3 weeks later: Beach Village of Ku’tana
Ko’sa’s bare feet pattered down the red clay path, past the dunes to the west of her village, inland towards the woods. The leather sheath holding her knife rubbed against her skin as she ran, clapping against her thigh with each stride. She loved running; its rhythm, her steady breath, the way her leg muscles recoiled and sprung against the ground.
After a couple of miles she realized that someone was following her; from behind came the sounds of foot-falls on clay and deep breathing. She opened her stride and tried to lose them, but each time she did, the pursuer increased their speed to match, until she was running so fast that her legs grew heavy and her sides knotted with cramps. The red clay ended and gave way to white sand streaked with black, slowing the speed and turning her efforts to a heavy slog.
A mile later, she gave up, pulling up sharply and placing her palms to rest on her knees, panting. In front of her lay the forest, an expansive green maze stretching out at the edge of the sand. She began to walk towards the tree line as the follower surged forward, smiling, his breath still easy. There was only one other person in the village that could match strides with her at such a speed.
“What do you want Jae?” she called, as the follower closed the remaining distance, kicking up sand behind him with each step.
“Just to talk,” her brother replied, easing into a trot. Although the boy was a couple years older than Ko’sa, most assumed them to be twins, with their matching sandy hair and similar features.
He was short and sturdy like a rock, with the freckled face of a boy but the muscled body of one coming into adulthood, a fact not unnoticed by many of the girls in the village. His stomach was slick with sweat, and he wore only a pair of leather shorts, still damp from his fishing expedition earlier. A sharpened metal harpoon was tied to his back, approximately his height in length, still stained at the tip with the blood of his catch for the day.
Ko’sa eyed the harpoon. “How do you run with that bloody thing anyways?”
“Natural talent.” He untied the harpoon from his back and plunged its butt into the sand so he could lean against it. “You weren’t at the funeral today. Pa noticed.”
Ko’sa looked down at her feet. “Yeah, so what? I’m sick of funerals.”
“Reb and you were close. And his parents were good to us when Pa was sick.”
“I didn’t want to see his body again, his skull all caved-in like that. I can’t make my peace with anything lookin’ that way.”
“His parents asked about you.”
“Yeah, well I’m doing something else for ’em. Something more important.” She looked into the woods. “The other boys think the beast that did it to Reb is still in there, near the clearing where they found his body.”
Jae shook his head. “Whatever it is Ko’sa, it’s dangerous, so don’t go chasin’ after it. The crater in that boy’s head was the size of a coconut.” He pointed to the trail of smoke rising from the funeral pyre back in the village. “Come back with me, before Pa gets any more angry. The chief is holding a hog roast, and the Gods know you could stand to put some meat on those scrawny little arms of yours.”
Ko’sa remained planted in the sand. “I owe it to Reb to hunt it down. And the chief put twenty gold on the head of that beast. ” She ran a finger down the wooden hilt of her knife, feeling the carved grooves of its pattern. “I still owe that much to you and Pa to fix up the boat…after I came up short last month.”
“For the last time, Pa said not to worry about-”
“No, I can’t. And I’ll fight you if you try to stop me.”
Jae plucked his harpoon out of the sand and began to twirl it between his palms. “Alright then, go on. But I’m going with ya. And when Pa chews you out tonight, I was never here.”
Ko’sa had already disappeared into the forest.
Jae chased after her, pushing back the branches in front of him with his harpoon. “You’re not still sore about getting fleeced by that Outsider, are you?”
“I told you not to talk about that.”
He put an arm around his sister’s shoulder. “It happens to all of us at least once, you know. Just because you’re always the one hustling people don’t mean it won’t happen to you every once and a while.” He swatted at a branch in front of his face. “People always say not to trust Outsiders, that they’re clever, ruthless bastards, but sometimes ya just gotta see it yourself to believe it.”
Ko’sa broke away from him. “I know that. But she was…strange. My friend Dalton, the city guard, he told me she saved my life back at the queen’s funeral. Could’ve stole my money then and left me to die, so I trusted her after that.” She looked up towards the sky. “And she was from the same place as Jack, Pa’s friend back when we lived in Cacamilla.”
