, and families that had once been scrapping by were able to achieve a modicum of peace and serenity. The tensions within the town fell away, and the Ulath Kaians were able to again define what they were by what they were not. In the midst of this, Claw’s broad shoulders became hunched and thin – while his face became harder, wasted and infinitely more pallid. During one afternoon at the market, Evolet spotted him across the square and was struck by his dramatically changed appearance. He had become little more than a shadow of the robust and virile man who had presided over Ulath Kai for several months. His skin was waxy and discolored, his hair grey and falling out in patches. And his eyes were sunken deep into his skull, which somehow made them appear even more striking and malicious. The next day he was simply gone, his presence – or lack there of – leaving a gaping hole in the town forum but going largely unnoticed to the average Ulath Kaian.
But soon after the town’s children began to go missing, vanishing as if they had been sucked into the ground or carried off into the sky. Crispin Ferth disappeared one afternoon while walking back from the Ulath Kai farmhouse. And young Branwen Bronte was taken while playing with her friends in the shallows of the Eulace Stream. Each disappearance pushed the village further into a horrifying spiral of desperation, panic and paranoia, until friends and neighbors turned on each other and the community itself was roiled with fear, suspicion and unfettered violence.
Evolet herself was not immune from the dread that gripped her hamlet, but she was hardly in the position to mount anything resembling action or objection. Her father’s health – long precarious and fragile – was fading fast. He had never been able to get over the death of Evelleen. What he was had always been tied to her. And so, it was tragic although not surprising when Mothad got caught one night in a powerful rainstorm that he could have easily avoided, or that when he passed away a week later from debilitating pneumonia, his fear and sadness was mixed and mollified with a shade of undeniable relief.
For Evolet, the loss of her father so soon after her mother was nearly insurmountable. Loneliness gripped her, consumed her, threatened to obliterate her entirely. She fell into herself, and her connection with the world became one of deadened apathy. Life was going through the motions, a series of mechanized processes devoid of real emotion or investment.
But the girls still needed her. During the initial weeks following Mothad’s death, both Adora and Appoline were largely inconsolable and couldn’t stop crying. Their comprehension of the particulars was limited, but that didn’t stop them from knowing that the broad strokes of their lives had been upended. Evolet did what she could to fill the void, doting on them day and night, but nothing seemed to help – at least not for the two girls. For Evolet, however, their dependence on her provided cathartic albeit temporal relief. During the day, their needs kept her busy enough to not dwell on her own pain and emptiness, and it was only at night that she fell back into her own quagmire of mournful inertia.
Days went by, and the three sisters agonizingly began to become acclimated to their new circumstances. Although their collective suffering hadn’t gone away, the sharp pain that defined their lives was transforming into something else: a dull and heavy ache. Finally, one day Adora went an entire afternoon without crying. This was followed by one morning where Evolet found herself laughing at a funny memory, a moment of levity that was soon accompanied by a tidal wave of crashing guilt. Then that evening, Evolet was able to put both girls to bed in a relatively seamless fashion. They fell asleep quickly, and Evolet was able to once again stretch out in her own quarters after weeks of curling up next to them.
The next morning, the sisters decided to take a constitutional. They had yet to visit the graveyard since both their parents had been laid to rest, and Adora and Appoline had started pestering Evolet to take them. Shortly after breakfast, the trio set out, taking a longer route that circumvented the Ulath Kai village – which had become volatile and even dangerous. They packed a simple lunch of sweet oats, blackberry bread and goat cheese, settling in for their midday repast near the rapids of the Amazo Creek. When they finally reached the graveyard, Evolet was elated to see Adora and Appoline’s moods brighten. By all appearances, they seemed largely unaffected by the morbid nature of the place. Instead, they scurried about, chattering gaily and talking freely to their parents’ headstones.
After a time, the sun was dipping low in the west, turning the Jasman Mountains into blackened silhouettes whose peaks were outlined in a rosy glow. The long grasses and adakite stones constituting the meadows of the eastern valley were slowly becoming drenched in the dark purples and greys of the encroaching twilight. Pockets of the field were springing to light, the sapphiric illumination of native brush beetles pushing back ever-so-slightly against the long hand of night.
