The day was bright and young, Kaia and Rasmus Kondori’s morning a pleasant greeting as the siblings shambled across the hillside like they’d risen from graves. Despite the sun bearing down on them, Kaia cinched her oversized coat to her neck. Their blonde heads bobbled in a sea of brown and dying green, the wild forests along the road starting to turn and burn at the end of a hot summer. Kaia dragged her poorly fitted boots, her knees and skirt hem covered in mud. Her brother wasn’t much better off, but his leather coat kept scratches and tears at bay.
“What? You cold?” Rasmus asked without compassion, face red as he trudged up the steep slope.
“I hear something.”
“Yeah, it’s the sound of all our chances of finding the bastard being swept away in the wind.”
“This may seem weird, but I think he’s close.”
Rasmus gave her a sharp look. Kaia’s pupils had glossed over, the girl squinting unfocused into the distance. With a glance towards where her gaze went, Rasmus spied the figure in the middle of the dirt road. His heart jumped, and for a moment, he might have believed her before he got a second look.
The old woman’s face was shaped like a bulldog’s; just as beige with hundreds of folds giving weight. But a flighty touch of the arms detracted from the solidity of a hound. Her black hair hung down in clumps, long beakish nose minimalizing her beady eyes.
She wasn’t moving, a scarecrow in the middle of a weed-wrecked road. And even though the direction of her sunken eyes wasn’t viewable from the distance, Kaia could feel her gaze on them, unwavering.
“Rasmus, whatever she says to you, don’t fall for it. We have to keep the prize in mind. We haven’t seen signs of him for days, but I think he’s nearby. I can feel him.”
He scowled, step steady. “I’m not an idiot.”
But his focus was now on the poor old woman, unwavering. Kaia bit her lip. “How much food do we have?”
“Don’t lie, Kaia.”
“Liars never prosper.”
“That’s cheaters,” he said.
“We’re that too.”
“Oh, my back,” the old lady said.
Rasmus sent his sister a glance. She just held up her brows.
When they reached the woman’s place in the road, she rotated with them, full body focused on the travelers. Kaia nodded pleasantly, skirting by. Rasmus’s face was slack, his lips emotionless as he scanned her for signs of fraud.
“Ack, my broke knees,” the woman said.
He gave her a gentle smile. The siblings had almost escaped, Kaia a full stride ahead of her brother, when the hag’s hand whipped out like a snake and caught Rasmus’s shirt.
“Ah! Sir! A courtesy!”
He scrambled for words, mind feverously trying to grasp the truth of the situation, but all he could muster was, “Kaia, stop.”
His sister’s arms stiffened before she whirled back around. The old hag’s cold hand caressed Rasmus’s shoulders appreciatively.
“Oh, my fledgling, you look so strong. So thick. A favor, if you’d like?”
He inwardly shuddered, pain running the course of his body. He forced a toothy smile.
“Ooooo, I’ve walked so long on totter legs… and I’ve carried much bulk with this lanky back. I’m scared I can’t get home if I carry much past. Could you just walk a track? The path home is shocking, filled with sticks and bramble. I’m scared I might fall and hurt. I might be too weak.”
“Ah-ha,” Kaia said, giving a poor attempt at a real laugh. “Well, not that we wouldn’t love to help you, but we have things to do, places to see, and just can’t—”
“Kaia, we can take a minute.”
“Didn’t Father ever tell you not to trust strangers?” She smiled pleasantly at the hag. “No offense.”
The older woman pulled herself tall, looking like an overgrown tree in her green rag of a dress.
“What is your problem?” Rasmus hissed.
Kaia grabbed him by the arm, yanking him only a few steps away to whisper, “Rasmus, there is an old hag on the outskirts of the Wyrd who is afraid of being too ‘weak and frail’ to walk through some bushes? Think man!”
“Don’t be a dick. You see imps where there’s children. And besides, what’s the worse she can do?”
“Rasmus, we have a demon to look after.”
“He can wait.”
“Can he? We’ve lost his trail!”
Rasmus said nothing, marching towards the woman whose glance pointed anywhere but them.
“Rasmus, we have to get him before the Vampire Hunters do. If we don’t—”
He spun, thrusting his arms out wide. “If we don’t, what? We don’t have to fight a legendary monster between the two of us?”