Jae stopped in his tracks. “You tried to get her to take us to the Outside, didn’t you?” Ko’sa kept walking without saying a word, but her face turned bright red. “I thought you had put all that nonsense behind you years ago.”
She rounded back on him. “Well, maybe if Pa would let me go fishing out to the Deep Barrier with you two and the rest of the men, I wouldn’t get stuck hanging around with Outsiders.”
Now Jae looked down at the ground. “I’m working on it, okay? You just have to give me time.” He paused. “Which reminds me, I’ve got a present for you.”
Ko’sa smiled. “You’re kidding, yeah?”
“Well, it’s not finished yet, not even close. But it’s in here. Come on.” Then it was Jae that was taking off through the brush, the hanging branches scraping against his bare arms and shoulders.
Ko’sa chased him over a set of dead logs, through a bubbling creek, and up a steep hill knotted with the roots of twisted deciduous trees. She found him bending over a set of boulders, tugging at something stuck underneath them. “Come over here and give me a hand,” he grunted.
She circled over to his side, and crouched down. There was a stack of thin sheets of metal hidden underneath the rocks.
“I’ve been collecting bits of scrap metal in my spare time, storing it here so Pa wouldn’t find it. Only the light-weight kind, the type that floats on water when you bolt it to wood.”
“Why?” Ko’sa asked as they gave a tug to the largest plate of metal on top.
“Because it’s for you.” He stopped pulling and his eyes met Ko’sa’s. “You and me, we’re gonna build you your very own boat, one that Pa can’t tell you not to use.”
They both gave the sheet of metal one last mighty pull. It broke loose from underneath the boulder and the siblings went crashing backwards down the hill. Ko’sa sat up, spitting out moss and dirt. She looked over at her brother, now laughing at her. He reached over and plucked a giant clump of mud out of her hair, then mussed it.
Ko’sa sprang up to her feet, beaming. “Suppose I should tell you how much I love you, yeah? Give you a big hug and all that garbage?”
“I’d settle for, ‘Jae is the best big brother in the world.’ ”
“Jae is the best big brother in the world.” Then she lowered her shoulder, and charged at full speed straight into her brother’s chest, wrapping him up with her arms and tackling him to the ground. They hit the mud like a sack of bricks and rolled the rest of the way down the hill. “And there’s your hug.”
Panting, Ko’sa looked back at the sheet of metal, now lying face up on the side of the hill above them. “Hey,” she said. “It’s got something written on the front of it.”
They both walked over to get a closer look at it. It was an ancient weathered sign, with a fading emblem of rolling green hills outlined by a setting sun. Beneath the picture were bold, stylized words in block print.
“Well, what’s it say?” she asked.
“You read it, it’ll be good practice.”
She glared back at him. “You know I can’t.”
“You’re cutting class again, then.”
“What’s it to you?”
He looked disappointed. “You know you’re the smart one, right? All your clever little schemes and connections in the capital, they bring in more money than fishing ever will. You got so much of mum in you that you could leave this town if you wanted. And for all the fighting you do with Pa, he’s trying to set you up with an apprenticeship in the capital Trader’s Guild, putting money aside for it, something he never did for me. But then you go and skip your lessons.”
“He knows I don’t want to work in a guild.” She pointed back at the sign on the ground. “Anyways, read it for me.”
He furrowed his brow as he sounded out the words. The title of the sign read,
Eternity Hills: Luxury Timeshare Condos
Then in smaller print, underneath the first line,
Project Ageless© by Gravative
“Luxury Timeshare Con-dos?” Ko’sa asked. “What the hell is that?”
Jae shrugged. “Looks like one of those ancient artifacts that wash up on the beach sometimes. The ones left by the Ancestors. They all have these weird words on them that make no sense.”
“It says ‘Ageless’ on it though. You don’t think maybe it belonged to one of them, do you?”