Watching all of this, Evolet felt a sickening chill take hold of her. They had stayed out too late, and would now have to traverse the fields in total darkness, a frightening prospect in a valley shaken by fear and anger.
“Time to go,” she called to the girls.
They had been playing leapfrog in the surrounding grasses and groaned at Evolet’s command.
“Can’t we stay a little while longer?”
“No, we need to get going. We’ve already stayed too long.”
The little band struck out again across the valley, their slight forms casting barely perceptible shadows onto a world being buried under layers of misty evening.
Despite the anxiety that gripped Evolet’s breast, the younger girls were unperturbed by a world that had fallen into darkness, running wildly ahead and weaving back and forth across the footpath that formed one of the main passageways through the valley’s tall grass fields.
Watching them, Evolet felt something stir in her chest, a lightness, as if a long-static burden was shifting – perhaps even beginning to fall away. The girls were getting stronger, recovering from the tragedy that had befallen all of them. Ahead of her, they were even breaking into song, the Ballad of Arendulma, which their parents had taught to each of them long ago. Evolet then realized she was crying; two silent stream of tears were trickling down her cheeks. They were going to be ok. The girls were getting happier. The girls were getting …
Her heart leapt to her throat. The girls had begun to outdistance her; the light, musical notes of their singing were fading into night. Evolet started running toward the source of their voices, but she only took a few strides before the nature of the sounds changed dramatically. A scream rang out, accompanied by the thrashing of long grasses being torn apart and trampled upon. Evolet wasn’t sure if it was Adora or Appoline who had screamed, but it didn’t matter. They were in trouble, and they were no longer alone.
Evolet sprinted forward, heart hammering, lungs burning. The thrashing was getting louder, and one of the girls cried out to her, a heart-wrenching call of pure vulnerability. Vaulting over a large boulder, Evolet crashed ahead, desperately hurling herself after the girls and their unseen assailant, which was leading her – closer and closer – to the edge of the forest.
Evolet’s leather boot then caught itself on one of the adakite stones, pitching her forward. She fell hard, her jaw snapping violently onto the soft membranes of her tongue. The abrasive and metallic taste of blood flooded into her mouth. Coughing and spitting, she wiped her mouth and hauled herself to her feet, forcing herself onward in pursuit of her sisters until she came at last to the edge of the forest. Above her, the trees reared up dark and threatening. But taking a deep breath, she plunged forward.
The forest swallowed her, and she blindly ran through it – branches and thorns tearing at her exposed arms, legs colliding painfully with myriad stumps and stones. After a few moments, her eyes began to adjust. Shapes emerged from the surrounding void, and she could see a way forward, a thin, mysterious path through the undergrowth and wild shrubbery that led deeper into the woods, past the Clearing of the Spiderwoman and into realms that she had only known in dreams.
Then an explosion ripped through her skull, a white, rocketing impact that sent a shockwave down her neck and peppered her vision with spots. She fell backwards, seeing the dark shape of a tree drift away in the opposite direction before she crashed to earth. Forehead throbbing, Evolet groaned and coughed, rolling to one side before slowly clawing her way back to her feet. Her vision was fuzzy and unfocused, causing the dark forms of the forest to be even more difficult to navigate. Walking forward, Evolet quickly noticed that she was swaying back and forth as if she had consumed several glasses of merri mead.
“Adora! Apolline!” she screamed, her voice pained and rasping. “Where are you?!”
The woods gave no answer, remaining almost supernaturally quiet. The only sounds came from her agonized breathing, the crackling of her footprints on the forest’s floor and the continuous rush of an unseen brook. The sound of the water flow was actually growing steadily louder; and, in her horror, she soon realized why. The ground was falling away beneath her leather boots, sloping sharply downward toward the babbling, lapping, coursing waters. She tried to catch her balance, but it was to no avail; she was powerless to prevent her body from sliding down the soft, wet earth that made up the hill’s decline.