“Rasmus, it is our mistake—”
“Yours, technically,” he said, thrusting out a finger. “You made this mess. And I have no idea how you’re planning on fixing it. It’s up to me, isn’t it? Considering how good you are in a fight. I have no idea what I’m planning to do, and you’re obviously going to run at the first sign of trouble. So, I’m sorry if you feel like I’m not in a rush.”
Kaia’s mouth opened, but no words came out.
Rasmus turned back to the old woman. “I’m sorry. My sister is just cautious.”
“The Wyrd is not a good place for some folk,” she mused quietly.
Kaia’s head snapped to her.
“We might say the same for you,” Rasmus replied, quickly. “What’s a lone person doing out on her own?”
“I existed my entire cycle here and I can’t stop now. It’s the young ones who ought to watch.”
Kaia balled up like a cat. The woman cackled at her.
Rasmus put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “We’re just suspicious. Bad experiences and all.”
“We’ve met your type before, lady,” Kaia said. “You want to tell me you’re human?”
. Stop it.”
“You stop! We have no time for this. Don’t you feel it? He’s watching us. Leave the old bag and let’s move before he bolts!”
His temper snapped. “Why would he be in these woods, Kaia? He’s long gone. I thought that the second we set out. He’s too quick and too smart to let assholes like us catch him.”
“I’m telling you, he’s here, and she is weird!”
His jaw dropped with a hysterical cough. “Don’t stand there and insult her. What is wrong with you? You were dumb enough to be charmed by him, and then you’re going to what? Give him a nice big kick? You feel a chill. You’re probably sick from all this travel and rationing. Just say here. I’ll be back.” He held out a hand to the woman.
“Rasmus, I know what I’m doing! I’ve seen some things. You may not believe me because you rather follow a formulaic moral code, but I have a better chance than you. I’m
safer than most. Because I’m
know what’s out there; I’ve
seen it. And I know better than to trust some creepy old lady enticing travelers to her home.”
“Kaia,” Rasmus snarled. “Enough.”
He shoulders rolled back in exasperation. “We’ve made this mistake before!”
The old woman’s eyes sparkled. Rasmus didn’t turn around.
Kaia shook her head, teeth grit. “People like to believe that every context is different, that things don’t repeat, that clichés will ultimately die out, and that the same error is never made twice. In reality? It is the rare person who learns from his mistake and reaches true enlightenment, but he can’t show anyone else the way because they can’t comprehend it.”
The woman eyed her levelly, the age in her movement just about gone. “Are you one of the few, dearie?”
Kaia scowled. “Am I one of the few?”
The woman’s lips tightened into a smirk as she hopped away.
“Am I one of the few?” Kaia said louder. “Well, let’s think about that.”
She followed the woman, hot on her heels.
“Biggest mistake of my childhood.” Kaia began, voice measured but harsh. “My father would take me along with his bargains. People didn’t trust him. They could smell the dishonesty on him as a salesman, but as a father? Nah. People depend on their sight and gut to warn them, and sometimes that’s your worst enemy, but sometimes it’s your best friend.”
Rasmus scowled at his sister, holding himself back.
“Visual cues: The middle of the dark night. The distant flames of a circle. People with masks. ‘Don’t worry,’ my father told me. ‘These are friends.’ But who is stupid enough to think that a large group of mask-wearing men are good guys? No one: Visual cues.” She pointed at her eyes and then the woman’s. “They talked shop. Same old same old. I noticed a bag, wriggling in the corner. It was a pig.”
Rasmus shook his head, gaze locked on his sister.
Kaia shrugged. “They were going to sacrifice him. That was obvious, even to an eight-year-old. And how did I know? Masked, cloaked men. Circle in the ground. Night time. Obviously. Visual cues
“I snatched the bag, ran as fast as my chubby short legs could carry me. The piglet kicked and squealed, and someone dive bombed me through a bush. The pig went flying, tearing himself backwards from the bag and running into the night. The man on top of me slapped me hard. Then again. Then once more for good measure before my father stopped him.”