“You’re right, this probably is the property of King Malstrom. We should give it back to him, I bet he’s been looking for this piece of trash.” He grinned. “He’ll be so grateful that maybe he’ll even name you his next queen.”
Ko’sa punched him on the arm. “Better me than some crippled old crone.”
Jae’s expression turned serious. “Be careful about talking like that Ko’sa. Whoever that woman is, she’s your queen now, and words like that can get you killed.” He stretched his arms towards the canopy of tree branches. “Speaking of which, your city friends heard anything ’bout when the new queen is set to make her first public address? Been almost a month now and still nobody outside the palace knows what she looks like.”
“Who knows. Some traders stopped by a few days ago, while you were out near the Barrier, and they said the church got bigger problems to worry about. ‘Bout half the church’s soldiers fled when the King kicked out one of his high priests, now he’s scrambling to recruit. And the Broken Prince is mobilizing his men to march on the capital, thinks this is his big chance.” She looked at her brother, worried. “We’re not that far from the capital, Jae. You think they’ll try to pillage us?”
Jae shook his head. “His feud is with the King. He doesn’t care for poor fishers, long as we keep our heads down.”
“I dunno. He robbed us on the road, you know. Me and the…” she trailed off, “…and the Outsider. Didn’t matter we was poor, he took it all anyway.”
“Wait,” said Jae, “you got robbed twice on that trip?”
“Yup. Most of what the Outsider took from me was stuff I nicked off merchants in the city. Had that guard Dalton help me out by distracting them.” She laughed. “Traders in the capital are idiots, can’t even be bothered to watch their own purses.”
“Shit Ko’sa,” Jae said, his voice dropping. “You need to be careful. They catch you stealing there, they cut off your hand.”
“I ain’t never got caught.”
Just then, Ko’sa snapped her head towards the dense center of the woods, where the colors of green turned so deep that it was almost blue. “I hear something,” she whispered.
Jae cocked an ear in the same direction. “I don’t hear-”
“Shh!” Ko’sa slipped gracefully into the thick foliage, pausing once to motion for her brother to follow. Jae tracked silently behind her, darting from tree to tree in his sister’s trail. As Jae moved further into the forest, he began to hear them too: voices, gruff and loud against the buzz of insects and chirping of birds.
They approached a clearing, and as they moved closer, a large red tent came into view. Two soldiers were standing in the clearing, drinking and laughing. They wore red armor that had been polished to a sheen. Ko’sa posted up behind a giant, tangled trunk of an ancient oak tree. A second later, and Jae slid in next to her.
“Royal Guards from the Church,” Ko’sa hissed, as she chanced a look out from behind the trunk. “What are they doing here? They never come out this far.”
Jae shot her a warning with his eyes and held a finger to his lips.
“I don’t understand it,” the first guard said. “Sending us all the way out here to get some girl. Don’t make no sense to me.”
A second guard, speaking with the authoritative tone of one that outranked the first, chimed in. “Well nobodies payin’ you to make sense of things, Lloyd. So I don’t see what the problem is.”
“It’s more than that,” Lloyd said. “I hate nature. And this place gives me the creeps.”
“The trees for example. They all got the same sentence written on them.”
Ko’sa noticed that the guard was right; something was scratched into the bark of the tree they were hiding behind. The same set of words, repeated over and over again, in crude angular letters. She tapped Jae on the shoulder and pointed at the writing.
“It says, ‘Man of flesh is weak and fickle’,” he whispered. “Hundreds of times in a row.”
“Half the trees we’ve passed have that same thing scratched into them,” the guard was saying. “And it’s always that same sentence, over and over again.”
The second guard looked unconcerned. “It’s a verse from the old Holy Texts. Probably just some overly-zealous villager that does it to repent for sins or something. Nothing to fear, I’m sure. If anything we should be commending that type of devotion to the Gods.”
Lloyd shivered. “I don’t know. Seems a bit unhealthy to me.”
Suddenly the ground shook, sending a shudder through the trees. In response, a volley of green leaves began to drift down towards the forest floor.