In a whirlwind of earth, leaves and brambles, Evolet spiraled into the stream with a tremendous splash, sending waves and ripples in every direction. Gasping, she pulled her head out of the drink, with parts of her long, wet hair clinging to her face. She was now more disoriented than ever – not to mention chilled to the bone. She tried to gather herself, but heavy tears appeared at the corners of both chestnut eyes, eventually trickling forth and leaving salty trails down her cheeks.
After a minute of crying softly while still sitting in the stream, a new sensation took hold. Evolet recognized that the world around her was egregiously wrong, imbuing her with a rippling dread that she was losing her mind. The brook was reversing itself, its flow joined by liquefied filaments of siltstone that were splashing upwards through leafy crooks and root-encrusted bends. The whole flora of the woods was transforming, changing into something that harkened back far beyond the reach of Ulath Kai’s recorded history.
She saw a meadow, its perimeter flanked by dogwoods and boulders with surfaces of shining alabaster. The mountains above shrank, grew, morphed in front of her eyes. Deep gorges of razor-sharp stone, of granite precipices and natural steeples, came into being as if shaped by a gigantic potter’s wheel.
Animals were now emerging, corporeal forms so detailed she nearly cried out at their primitive beauty. Not all were the epitome of aesthetic splendor of course. She saw the blood red eyes of the charnel rats, the slippery pinchers of the iron crabs. The leathery wings of molta bats soared over her head, while across the grass, the fangs of the repilehiem could be faintly seen emerging from the thick underbrush.
But then these prehistoric visions merged with another site, becoming, at least temporarily, intertwined in a state of chaotic delirium. Evolet was now in a small, wooden homestead nestled amidst several towering trees. Outside the window, she could see a thin wisp of smoke was creeping down from the roof, and adjacent to the homestead, a tiny patch of earth had been converted into a garden, with the beginnings of yam plants popping up above the rich, brown soil.
The door of the homestead flew open and an older woman of approximately 50 years of age appeared in the doorway. Her long, lightly greying hair fell across her muscular upper back. She busied herself around the homestead’s interior – needing no one, deferring to no one, defining her own world and her place in it. In watching her, Evolet felt a twinge of familiarity followed by a pang in her heart – a deep yearning for something lost which could never be truly recovered. And then for a second, the homestead’s owner stopped, as if she could sense a presence in the small space that was both familiar yet foreign.
Evolet’s head rolled forward; everything was cold and everything hurt. She had somehow come to the other side of the forest, a landscape of much sparser foliage and dusted with snow. The mountainside ahead of her was frigid and lifeless, with blowing snow being the only source of movement.
Not knowing why, she struck out blindly toward the western peaks, her legs quickly becoming mired in drifts of snow. She had no idea what was compelling her westward, but it felt right, it felt clear. In seconds, her teeth began to chatter. Her body also started shivering, rocked by violent, involuntary spasms. Her thoughts were slowing to a snail’s pace, and her ability to properly discern her surroundings was quickly becoming compromised. Each foot she walked felt like a mile, and each mile felt as if it would be the last one she would ever walk.
But just as she thought she could go no further, the Staircase of Taran appeared before her, its glistening, icy steps beckoning her to tempt the hands of fate. The staircase had long been a piece of her community’s lore, an incredible feat of engineering that she had only encountered before in moldy books. It was written that the staircase wound further up the mountain, and that it had originally been erected to give her ancestors a straight shot to the structure embedded in its vertical limit.
Evolet bristled despite of herself. She now knew where she was heading. The Sumatra Monastery was said to be that very structure embedded in the mountain’s peak. Just like before, Evolet couldn’t understand or explain what drove her onward; she just knew that the girls, her sisters, had been taken there and that Claw would undoubtedly be with them.
Trudging forward, she took the staircase slowly, one step at a time, her feet sliding continuously, threatening to send her flying toward certain doom. Several agonizing, heart-pounding minutes later, she reached the staircase’s end and promptly crashed to the snowy ground. She didn’t know how long she lay there, but after some time, her strength returned, and she slowly clawed her way back to her feet. The entrance to the monastery jutted into the sky. Built directly into the cliff-face, it was a fearsome looking structure. Its heavy stone façade angled upward until it met the heavy beams that composed its roof. These beams arched outward into thin air, eventually bending downward in a way that gave them the ugly appearance of teeth.
