The wind battered him with the heavy rain and mud kicked up in the storm. With every passing moment the ground grew softer and more hazardous. He fought viciously against the sinking desert sand, clawing desperately for purchase as it dragged him ever deeper.
Blinded by impenetrable sheets of rain, and deafened by incessant thunder, he struggled with all his strength to survive an onslaught powerful enough to subdue a god.
“Irikhart!” he shouted, but not even he could hear his voice against the storm.
Weakening, he felt the desert begin in earnest to drag him beneath the volatile sands, a futile battle already lost. His strength failed with his surrender, and the mud swallowed him, his face passing beneath the surface as he held onto his last breath.
It felt as if he was floating, sailing through the heavens on a home-made concoction of herbs. He gazed up at the stars, restlessly wandering through the skies. He saw one in particular that stood out, that shone bright against the faded sky. Irikhart, god of fools, high above, watching over him.
A hand clenched tight around his wrist, and pulled him up with god-like strength. His face burst through the surface of the swirling mud bath, and in his clouded vision he saw a figure, strong and powerful before him.
“Irikhart,” he yelled. “You have saved me!”
As the rain pounded against his face his vision momentarily cleared, and he saw the figure’s mouth moving, inches away from his face. He couldn’t hear the words, just the panic woven deep within. He focused on the figure, and saw it was not Irikhart, but the acolyte that gripped his arm.
Cedwyck clawed desperately as he realised they were both sinking beneath the mud, grabbing onto the acolyte’s shoulders, and pulling himself from the savage desert. With his last strength, he lifted himself higher out of the greedy sand, putting his full weight on the acolyte. He saw the desperation grow in the man’s eyes as the mud swallowed his ears. Cedwyck managed to lift his knee clear, and planted it the acolyte’s chest, raising himself well above the turmoil.
He felt hands gripping frantically at his legs as he lost sight of the man, but their strength soon failed, and the old druid kept himself high enough to breathe, having found something solid to stand on beneath the dirt.
As quickly as the violent storm had hit, a burning hot sandstorm crashed into him. He squirmed against the vicious bites of the desert sands whipping against him, his arms clenched tight around his head as the ground soon dried below him. Ripping his legs from the cracking desert, he rolled over and kept his face low.
Coughing up sand and trying to clear his eyes, Cedwyck became aware of the commotion around him as the winds died down. He remembered that he wasn’t alone, wasn’t the only one to get caught in the storm.
Vague figures materialised in the settling dust, but his ears were ringing, and he could barely hear anything at all. He stood slowly, trying to gather his thoughts and his wits. And that’s when he saw her. The demon-goddess herself, in all her beauty, standing right before him as real as his own hand that groped desperately at the air before him.
“Lytette?” he croaked, his voice still not recovered. “Is it really you? In the flesh?”
She smiled the sweetest of smiles as she greeted him. Time stilled as he began his approach, oblivious to the events that had transpired, ignorant of the people surrounding him…
“You?” demanded a surprised voice beside him.
Cedwyck followed it to find Abbikson standing there, a surprised, if slightly aggressive expression on his face. A sudden moment of recognition flashed passed him as he realised why he had recognised Abbikson before.
“You?” croaked the druid, recalling the last time he had seen Abbikson at Lytette’s oasis. “You?” he said again, remembering the smug smile of the man. “You? I challenge you—”
“Calm down, boys!” interrupted Lytette with a hint of a chuckle.
Cedwyck glared at Abbikson in silence as the voices continued around him. They had seen the old man at the Dreamer’s Oasis more than once. He had always known that Lytette entertained other guests, but—
“Cedwyck. What happened to your acolyte?”
It was Ryleine. The girl was odd to say the least, out of place. Cedwyck glanced around for any evidence of the acolyte, but found none.
“He didn’t work out,” he said. “I had to let him go.”
“What? Out here?”
Cedwyck glanced around at his audience, realising none of them would understand. He searched his mind for an explanation that wouldn’t result in aggressive retribution.
“Well,” he began cautiously, not knowing where he was going with it, “you see—”
Lytette cut him off just in time, and the attention of the party was turned to her. She explained the attack using few words. The Three had been after Irikhart; they wanted him alive. They had intended no such thing for the rest of them. Cedwyck knew enough about the gods to not get involved in their disputes, but it seemed he had somehow been dragged into a fight by escorting Irikhart. Who would have thought that the god of fools would attract so much attention?