No one moved. Kaia’s chest puffed out in encouragement, saying loudly, “I risked my life to save someone else. And you know what I did last week? I found an imprisoned demon threatened with death and decided to release him, damn the consequences. I did the same stupid thing. And now, here I am, in a huge moral crisis. Do I take a chance helping some stranger and risk pride, ego, and my safety? Or do I tell her to go to hell?”
The old woman didn’t even look back. Kaia shrugged. “So, in answer to your question, no. No, I do not think I am one of those people.”
She stormed off into the forest, kicking bushes and thrusting branches out of her way. Rasmus’s feet remained planted as she disappeared into the dark.
“Come on,” he said. “Let me help you get home.”
At first, Kaia had no discernable goal. Away
was all she wanted. But the difficulty of the path and the sudden darkness from the brittle canopy above slowed her step. The wind brushed the nape of her neck again, and when she pulled up her collar, the chills trickled down her shoulders like hands.
There was a moan.
Her back stiffened at the sound, but she forced herself to stay in stride.
Something was wrong. Something was deadly wrong. She shouldn’t have left her brother with that thing. She turned back for the road.
But didn’t you feel vindicated?
Rasmus had asked her so many nights ago when the piglet escaped.
No, she did not feel glad that she was right and failed to prevent it. She didn’t want to be right, she wanted to be safe! She wanted to have the power to save something!
“Why the hell don’t you ever listen to me?!” she said for no one to hear.
She seized the lose strands of her ponytail, knuckles white in frustration. Kaia struggled to calm herself. It would be okay. She could do this. What had the woman said? “I’m terrified I might fall and hurt myself. I’m afraid I might be too physically weak.”
Father had said people show you their true selves in the first few minutes. Kaia always avoided a fist fight, knowing she would lose. But the hag was just as afraid as she was.
“I’m going to kick her ass. I’m strong,” she assured herself. “Magic or no.”
As she raised her head once again, a freezing wind ran through her hair. She peered over her shoulder, wide-eyed, and saw a pale hand emerging from the black.
Rasmus’s heart echoed his sister’s words with a loud thudding. The small, rail-thin woman looked harmless enough, but that was what unnerved him most. Out here, so far from humanity, Kaia was right; it was suspicious for an old woman to be on her own.
He followed her without a word, catching her a few times as she stumbled. She smiled at him gratefully before continuing on, determined as ever.
“I’m sorry,” she told him after the last fall, “to put you into this wreck. I’m not detracting you from your prey?”
“It’s fine,” Rasmus assured her. “We have lost his trail anyway.”
“What are you after?”
His skin prickled, but he said, “A demon.”
She laughed abruptly, a bark that turned to a cackle. The vegetation cleared, and a stone peak came into sight. They were already in the mountains, wandering on rolling hills, but this was were the range really started to crown.
“Well, he claims he’s a demon. And he is dangerous. Is your house far?”
“Not a house. It’s a little hidey hole, creaky crevice. We can see it here, if you know where. Will your sister be back?”
“I…” This stumped him. “I’m not sure. She tends to be stubborn, so I’ll probably have to go get her. I’m sorry she talked to you that way.”
“That’s alright,” she cackled. “She was right, you know.”
He was lost to the world, didn’t even realize how much time had passed before he turned back around to speak and something heavy cracked across his skull.
The old hag heaved the body into the corner, the man’s blonde head falling limply like a ragdoll, his legs upstretched against the wall. He didn’t seem to be waking, and a tiny trail of blood leading from the mouth of the cave suggested she may have hit him harder than she thought. But you need a good arm to kill a man.
The cave was fairly open, letting in a blast of sunlight onto the shimmering trinkets. Lopsided shelves lined the curved wall to the entrance’s right where a thousand dissimilar objects each had their own special place. A nest of clothes tied together into a bed in the back, looking like a color-loving bird or rat had crammed in anything that it found. Beside it lay three dry human skulls.
He’d moaned once, so she knew she hadn’t done the trick, however she had bigger concerns.
The man moaned again, the sound of his clothes rustling loud in the silent cave. The old woman flicked a glance along the multitudes of shelves, filled with shiny items of the dead past. A glance landed on something she’d long thought useless. She cackled to herself at her own foolishness, but before she could turn away, her heart’s beating convinced her to seize the golden locket and stuff it into the tangles of her shirt. She spun back towards him, her head moving before her long legs, as she landed a beady pupil on her prey.
“I’d stay down if I were you.”
“I should’ve known,” Rasmus said, wiping blood from his mouth. “I trusted you!”
“No, you didn’t. You just thought a big man had no worries from a little woman.” The hoarseness in her voice had heightened as if the beating had drained her of water.
“You a witch?” he glowered, struggling to get his strength in his arms.
“Ew,” she said.
“You gonna eat me?”
She held up her chin proudly. “I’m a scavenger.”
Rasmus rose to his feet, wobbling. He squeezed the handle in his belt, teeth grit. “Where’s my sister?”
The woman blinked, one side then the other. She shrugged. “Probably left you to die. Spiteful.”
All he needed to know. The dagger flung from his belt, Rasmus releasing a loud, grunting battle-cry. The hag flurried back, her black hair sprawled out in front of her, her green rags a burst of strands. He couldn’t see where they stopped and her skin began. Locks and dress flew when a gust of air whipped across his cheeks. Her arms flustered like wings—they were
wings—flapping chaos sending torrents against him. He knocked backwards, and the feathers molded back into the pieces of her hair and clothes. The woman fled.
Rasmus lunged, disregarding balance or aim. A wing shot a blast of wind into his mouth and he tumbled backwards. Claws ripped at his skin, his cheeks, his eyes, and he threw his hands up onto his face. Hot blood gushed from the stinging slashes.
“Stop!” boomed a voice.
The world went quiet. Rasmus opened his eyes to see the hag standing far across the dirt floor, peering over her shoulder at the figure who’d entered.
Kaia was ringed by the light of the doorway, her shoulders arched, her arms long and in fists. She stood like a cat ready to fight, anger flaring behind her irises.
“Since when can ravens take human form?” Kaia demanded.
The woman bristled, her hair fluffing up around her neck. “Since my mistress foolishly left a potion out. Her death bid me my freedom.”
Kaia nodded. She lunged.
The old hag cried out in a “Ca-caw!” flinging herself back as her arms lengthened into two giant wings, her legs curling, sharpening, while Kaia dove right in the fray, without weapon, without plan.
One claw whipped across her nose, spinning her onto the ground in one fell swoop. Kaia crashed, palms outstretched, stunned. She snarled, turning her head back towards her opponent.
“I’m not afraid of you!” the hag croaked, her face pointed and body compact. She hopped on one claw, arms shivering back in place.
Kaia stood. Rasmus got up behind her. “You don’t like those who underestimate you because you have the tendency to underestimate yourself. So, you resort to tricks. But I’m onto you.”
The bird hopped on her other foot. “Come at me, tiny human.”
Kaia didn’t. She rotated her body towards the hag, expression dead. The wind of the bird’s flapping had torn strands of hair lose, and a gust picked up from behind her. Rasmus pushed himself to his feet, ready to help, when he noticed something strange about his sister; her face was pale, the snarling teeth a contrast to the loose apathy in her eyes. She raised her arms, and just for a moment, she seemed to float.
“I don’t have time for this,” she said, her voice peculiar, deep. “I have other games to play.”
And Kaia, small, cowardly Kaia, shot forward with the speed of a rattlesnake. Rasmus couldn’t see what happened next, Kaia’s form swallowed by the wings of the creature. The black ball scratched and flurried. For just a moment, Rasmus got a good look at Kaia, fist raised, teeth clenched, fury in her face. A cry. A loud, thunderous crack shook the walls. The glittering trinkets rained down, glass falling from a lopsided table. Both women cried out and split. They tumbled into opposite corners. Rasmus jumped to his feet, ready to help his sister, when the girl bounced across the floor like a sack of grain. Her body spiraled then crashed, limp against the round back of the cave. Rasmus spun, ready to defend, when he saw the old woman in a pile of feathers and hair.
Neither of them moved. Rasmus couldn’t figure who to go to.
Slowly, the old woman’s hump rose on the edge of the cave, feathers molding back into her like a rising pile of ooze. Rasmus braced, but the creature did not stand. Instead he heard just the tiniest of sounds, a sob.