Both guards perked up and drew their swords. “What was that?” Lloyd asked. They began to scan the trees for the source of the shake.
“Who’s there?” Lloyd called out into the depths of the forest.
“I said, in the name of the Holy King, please reveal yourself!”
There was a silence, and then the silhouette of a large figure stepped out into the clearing from the other side of the trees.
It appeared to be a man, nearly seven feet tall, staggering forward unsteadily. He was wrapped in a bulky dark cloak that covered all of his body and shrouded his face. The cloak was so old that it was torn and rotting, concealing both his arms, both hugging against his large body. The smell was worst of all: a mix of mildew and something rotten, like a dead animal carcass left out in the rain.
“Who are you?” the guard named Lloyd asked, tightening his grip around his sword.
Ko’sa could feel her stomach tie itself into knots as she watched the figure approach. Something about the tall man made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
The hooded figure, hunched over, hacked something solid onto the ground and said, “…weak and fickle.”
The voice was scratchy and dry, as if he was in desperate need of a drink. It sounded as if speaking must have caused the man great pain.
“What’s that?” Lloyd asked. “Speak up sir.”
“Man of flesh is weak and fickle.”
“Please stop moving towards us, or we will arrest you.”
“Man of flesh is weak and fickle.”
“We heard you the first time. This is your last warning.”
The second guard stepped up boldly to block the strangers path, with an air of confidence that Lloyd was missing. He moved within arm’s reach, pointing the tip of his sword straight at the cloaked man’s chest, nearly poking him. “That’s enough. You are provoking two prominent members of the King’s Holy Guard, now put your hands in the-”
The guard never finished his sentence, because at that moment the hooded man shrugged aside the bottom of his cloak, revealing a massive, blunt club in his right hand. It was the color of peat and hanging loosely near his legs. With frightening speed, the giant lifted the weapon into the air and wound up his body, the head of the club twisting behind his shoulders. His body recoiled, then snapped forward, whipping the club through the air in a wobbly arc. Realizing what was happening, the guard thrust out with his own sword to stab the figure, but the blow glanced off the stranger harmlessly, as if the giant were wearing a thick breastplate beneath the cloak.
The head of the club finished it’s trajectory and found its mark, catching the guard on the side of the head. There was a crunch as it broke through the helmet first, then skin, and then bone. The guard crumpled to the ground, lifeless.
“MAN OF FLESH IS WEAK AND FICKLE.”
The stranger turned on the second guard, Lloyd, who was backing away, and let out a primordial howl like a dinosaur, shaking the trees and scattering birds out of their branches. He raised the club above his head and slammed it down on the ground. The resulting shock wave was so violent that Lloyd was thrown off his feet, his sword flying out of his hand and landing several feet from him. Even Ko’sa, watching ten yards away from her hiding spot, stumbled to the ground.
“That’s it Jae!” Ko’sa hissed, bouncing back to her feet. “That’s the thing that killed Reb! We have to help that guard.”
“Ko’sa, no!” Jae said. “It’s too dangerous; whatever that thing is, it’s not human. We’ll tell the village and get a hunting party together tonight.”
His words fell on deaf ears. Before he had finished speaking, Ko’sa had her knife out and was sprinting into the middle of the clearing, straight towards the back of the stranger.
The assailant began to lumber towards Lloyd, dragging the massive club across the ground as it closed in on him, leaving a dark smear in its wake. The stranger was unnaturally fast for his size, but Ko’sa was quicker.
She pounced at him like a lynx, springing up off the ground and landing on his back. Her small hands latched into meaty shoulders and her feet dug into his hips. Before he had time to react, Ko’sa had buried her knife in the giant’s neck.
The figure let out a howl and whipped its shoulders to one side, trying to throw Ko’sa off. She held firm to his neck as he reared his head, tossing her body like a wild stallion. Then she dislodged her knife, and stabbed the thing in the neck a second time.