“We should proceed with haste,” said the demon-goddess, interrupting Cedwyck’s thoughts, “before The Three return. They will be watching us, and their strength will only increase with time.”
“Increase?” queried Irikhart. “But surely they are mortal in this realm?”
“You truly are a fool, aren’t you? Have you not seen your reflection recently?”
The god of fools glanced around hesitantly, a little confused. Lytette chuckled and shook her head.
“The descent takes it out of you, damn near kills you. In fact, it has killed many who have tried it. But once you land, your strength returns quickly, and you return to your former glorious self. Immortal.”
“So, I didn’t give up my immortality? Sacrifice everything for the mortal I love?”
“No, you just foolishly smashed into the dirt on Renryre Island for the love of a beautiful girl that has never heard of you, and likely will never be interested.”
Even Cedwyck saw the demon-goddess glance longingly at Abbikson. His heart felt heavy as he understood: he was the other guy.
“But, Ryleine…” protested Irikhart. “She will be mine, once I have proven my love.”
Ryleine, evidently, was preoccupied with studying the desert. The sands themselves, every grain, unique and interesting. Kyrnrie, on the other hand, was following the conversation intently.
“If you had spent less time watching pretty girls, and turned your attention to me,” said Lytette, “you may have realised that it’s not quite as simple as it seems from above.”
“There is no way back?” asked Ryleine with a soft, pained voice.
“There may be,” answered Lytette thoughtfully. “But now is not the time to discuss it. We must move on. We must find the coins before The Three regain their strength.”
“Will you come with us?” asked Kyrnrie. “We will be safe with you as our protector.”
“If only that were true,” sighed the demon-goddess. “But yes, I will escort you to Fools’ Escape.”
* * *
Cedwyck’s legs ached, a day of strenuous survival in the desert heat, followed by another night of marching through the desert, had left him weak, irritated, and generally regretting his decision to join the futile quest. As morning broke, they arrived at a precipice: a twenty-foot drop that curved as far as the eye could follow in either direction.
The druid peeked nervously down the sheer rock face, considering his chances of surviving the descent. The surface was hard and cracked, with sharp edges accentuated by the lack of rain.
“Are you sure about this, Lytette?” asked Abbikson, a warning in his tone.
“It will take too long to go around,” she said. “The Three are close behind. We should camp here, sleep during the day. Tonight, we cross.”
“We could sleep down there,” suggested Cedwyck. “It will be in the shade of the afternoon, much more comfortable.”
“No!” said Abbikson and Lytette in unison.
“Fine, alright,” said the druid, reluctantly dropping his pack.
The party began extracting the linen sheets to erect covers to protect them from the sun. A light meal was rationed out as they sat on dry sand in the shade. A welcome breeze brought fresh air flowing beneath the sheets, even if it was no cooler than the stale air.
Cedwyck sat next to Lytette. Very close to her. She felt different; more real than ever, yet she still wore the tattered clothes of a woman stranded in a desert. She was beautiful, even more than he had ever noticed, more beautiful than anything he had ever seen, but something had changed. She was… sad.
“So,” he began, “you and Abbikson?”
“There is no me and Abbikson.”
“There should have been, yes.”
“And he wasn’t interested.”
“But how could—”
“Because that is not how the heart works,” said Lytette, her eyes fixed on Abbikson. “He loved another. A woman he could never have. That is why he still pities me.”
The camp was quiet, intently listening as the sombre mood drifted through the silence.
“Right,” said the druid. “I see. That means that… you and I…?”
Lytette smiled and laughed quietly, the tear in her eye softening his heart, and as she looked at him, a playful longing danced across her face. She put her hand on his leg and caressed softly.
“Right here?” she asked. “In front of everybody?”
Cedwyck glanced around in panic, searching for some privacy.
“Who was she?” asked Ryleine, breaking Cedwyck’s search.
The girl was looking at Abbikson, intent. Lytette’s hand vanished from Cedwyck’s leg. The silence stretched for an age.
“Tell her, Abbikson,” said the demon-goddess.
“She was far too young, and far too beautiful for me. And she was my friend’s daughter.”
“My mother?” asked Ryleine, after another patient moment of silence.
