The aurorae snaked their way across the arc of the night sky, casting shifting shadows on the mountainside below. Khloë sat as close to her small fire as she dared, trying to strike a balance between warmth and night blindness. The skylights were more than enough to see by, but she distrusted any shadow that lingered longer than a few heartbeats. The hart’s eyes in her pouch helped to find the track up to the summit easily enough, but she was leery of another ambush. After the huntswoman fell fighting the damned Horned Man, Khloë wanted more than ever to just be done with it all. But despair and longing weren’t enough to keep her alert through the night, and she soon fell into a fitful sleep under a small outcrop on the Mountain of Woe.
She awoke to the sound of her mother calling for her, and immediately her hands went to her ears. Ignoring that she seemed to be in the cramped room she had shared with her brother all those many miles away at home, she was overwhelmed with the sensation. How long had it been since she had last been able to hear more than the loudest shout, and that at a whisper? She pulled away the rainbow-patched quilt and hit the floor running, her laughter bouncing through the hall, matched steadily by her footfalls. It was amazing. It was a miracle. And it was all wrong.
A deep sense of dread fell upon her heart as she rounded into the tiny kitchen of their log home, and her laughter caught low in her throat. Her brother Ark was there, sitting at a stool beside the carved family table. Or at least, something that looked very much like Ark was there, but that something exuded a wrongness that had Khloë taking a step back, her body tensing to fight. It was his eyes, she thought, as he hopped to his feet, staggering toward her with an awful menace. His bones cracked with each shambling step, and his skin crawled like a taught hide filled with tumbling rocks. A monster in stolen flesh, his eyes were dark green, the colour of emeralds, of basilisk hide. There, on his left arm, where the skin remained black and solid, were the small rows of punctures. They seeped some foul bile that had Khloë gasping for breath against the stench of it. But she could not move, not even to cover her nose, and she had never wished harder than in this moment to have lost her hearing again, as Ark began to speak.
“You always were a coward,” he said, green eyes flashing with small channels of hectic lightning. “Father is dead, and I am stone, and you did nothing but run.”
He loomed over her now, despite their difference in age and height, a tower of rumbling, reeking stone. His voice cracked and tumbled against her heart, pushing her further back against the doorframe. “You left me here to die, left mother here to mourn. You’re a fool and a coward and it’s all of it your fault.”
She could move, if trembling was movement, but her mouth would not work to rebuke him. Her heart ached, and her spirit sank with her stomach. If she could just explain, just tell him why she had to leave, what it was she was after. But no, her jaw was clenched and aching, frozen like father’s had been in an agonized grimace.
“Winter is coming and there is no wood. There are no stores. The garden rots for want of harvest. And you,” here, he stabbed a massive finger into the center of her chest, “you are off on a holiday, so very far from home. You’ve left us all to die.” Ark grinned down at her, or, at the least, he bared his teeth. They were jagged and twisted, like the pillars in the back of a cave they had once explored as children, back before everything had fallen apart in the Greenwood. “You have left us here to die, for some fool errand for that withered old hag.”
Ark grasped her arm, still raised to defend an incoming blow, and Khloë was shocked at the marrow-deep chill of it. It was like touching a corpse, like touching her father as she lowered him into the grave she had dug for him beneath the old ash behind the house. And with that thought, Ark’s features warped and twisted until he looked like, smelled like, felt like her father. His eyes were clouded with the haze of death, sunken into his sallow face, no remnant of the warm flush he had always had after a long day of working the outfield, or running with them in the back garden. He stank of rot and bad earth, the kind that her father had taught her would bear no fruits, no matter the labour invested. His hand remained as cold as Ark’s had been, but it was grown larger still, almost enveloping the whole of her forearm. She quaked like a scolded child as his mouth creaked open with the sound of old tree limbs heavy with frost and snow.
Out poured what she first took to be worms, long, green, and writing in a knotted mass. She willed her eyes to look away, but she had no control over them as they turned downward to watch the lump unfurl and thousands of little basilisks begin their slithering up and over her body, biting and striking wherever they could find purchase on her now naked body. Khloë watched with mounting horror as her body took on the same dull, ashen colour of her brother’s poisoned flesh, mottled green by the squirming legion of serpents crawling up her body. Her eyes raised again and met those of her father. She stood there, still, silent, and horror-stricken until two bright red mouths closed on her eyes, and she saw nothing.
The grip on her arm was released, and she could once again move. She flailed erratically at her body, swiping at her skin, trying to get at the infant basilisks. One by one she felt them fall away, leaving behind senseless wounds that stank the same as Ark’s wound. Khloë reached out into the darkness, but felt nothing, heard nothing, not even the sound of her own panicked breathing. If it weren’t for her own awareness of herself, she thought, she could well have been dead. But the dead didn’t think, not outside of the Dead God’s Necropolis, at least. Then again, she reflected, trying her best to calm the heart hammering in her chest, neither did they come back and torture you in dreams.
For want of a better word, she sat. Suspended in darkness, and Khloë held her aching head in her hands. Despairing, she wished desperately to be home, for nothing of this ever to have happened, for anything but this infinite blackness and this stone-numb skin. In the void, deaf to her own sobs, Khloë wept, her mind filled with all many of alternate paths her life could have taken. If only her father had seen the nest in time. If only Ark had stayed behind. If only she hadn’t suggested they go for a walk in the Godswood on a beautiful Spring morning to try and find some daylilies for her mother’s birthday.