Evolet reached for the heavy wooden doors of the monastery and pushed them open, spilling into the entryway in the process. Inside, the monastery was dilapidated, dank, even crumbling in sections. Flaming oil lamps hung from rusty chains attached to the ceilings, throwing thin and pale shadows across the ancient, cracked stones of the monastery’s tall ceilings. Evolet shivered violently despite the fact that she was now out of the worst of the cold, her arms instinctively wrapping themselves around her body. “Adora!?” she screamed, her ragged voice reverberating across the empty hall. “Appoline!?” Pausing, she plucked up her courage before yelling out once more. “Claw!”
The monastery remained largely silent, although a faint version of her own voice returned to her as it echoed through the passageways that branched off from the central foyer. But then something else joined in with this echo: the ghastly sound of unearthly laughter floated toward her, assailing her from all sides as if it was streaming out of the structure’s heavy stone walls.
“Claw!” she yelled again, her voice fearful yet surprisingly unwavering.
“Over here,” came his voice, so close and clear that he might as well have been standing directly to her right side.
She whirled to meet the direction of the voice, every hair follicle on her neck standing on end.
But there was no one nearby. Instead, Evolet could now see a small passageway that led downward. She started descending along its path, and after only a few strides along its interior, she could notice a precipitous drop in temperature, not to mention how the artfully shaped stone of the passage was giving way to natural walls of jagged igneous. She was leaving behind all remaining vestiges of the valley, of the community, traversing into an unknown sphere that had not seen an Ulath Kaian in millennia.
The passageway leveled out, opening into a cavernous and subterranean chamber. Looming ominously above her head were hundreds of dripping stalactites. And ahead of her, there were the barely perceptible waters of an underground lake. Its depth was unknowable; its circumference flanked by boulders of every size and shape. And on its opposite side, lit by the weak illumination of a single torch, stood Claw.
Or at least she thought it was him. Claw’s appearance had dramatically changed. His chest had thickened. His shoulders had become broader. The color had returned to his cheeks, and his hair had once again become thick and long, carrying an observable sheen even across such a wide berth. However, the man was now larger than Evolet had ever seen him, his body jutting upward, muscles bulging underneath his clothing. He looked ten years younger, his body exponentially healthier. But it was his grin that truly transfixed Evolet. His mouth ripped across his face, spreading itself from ear-to-ear, pinching the skin, transforming his countenance into the personification of ghoulish glee.
“Welcome my poppet,” Claw said slowly, laconically, spreading his arms out as if he was welcoming Evolet into a luxurious sitting room.
Evolet walked around the lake, scrambling over boulders while never taking her eye of Claw. As she got closer, the single light illuminating Claw gradually revealed more of his immediate surroundings, exposing myriad village children laying on the cold and unforgiving cavern floor – each one of them apparently sound asleep.
When she reached the opposite side of the water, Evolet came to a stop. The edge of the lake was now directly behind her. Despite some lingering fear in her breast, she turned and faced Claw directly. Whatever happened next was up to him; that much she knew. She had the weight of an entire history behind her, unmarred by the contemporary concepts, affirmed by the simple truth of the forest.
“What have you done to them?” she said finally.
“What anyone had ever done to them,” came the man’s response at a volume that was little more than a whisper. “They’re asleep, dreaming of little lives to come. And when they awake, the feeding will begin.”
“Give them back.”
“But why poppet? But why?”
“I need to take them home. Please Claw, they’re cold.”
“Oh but poppet, they belong here. And so do you.”
The man and woman stared at each other, neither one breaking their gaze. The atmosphere inside the cavern was thick and oppressive; and there was no sound, none at all aside from the gentle lapping of the lake and the breathing of the young woman.