“She was your age, perhaps, as was your father,” said Abbikson, reluctantly. “Together, we sailed the coasts of Renryre Island and well beyond in search of the mainland. But it wasn’t really their quest, it was ours – Gerylde’s and mine, persistent to the end. Your grandfather was much loved, and your mother wouldn’t allow him to sail without her.”
The silence stretched out as Abbikson searched for words; digging up the past was clearly distressing.
“There was a storm one day,” he continued. “It wasn’t a particularly bad storm. Gerylde and I insisted we could push through it, as if the mainland lay just beyond. In our foolishness, the ship became damaged, and we struggled to keep her afloat. The storm strengthened, and while you were securely harnessed below deck, a massive wave swept overboard, taking your parents with it. We watched helplessly as the sea swallowed them. But it was our stubbornness that killed your parents, not the storm. That was the last time we ever sailed. Gerylde took you into Rordynne Forest, and I made for the desert.”
“My grandfather never told me about that,” said Ryleine after a few moments of thought. “He never even mentioned the sea.”
“No. I believe he has forgotten it,” said Abbikson. “When last we met, he had forgotten me too. And I don’t blame him. I sometimes wish I could forget.”
Cedwyck noted the two men on either side of Ryleine; Kyrnrie and Irikhart trying to decide whether to give her space, or to comfort her. Ryleine was smiling softly. A pained smile, her eyes damp.
“What were they like?” she said. “What was she like?”
Cedwyck lay down and blocked his ears, bored with the conversation, not particularly interested in finding out more about the girl’s parents. He vaguely hoped that Lytette would follow him, hold him perhaps. But it was a silly fantasy.
* * *
Night fell swiftly when the sun finally dropped below the mountains on the western horizon. The six stood at the edge of the precipice, ready to begin their descent, despite Abbikson’s insistent arguments.
“Why, exactly,” asked Cedwyck hesitantly, “is it called Dead Girl’s Crater?”
“Care to hazard a guess, druid?”
“I do in fact have a fairly logical theory. However, were she in fact dead, then you and Abbikson wouldn’t be having this discussion about whether or not we should risk it.”
“There are different degrees of death. This particular girl is a degree shy of the end, but well past the beginning.”
“And,” considered the druid, “I suppose she is…”
“Very nice, once you get to know her, of course,” said the demon-goddess with a wry smile.
“Of course,” sighed Abbikson.
Without further discussion, Lytette leapt down into the crater twenty feet below, landing comfortably on her feet, taking a single step before turning and looking back up at the rest of them. Irikhart was quick to follow, though in dropping his sword as he landed, and fumbling in the collection of it, he was rather less graceful.
“I suppose we are doing this then,” said Abbikson, as he turned to climb down the rock face.
Ryleine was next to follow, with Kyrnrie helping her over the ledge before climbing down after her. Cedwyck watched as they all struggled down, but made the descent without dying in the process. He kicked the dirt at the edge of the drop, and watched it crumble, stones and dust falling over the edge.
“Don’t be scared, dear. I’ll catch you!”
Lytette stood below with open arms and a huge grin. The tattered clothing she was wearing barely covered the necessary minimum, and at times it didn’t quite succeed. It was somewhat distracting. Were they alone, Cedwyck would happily have flung himself off the cliff and into her arms, but the chuckles from the party were rather off-putting.
Grudgingly, he turned and began crawling down into the crater. His fingers burned as they clung far too tightly to every handhold, and whenever he looked down, they clenched tighter. His felt a spasm down his entire body as he struggled. Fool; he had spent his entire life on the cliffs near the Godstone. Why now?
His grip failed, and even as he desperately grasped for something to cling onto, he fell backwards into the air. Strong arms caught him, and lowered him to the ground.
“I told you I would catch you!”
Cedwyck straightened his cloak as he glanced around at the spectators, chuckling at his misfortune. They were all young and nimble; it was hardly fair to judge. Before he could berate them, he felt a chill in the air sweeping past. He wasn’t the only one, he saw faces all around him glancing nervously.
“Let’s go,” said Lytette. “We must be out by morning.”
Instead of a brisk walk, Lytette and Abbikson began jogging ahead, and the rest soon followed. There was no way Cedwyck could keep up the pace for the night. In fact, there was no way he could keep up the pace even for a short while.
A whisper blew through the air behind him. Run, it said. Run. He searched the darkness for the source but found nothing but sand and stone. Above him, he could see the stars as they travelled the skies in the darkness. There was no sign of life. No sign of death. He ran.