“My trinkets!” she cried. He froze in horror as she swept over the scattered pieces.
As Rasmus reached his sister, his panic withheld information, only seeing her small body lying limp, the blood of the scratch smeared across her face, her eyes closed. He grabbed his sister by the face.
“Kaia,” he said, aggressive in his fear. “Kaia…”
A loud gasp and she flew up straight.
Her round eyes peered as almond slits, pupils shrunk. Her mouth opened into a blood lusting grin. Her lips cracked at the edges, little red lines threatening to split her mouth.
“Kaia!” he breathed.
She held out a hand. Something—long before the heat of her palm reached him—pressed up against him, an invisible gel which compressed and turned hard before it exploded.;
Rasmus rocketed. His shoulder blades slammed into the cavern wall, trinkets showering down next to him. His head crashed backwards, and a horrible cracking came, followed by a hot numbness in his nose. He slid, the rock scraping through his leather coat, until he collapsed, stunned.
Kaia stood over the woman, floating, hair curling around her.
“Hurt my brother?” The voice was not hers.
He stumbled to his feet. Dizziness overwhelmed him, and he swayed. Something hot blinded him on one side. He touched his forehead, fingers drawing back with blood.
“Kaia!” he shouted again. “Stop it! It’s over. Can’t you see her?”
The bird-woman peered back with hateful tears on her cheeks, waiting. Rasmus rushed forward. “Kaia, stop.”
But he misgauged the ground. His knee buckled. He plummeted, landing hard on the rocky floor. Kaia gasped.
Her face softened, the rush of red in her cheeks disappearing. She ran to him, her steps silent on tiptoes despite the sloshing of her boots. When she collided, crashing a little too hard into an embrace, he felt it. The second they touched, the coldness peel from her. A strange sucking sound came before something blurred in his vision. He looked up over his sister’s hair to see the thing leave her body with a hard swoop. The molded air flew through the open space, shooting out the door, but as Rasmus stood in shock, his sister was unfazed.
“Rasmus! I’m so sorry. What happened?”
He blinked back understanding. “I’m okay,” he said, though his vision was bending. “I’ll be fine.”
Kaia peered into his soul, trying to understand. She pushed back her hair, face sprinkled with sweat.
“I can’t believe I did that,” she said. “I’ve never felt that kind of adrenaline before.”
“Did you see me?”
“I…” he struggled for words, “don’t think that was adrenaline.”
She turned to him, expression innocent.
“Kaia… You were right. I don’t think the demon has been running from us.”
Rasmus’s heart pounded rapidly in his chest. He pushed himself onto his feet, skin crying out as the scratches moved. He went towards his sister, but she had grown engrossed with the woman on the floor, sobbing.
“You broke my trinkets!” the hag cried. “They’re all I had!”
Kaia parted her hands, trying to catch her breath and her words.
“You tried to eat my brother!” she managed.
“Get out. Get out! Get’ot!” her voice became a cawing sound, her shoulders heaving. Kaia just held up her hands in a mock surrounded and slowly crossed her legs out the door.
“Rasmus,” she whispered. “I’m going to agree with you on this one. She’s pretty unfortunate. Let’s just go.”
She moved, but he grasped her wrist, peering down at the sobbing woman. Her hand was outstretched.
“Rasmus, don’t,” Kaia pleaded.
He stepped towards her, cautiously.
“Take it and get,” the woman said.
Kaia moved forward, ready to defend him from the talons. But the hag dropped a shining gold locket into his hand. He looked at it once, then nodded at her, grim mouthed. Blood trickling down his face, he turned to his sister and seized her hand. They ran out the door.
“Get that thing gone!” the hag shouted after them.
They burst into the outside air, a cool breeze on their sweat-wrecked faces. Rasmus hesitated, wobbling as he exited. Kaia waited, holding him in place.
“What is it?” Kaia asked. “What did she give you?”
He didn’t move to take it from his pocket. Instead, he pushed himself back up, head high, and searched for the road. “A medallion,” he said, tight-lipped. “With the symbol of Hell’s Lock on it.”
A cloud went in front of the sun, covering them in shadow.
All rights reserved. ©2018 Charley Daveler.