But then Claw’s eyes flicked an inch to the left, past Evolet and into the dark waters that lay directly behind her. His look, which up until this point had maintained a consistent, mocking glow, crumbled. His virile, robust features were now slick and ashen, like wax or clay rather than flesh or blood. His breathing – which had been just a moment ago nearly imperceptible – was now violent, escaping his chest in short, harsh bursts.
“How?” he finally murmured; his voice barely able to escape the clutches of his throat.
Claw rushed forward, his long, powerful legs closing the distance between himself and Evolet in a matter of seconds. Terror reared inside of Evolet like a blast furnace, enlivening her senses and compelling her to action. She dove to the right, avoiding Claw’s bulk as the gigantic man tore past her and crashed into the shallow waters, blotting out where her reflection had been faintly visible. Evolet spun on her heel, desperate to keep Claw in her line of vision in case he attempted to spring at her once again. But she quickly saw that such fear was unwarranted, as Claw was occupied with apparently far more urgent matters.
Claw was viciously batting at the black waters. Grunting and groaning, he pawed about the shallows with animalistic fervor. Then he stopped. The water that had been aggressively churning about slowly calmed. But the expected reflection of Claw failed to materialize. Instead of where his head and torso should have been, the lake simply reflected the cavern’s ceiling. Squinting her eyes, Evolet could even see some of the jagged stalactites glistening in the darkness above.
A whimper from the lake drew Evolet’s gaze away from the ceiling. She was astonished to see that Claw was not only still crouched in the water but that his body was literally transforming before her eyes. He was shriveling and shrinking, and the groaning in the depths of his throat was growing louder, sadder, before eventually erupting into a scream of agonized rage.
The howls filled the cavern, racing up the passageway from which Evolet had come and eventually bursting through the windows, doors and walls of the Sumatra Monestary. Evolet covered her ears in a utterly vain attempt to block out the horrifying sound and lowered her head to shield herself from the awful sight of Claw’s contorted features. The screaming didn’t let up; instead, it echoed across the stone walls, shaking loose dust from the cavern’s ceiling. Claw’s body was withering into something resembling a pruning mummy, decreasing both in height and girth by the second.
This was followed by a crumbling sound from above Evolet’s head. Centuries old stone and rock had been shaken loose and were falling heavily to the floor only a slight distance away from Evolet. She cried out alarm, a wild, panicky exclamation of pure terror. Boulders as large as Evolet’s entire frame continued to fall, and in desperation, she ran away from the lake toward the sleeping children, animated by the foolish hope that she might shield one or two from being crushed underneath the stony debris that was raining down around them.
Finally, the cave-in stopped, and almost on cue, so did the echoing remnants of Claw’s shattering scream. Evolet lay on the cold floor of the cavern, hacking and coughing as wave after wave of dust floated up from mountains of dislodged rock and stone. She looked up from the floor, wiping tears from her eyes and spidery strands of mucus from her mouth. Claw was thankfully gone, but the entrance to the passageway that had brought her to the cavern had collapsed upon itself, rendering escape from the darkness seemingly impossible.
Tears leapt to the corner of her eyes, and she let them fall. But then a rustling broke through her sobs. Several of the children had stirred, getting hazily to their feet and stumbling about on the cavern’s unsteady floor. It wasn’t long until some of them began breaking down, especially as disorientation abated and fear set in. Evolet ran toward them, embracing each new child. She tried to calm them, uttering soothing words while brushing dust and soot from their hair and clothes. All the while, though, she felt her own panic spring to life, as Adora and Apolline were nowhere in sight. For each young child who toddled into view, her agitation grew. Painful throbbing was afflicting her temples, obscuring her vision and accentuating the tightness in her chest.
Then there was release; then there was elation. Adora and Appoline walked unsteadily out of the darkness, their clothing torn, their faces, arms and feet caked with grime from the cave. Once they laid eyes on Evolet, however, the two girls snapped back into their old selves. Shrieks of joy were followed by the two young girls throwing themselves into the arms of their older sister, who clasped them tightly to her, never wanting to again let go. Evolet didn’t know how long she remained ensconced in the euphoria of being reunited with her sisters, but finally potent dread broke through. They were trapped, buried within the depths of a mountain with no help of deliverance. Everyone that Evolet had ever known was miles away and hundreds of feet below them, unaware of their plight and unwilling or incapable of coming to their aid.