“Lytette,” he croaked, struggling for breath. “I can’t keep up!”
The demon-goddess looked around nervously as the party tried to keep up with her, and then slowed her pace.
“We leave no one behind,” she said as she dropped back to Cedwyck, with the rest of them slowing down and closing the group around him.
‘No one’ was definitely not planning on being left behind. He only hoped the group’s resolve would last through the night. The crater was eerie; the air felt cooler, vigorous… alive.
The night deepened and Cedwyck continued to struggle, every muscle burning, his lungs pumping well beyond capacity. Everything hurt. Everything. His whole body was bouncing up and down. Something bumped against his face, something hard and cold. A hilt.
He tried to focus, stars clouded his vision as he struggled to breathe. Broad shoulders hung across the horizon – his horizon.
“No, silly,” she chuckled, running next to him. “You passed out. Irikhart has been carrying you for a while now. We weren’t sure if you were coming back to us.”
He glanced around, and saw the rest of the group jogging to keep up as he was bouncing along on Irikhart’s back, his cloak pulled tight to keep in him in place, like a newborn baby on its mother’s back.
“How much farther?” he asked.
“We’re nearly there,” said the demon-goddess. “But the sun will soon rise. We must not delay.”
Cedwyck looked forward over Irikhart’s shoulder, and saw the horizon ahead was indeed beginning to lighten. He could barely discern the cliff face that marked the edge of the crater.
“Faster,” cried an urgent Lytette.
“Run,” echoed Abbikson.
“I am doing my best,” said Cedwyck with a wry smile, but Lytette just ignored him.
The sky began to lighten rapidly as the cliff came gradually nearer, and the grunts and deep breathing of the runners became more pronounced. The sun broke the horizon, blinding Cedwyck momentarily.
“Stop!” cried a voice from ahead of them.
Cedwyck came crashing to the ground as Irikhart fell, rolling over him, very nearly crunching his body under the weight. He struggled to get out, eventually breaking free, and climbing to his feet as he coughed up clouds of dust. He looked up, and he saw the source of the voice.
She stood there, still as death, and yet not quite dead. She was young, not yet a woman, not even close. She was unclothed, and scarred all over. Burnt by the sun, her skin was parched and cracked. Her legs were thinner than dying twigs, her arms bent awkwardly as her hands rested on her hips. Despite the lack of wind, her hair swayed as if fighting to break free of its prison. Her belly bled a dark black ooze, rotting from a wound that surely should have killed her. Even as she stood, she appeared to be decomposing, vanishing from existence. Yet there she stood.
“Stop,” she cried once more, but with less vigour.
They were all motionless already, staring in horror at the apparition that blocked their escape. Dumbfounded, stupefied, they were all frozen.
“Please,” said Abbikson. “Please, allow us to pass. We will leave your crater, never to return.”
“You have yet to pay the toll, Abbikson, veteran of the desert,” said the girl, her hollow eyes fixed on him.
Cedwyck shrunk back behind Irikhart’s shoulder, and the bolder Lytette stood forward alongside Abbikson.
“What do you ask of us?” she asked cautiously.
“Life, Lytette, demon-goddess. Life is the toll.”
It was cold, and daunting. Her voice carried as though the air itself were holding it back.
The dead girl smiled. The skin from her cracked lips broke off and drifted slowly to the ground. Cedwyck could almost hear her bones creaking as she stepped forward.
“My life,” she said. “Stay a while. Play a game with me?”
Suddenly her eyes flashed to Cedwyck, caught him where he stood, trapped him there.
“Will you play with me, Cedwyck, druid of the Godstone?”
“What… what sort of game?”
“You will not harm him,” insisted Lytette with venom in her voice. “You will not harm any of us.”
The girl began skipping towards them, playful, in a grotesque sort of way.
“Every one of you will climb the walls of my crater alive,” she said. “I swear it. Upon my own life. Upon my own death. But only if you pay the toll.”
She reached Cedwyck even as the group closed around him protectively. Even in those dead eyes, Cedwyck could see life. A degree of life, just shy of death itself.
“Pick me up,” she said. “Carry me on your back like the god of fools did for you. Like my grandfather once did for me.”
Without waiting for agreement, the girl leapt on his back and squealed with delight. Her arms wrapped around his neck, and he could feel her skin cracking and breaking under his chin.