Another roar, followed by a jerk that was much more violent. This time, Ko’sa was thrown from the giant’s back, and went flying across the clearing, her knife landing blade down several yards away. The ground rose up to meet her, and she felt the wind leave her lungs as she collided with it. Stars dotted her vision and her head felt woozy. She rolled over onto her back to find the giant looming over her, blotting out what little light was peeking through the tree branches.
She stared into the face of the figure. The hood had been yanked off in the scuffle, and she could see what was under it; it was wearing a glossy white mask with a crude smile painted on it. Then her eyes snapped to the club that had killed the guard. It was not a club at all, but an extension of the giant’s arm, like some type of massive tumor.
The deadly appendage came up into the air and it’s shadow passed over Ko’sa’s small figure.
Just when the club reached its apex, the giant jerked to a halt, staggering backward. It looked down in surprise as the tip of a harpoon sprouted from the center of it’s chest.
For a second it remained still, the club still suspended in the air like a statue, looking down at the harpoon, and then it let loose a thunderous cry of pain. The club-arm fell limply to the giant’s side and it began to sway in it’s spot, as if it could come crashing down to the ground at any moment.
Ko’sa rolled away and launched herself back onto her feet, scrambling back across the clearing towards her brother, who was still standing in the spot where he had thrown his spear. The giant took a step forward, and then began to stagger away, still impaled by Jae’s harpoon, back into the depths of the woods where it had came from.
Once it had disappeared, Jae rounded on his sister, furious. “What the hell were you thinking? You nearly got yourself killed.”
Ko’sa looked down at the ground, pain lancing through her back and adrenaline pounding in her ears. “What was it Jae? That thing….do you think it’s dead?”
He wiped his brow with a soiled hand and spat on the ground. “Not sure, but it hasn’t got long. I stuck it through the heart, it won’t get much further, I reckon.”
“If it even has a heart.” She glanced uneasily towards the spot where the giant had disappeared. “I stabbed it twice in the neck, and that didn’t do much, yeah?” She surveyed the rest of the clearing and spotted her knife, its blade shining from the grass a few yards away, and made her way towards it.
Lloyd had managed to pick himself back up on his feet and retrieved his own weapon. Still white in the face, he turned to the siblings as if noticing them for the first time. “What…what the hell kind of place is this? That…that was no man.”
Ko’sa picked her knife up off the ground, ignoring him. She turned it over in her hand, studying the blade. “That’s odd.”
“What?” asked Jae.
“There’s no blood on the blade.” She took a closer look at the knife. “Just mud. It’s covered in it, and I just cleaned the blade this morning.”
Lloyd crouched over his fallen comrade. “He’s dead,” he said, his voice hollow. “That thing killed him with one swing.” He turned to the siblings. “You have to take me back to your town. It’s not safe here.”
Jae said, “You can follow us back if you like.” He held out a hand to the quivering guard. “I’m Jae, and this is my sister, Ko’sa.”
Lloyd’s eye’s widened at the name. “Wait, you’re Ko’sa?” He took a step closer to her. “You’re the girl we’re looking for. We’re supposed to bring you back with us.”
Ko’sa froze, and Jae’s eyes narrowed. He moved forward to stand between the man and his sister. “Bring. Her. Back?” he said, ice in his tone. “She’s not going back anywhere with you.”
“Look kid, you’ve got the wrong idea…” Lloyd started to say, but Ko’sa had already locked eyes with Jae and nodded.
In unison, they took off at a sprint, out of the clearing and back towards town.
“What did you do, Ko’sa?” Jae yelled at his sister, as they cleared the last set of trees and shot out onto the beach. “Why are men from the capital looking for you?”
“I didn’t do anything!” she yelled back. “I have no idea what that man wants.”
“Someone in the city must have caught you stealing,” Jae said. “How many times do I have to tell you to be careful? You never listen.”
“Nobody caught me stealing. And its not worth sending guards all the way for the stuff I took anyways. This is something different.”
“Whatever they want, you have to hide. Pa and I can distract him while you gather some supplies and go find someplace safe.”