The torch that had been behind Claw was still hanging from the wall, and Evolet snatched it up. Walking about in the cavern, Evolet looked for some method of escape, some crack or crevice that they might pass through – but there was nothing to be found. Hot panic gripped her, and her legs threatened to buckle underneath her weight. With a groan, she slumped the floor – a movement that the children noticed immediately. They clustered around her, asking what they were going to do. Taking a moment to compose herself, Evolet raised her head, smiling at the group with the vain hope of shoring up their courage. Once the little group appeared calmer, Evolet looked past them, examining the cave in its full totality.
She was struck by the cavern’s harsh beauty – its brutal splendor. But perhaps even more impressive were the paintings slathered across the cave’s facades. This crude yet beautiful artistry depicted ancient ceremony, primordial pageantry, long lost Ulath Kaians and the mountains that they had once explored and inhabited before making their way into the valley.
Or at least she thought they did.
Upon closer inspection, Evolet could see that, unlike the stories, the angelic innocence and communal serenity that had supposedly defined those earlier epochs was hardly a focal point of the artwork. Where she expected to see peace, there was war. And where she had hoped to see a unified community, she saw depictions of hierarchy and division. Standing up, Evolet walked around the circumference of the cavern, and she was struck by the cyclical nature of it all, the stubborn unwillingness or incapability to change – even as eons passed and generations lived and died.
And then the cave began to shake once more, culminating with a cascading avalanche of rock that unearthed a crevice in the wall opposite of the one Evolet had originally come through. It was just large enough for Evolet and the children to traverse, and she moved her small group forward with little urging, passing through towering walls of stone. No one knew how long they walked, but they supported each other, the older children encouraging the younger and Evolet at the head with her single torch held aloft. Hundreds of feet above them near the entrance to the monastery, a long dead pit, which had once served as a signal fire for a burgeoning society, roared to life once more, even as a withered and pained shadow slipped past it and fell into the swirling and snowy landscape below.
At that exact moment, Evolet’s procession finally emerged out of the mountains. They had come out onto a grassy hillside that gently dropped away into cool-looking thickets nestled under a canopy of emerald. They walked on, passing by the Bejeweled Shores of the Amberdeen and skirting the perimeter of the Tillacuta farmlands. Evolet had no clear direction in mind. But she did not fear for herself or for her young charges, trusting that the land would provide. And they found sufficient repasts wherever they wandered, drinking from the sweet waters of the Malathi River and plucking akka berries and kalamath nuts in each valley they crossed and each grove they explored. At night, they slept out under the stars, watching meteorites dart past the shoulder of Orion and arch across the entirety of the Ursa Major. And before each child drifted off to sleep, Evolet would regale them with the same stories her mother had once told her, sweeping tales that conveyed the epic context of their shared history.
“What about Ulath Kai miss? We don’t have a home anymore?” said a young child at one point.
Evolet looked down at the boy’s cherub-like face and matted hair. Then her eyes flicked upward. Despite the distance they had already covered, she could still just faintly make out a wispy and thin plume of smoke coming from the valley of Ulath Kai.
“Maybe not right now. And maybe not for a while yet. But we will always have each other.”
And so it was that the little band moved further and further away from the world they had once known. The valley of Ulath Kai receded and finally disappeared into the distance. The world had changed, this much they knew; and there was no going back.
Evolet felt that the world inside of her had also changed, and she embraced it, relished it, leaned into the freedom it provided. Her hair came down and began to resemble the shock it once had. Her simple frock also grew progressively more colorful, as she quickly found fronds and flowers to add to the utilitarian canvas. And as they continued to walk through one wondrous landscape after the next, latent anxiety fell away, replaced by a raw sense of awe about the life that was unfurling before them – a life that was bigger, wilder and more meaningful then they had ever dreamed possible.