“Run,” she cried, “faster!”
Cedwyck ran in circles as fast as he could, with a dead girl bouncing on his back. He had never had a grandchild, nor even a child of his own. It may have been an experience worth remembering, were he not terrified half to death.
“We need to go,” pleaded Lytette. “We have important business. We cannot linger here for long.”
“Fine,” said the girl as she dropped off Cedwyck’s back. “I will let you go. But only if you promise to come back and play with me again, Cedwyck.”
“You remind me of my grandfather. He always played with me. Do you promise?”
“What? Yes, of course,” he said, not meaning it for a second.
“Fine. I swear it. On the gods!”
The girl smiled, losing more dead skin in the process.
“Okay. I believe you! I will walk you to the rim of the crater.”
Reluctantly, hesitantly, nervously, they all walked to the rock face that marked the border to the Dead Girl’s Crater. The girl took Cedwyck’s hand as she led them. His heart was still racing, uncertain even how to deal with children, never mind the dead ones.
“Will you bring your girlfriend with you?”
“My what? Who?”
The girl pointed at Lytette and smirked.
“Right. Well, she…”
“She’s pretty! I like her.”
“And all your other friends too?”
“I can’t wait to see you again!”
They stopped at the edge of the cliff, apprehensively looking up the rock face.
“I told you,” said the girl, turning to Lytette. “Every one of you will climb the walls of my crater. Alive.”
Lytette looked quite put out – she was used to being in control, powerful.
“Thank you,” she said. “Let’s go.”
As if they had just been released from chains, they all rushed to the rock face and began climbing as fast as they could pull themselves up. The sharp rock cut into Cedwyck’s hands, but he didn’t even stop to check his bleeding fingers.
He looked up to see Lytette standing over him, her hand held out to help him up. He took it, clasping his fingers around her wrist. She pulled him up slowly with a groan, and Cedwyck breathed a sigh of relief.
His hands dropped to his knees as he sighed again. He began chuckling, and the laughter spread through the group, edgy, and full of relief. He felt a tug on his cloak, and turned to see cold eyes behind him. With savage force he was wrenched from his feet, and fell twenty feet back into the crater.
He briefly heard screaming, but it died away almost instantly. He looked back up the side of the cliff, expecting to see faces peering over the edge, but there was nothing. Just silence.
The girl leaned over him with a dreadful smile.
“Hello again,” she said cheerfully. “You’re awake!”
Cedwyck glanced back up the cliff, searching for his companions, but there was no sign of them.
“They are long gone. The toll has been paid, and they have no reason to stay.”
“But… but you said we could go?”
“I did let you go.”
“But then… you dragged me back!”
“You said you would come back. You promised, remember. You swore it on the gods.”
“Yes, but, I meant later.”
“You weren’t clear on that.”
Cedwyck sat up, and searched around him. Sure enough, he was trapped in the crater. The Dead Girl’s Crater. With the dead girl.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Now? Now you will play with me. Just like my grandfather used to! You will be my new grandfather!”
Cedwyck shook his head. He didn’t want to die. But this?
Suddenly he felt a shock-wave rush through his body, painful. Everything hurt, vibrating uncontrollably. He yelled out in distress.
“Grandfather, what is it?”
The girl looked at him with a new expression he couldn’t quite place. Fear? Concern?
“Aargh!” he screamed as another wave hit him.
His whole body shook, his bones felt as if they would break, disconnect. Like his body would fall apart.
“Grandfather, what’s happening?”
“This isn’t you?”
Another strike hit him. It felt as if a blacksmith’s massive hammer struck him on the chest. He looked down to see a broken rib protruding, the blood welling. He tried to put his hand on it, but his arm wouldn’t move. He looked and saw that his shoulder had become dislocated.
“Grandfather,” screamed the girl. “No! Not now!”
He saw she was crying. A putrid black liquid leaked from her lifeless eyes. Another thrust of pain shot through his body. He tried desperately to move, but was completely immobile, the pain insurmountable. He coughed up blood as he struggled to breathe. The girl was shaking him, screaming, but he couldn’t feel it. Not any longer.
He looked up just in time to see the hammer fall. In time to see it crush his skull. His entire body shattered. Broken apart. Revealing what was hidden within.
I hope you enjoyed reading Renryre Island Chapter XVI: Dead Girl’s Crater
Next, Chapter XVII: A Scribe’s Tale
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