Ko’sa pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “The cliffs on the far side of the beach. There are caves there, know ’em like the back of my hand. I can hide there until they give up.”
Jae made a grunt of approval, the frantic pace now requiring all his energy. They continued the rest of the run in silence, Ko’sa’s heart hammering against her rib-cage. Soon the thatched red roofs of the village came into view, the light from the setting sun washing over them, setting them ablaze in light like fire.
The duo followed the small red clay path down to the side streets of town. Ko’sa zig-zagged through the narrow back alleys, towards her shack on the far side of town. The most direct path would take her through the central square of the village, but as she moved closer to main road, voices could be heard drifting through the back streets. Perhaps the feast following the funeral was still ongoing.
The siblings made their way to a street adjacent to the square and began to creep towards the main thoroughfare. Ko’sa started to walk towards the center, but Jae grabbed her hand and pulled her back. “Wait,” he said. “There could be more guards in the town already.”
Nodding, she disappeared into the shadow of the nearest shack and inched towards the edge of the square. She took a peek out from behind the building, and felt her heart sink. There were at least five more guards in the square, flying the royal banners. Most wore red armor and were still on horseback, except for their leader, who was wearing silver and had dismounted.
Several villagers surrounded the guards, and everyone was arguing, loud and animated, each person trying to shout over the other. From her vantage point, she could just make out the two men standing at the front of the group, arguing with the head guard: the village chief, and her Pa.
“It’s too risky to cut through the main streets,” Jae said. “We’ll have to walk past them and go around the long way.”
They began to creep past the square, darting from the shadow of one building to the next.” As they got closer, the arguing voices grew clearer.
“I already told you, you little twit, I’m not here to kidnap anyone.”
The village chief spoke next, loud and aggressive. “And what business does the church have in our modest town, ‘asking’ to take away our children? You already admitted she has committed no crime, so what else would you call this?”
“Bloody hell, you can twist a man’s words, can’t you? I sure as hell don’t represent the church, and this is an invitation for her entire family, not a kidnapping.”
Ko’sa’s father said, “I don’t believe you. If you don’t represent the church, then who are you, and why do you need my girl?”
Just then, Ko’sa realized that she recognized the voice of the head guard. “I work for the god-damn City Guard,” it growled, “and these are direct orders from your new Queen.”
“Oi! Dalton!” Ko’sa yelled, and sprang out from her hiding spot. She bolted over to the man with the speed of a flying arrow, embracing him with such force that she nearly knocked him over.
Her father looked down at her, mortified. “Ko’sa!” he said. “What in the…wait…you know this man?”
“Most honorable city-guard in the capital,” she replied with a wink. She broke away from Dalton and looked up at him. “And what exactly does the new Queen want with me?”
He smiled. “She wants to apologize.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” Ko’sa’s father cut in. “Why would the queen apologize to my daughter?”
Dalton walked over to the saddle pack of his horse and began to rummage around in it. “Because the queen stole something from her, and wants to make amends. Here- catch,” He tossed a leather raw-hide bag to Ko’sa, jingling as it sailed through the air. She opened it and gasped; inside was more gold than she had seen in her entire life. “This comes with it too,” Dalton said, and handed her something small, black and rectangular.
Ko’sa handed the bag of gold to her father, and turned the small black bi-fold wallet over in her hands.
“The queen also says that she hasn’t forgotten the promise she made to you,” Dalton continued. “She’s invited you and your family to the palace, so she can apologize in person.”
She blinked. “Wait…you don’t mean…Miss Jill?…but…no way…what…” she trailed off, stuttering.
Dalton smiled. “I told you there was something weird about that one, didn’t I?” He turned around and jumped up onto his horse, the beast groaning from his weight. “Now all of yous, hurry up and get packed, we leave within the hour.” He paused to glance back at her father, who stood frozen, his jaw hanging open as he looked down at the bag of gold in his hands. “Oh, and Ko, tell your pop that this is considered a great honor for your family, so he can stop acting like a complete knob.”