THE STRAITS OF GALAHESH
The akhoz galloped more than ran, their long limbs loping over the ground faster than it appeared they could. Their lips were drawn back, their dark tongues hidden behind blackened teeth, making them appear vengeful and ravenous.
Nasim’s sandals scraped over the ancient stone. His nerves willed him to flee. But he would not. This girl, this very girl, was the first of the akhoz. There was little that remained of Yadhan, but he recognized her by the shape and tilt of her head, her delicate features, and the small scar at the nape of her neck.
And he’d also felt in his memories that a connection had been made to each of the akhoz that Khamal had created. In the nights that followed, Khamal had gone on to perform the ritual again and again, sacrificing more and more children to the grisly fate that awaited them. And they had held a bond with him, a loyalty. Surely part of this was borne from the piece of the Atalayina Nasim had found, but it was also a bond to Khamal, and if Nasim were right, that bond would still exist with him. It must—Khamal wouldn’t have allowed it to happen any other way—but that didn’t stop Nasim’s heart from beating like a blacksmith’s hammer.
The akhoz were nearly on him when Nasim spread his arms wide. It was a gesture of supplication that Aramahn gave to hezhan before they communed.
Both of the akhoz slowed, and when they came within four paces, they stopped. The girl, Yadhan, watched him with sightless eyes, while the other, the boy, shook his head so vigorously that Nasim wondered if he was tearing muscles.
“I have need of you, Yadhan.”
Yadhan shivered. She craned her neck back like a rook and released a bleating call into the chill morning air.
Nasim kneeled, still holding his arms out wide. “I have need.”
Yadhan pulled back her lips. Her tongue lolled like a freshly cut piece of meat.
She crawled forward.
The other, the boy, craned his head back, back, until Nasim thought his neck would break. Then brought it down hard against the stone before him. He did it again and again—black blood leaking from the many wounds he was inflicting upon himself—and it soon became clear that he was fighting against some hold Yadhan had placed on him.
Nasim could not remember the boy’s imprint, nor could he feel any sort of loyalty from him, so he wondered if this was one of Muqallad’s or Sariya’s. It must be so, but if that were true, why would it bow to Yadhan? As foreign as it seemed to him, there must be some sort of hierarchy among the akhoz. Perhaps they followed the rule of the hezhan in the world beyond, or perhaps they followed the customs of the Aramahn from centuries ago. Whatever the reason, Nasim was glad for it, for it seemed to be keeping the akhoz at bay for the time being.
Yadhan’s breath came sharply, quickly. She wheezed as she came to a halt at Nasim’s feet. And then she stood and faced him, crooked limbs and gaping maw. It was all Nasim could do not to retch from the stench that came with each exhaled breath.
“I go to the tower,” he said. “Will you accompany me?”
Yadhan seemed to consider these words. Her nostrils—more akin to a lizard’s than a girl’s—flared. She twisted her head around and waggled it back and forth in the direction of the tower.
Finally, the beating stopped, and the body of the akhoz came to rest.
In that moment, the moment the akhoz passed, Nasim felt something, a shift in the aether, as if the strand of a spider web had just been plucked. The web still stood, but it had been weakened, and even if it was clear that there were dozens—hundreds—of other strands supporting it, it was just as clear that the web would never be repaired; it would only become worse, until eventually failing altogether.
Nasim’s eyes began to water as he studied the heart. It was already shriveling, shrinking, hardening into a small, misshapen lump. It stopped when it was the size and hardness of a walnut.
This, he knew, would allow him to reach Sariya’s tower. With the heart, the other akhoz aligned with Sariya would not sense him, or at the very least would think him one of them. Who knew what might happen when he reached the tower? But at least he now could. It was the key to everything that lay before him. Muqallad had two pieces of the Atalayina. In Sariya’s tower lay the third, and it was imperative that Muqallad not gain it. Rabiah had known this as well, and surely she had made for the tower, hoping to retrieve the stone and take control of her life once more since Nasim—in her eyes—refused to do so.
Nasim stood, leaving his robes as they were. It wasn’t that he didn’t need the warmth, or that he didn’t want it, but that he felt he didn’t deserve it. It was small penance for what he’d just done, but he would pay it just the same.
“Come,” he said to Yadhan, shivering from the cold of the wind and the chill of drying blood on his arms. “There is one more we must gather.”
How to participate:
Although not required, it sure would be nice if you: