A Curse of Tooth and Claw: Chapter Eleven
In which Kiki and her friends venture into the forbidden darkness.
Kiki's skin turned a sickly green-brown as they got closer to the Cicatrix. She wasn’t sure if the nausea in her gut was from being this close to the darkness, or if it had something to do with the guilt she felt for leaving Solana behind.
Solana Ramirez had been a thorn in Kiki’s boot for as long as Kiki could remember. Solana had ordered Kiki on countless extra watches on the Wall and made Kiki do work reserved for the Attendants. Kiki had no fondness for the Commander and had never felt any sympathy for her either. But watching as the solvent ate through Solana’s uniform—the way her skin had blistered and bubbled. It was enough to make bile rise in Kiki’s throat.
“Are you okay?” Luna asked as they slowly picked their way through the tangled brush.
Kiki hung her head until her chin touched her chest. “What happened back there—it was messed up.”
Luna shivered as if the mention of it gave her the chills. “We had no choice.”
But that wasn’t entirely true. They did have a choice and Kiki knew that. At the very least Kiki could have faced her sentence. It was the right thing to do and her choice to skirt the law had ended up in Turi getting hurt and Solana’s death.
“I don’t like this place,” Luna said, bringing Kiki back to the present.
The Cicatrix was a line of blackness that rose against the pale winter sky. Its cadaverous edge was like an hourglass, an abyss on the horizon.
Kiki had never been this close to the Cicatrix before. The closest she’d come was the other day when she’d toed the line of red flags set out by the Corps. They’d crossed that forbidden line several hundred paces back and Kiki had been on edge ever since.
Kiki tried to slow the hammering of her heart, but it was no use. Something about being this close to the darkness made all of her senses turn on high alert.
Luna for her part looked like she was going to be sick. Her footsteps were hard and heavy like they were full of lead. The rhythm of her steps thudded like a syncopated heartbeat, erratic and anxious. Even her pace slowed as they neared the swirling mists of darkness.
"Do you smell that?" Kiki whispered to Luna as they drew closer. The very air around the Cicatrix smelled burnt, like sulfur and the sickly sweet smell of decay. Kiki licked her dry lips and instantly regretted it. The air itself tasted vile. If evil had a taste, it would be this.
Luna rubbed her arms with her hands. "I-I don't think we should do this.”
Kiki didn’t blame her friend. Kiki thought much the same. With every step, it felt like a spider inched down her spine.
A branch snapped behind them and Luna’s face paled. She whirled around as if she expected to meet her death.
Kiki put out a hand to brace her friend. “Calm down, it’s just Turi and Aurelia.”
Luna’s eyes were frantic as she nodded but Kiki could tell that her friend was still on edge. She stopped walking and her shoulders shook.
Aurelia caught up to them with Turi’s arm slung over her narrow shoulders. “You feel it, don’t you?” she asked, looking over Luna’s shivering form. “It’s the darkness. Don't let it get to you. It'll feed on you if you let it." Aurelia pushed forward and led the way.
Kiki didn't know what Aurelia meant by that. How could the Cicatrix feed off of anything? Kiki thought the darkness was just a bunch of swirling mist that divided the kingdom. That's all they'd been taught about it in the Corps. The darkness came and the monsters with it. End of story.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Luna said in hushed tones so that only Kiki could hear. She still hadn’t moved and seemed like she was seconds from bolting.
Kiki was started to wonder the same thing. Maybe this whole thing had been a mistake. Kiki shoved that thought into the back of her mind and took a moment to evaluate the situation at hand.
Maybe this was a mistake. But it was a little late to consider that now. Especially when they were inside the Cicatrix. Right now, all that mattered was getting to the other side.
Kiki placed a hand on Luna’s arm, hoping the mere contact would bring some small comfort to her friend. She was careful with her words, afraid that if she spoke too loudly, she might further spook Luna. It was as if Luna were a frightened deer caught in the hunter’s cross guards.
“I’m scared too,” Kiki said, her voice a hushed whisper. “Remember why we’re out here. If there is any hope that Yari is out there, we have to try.” Kiki felt like she was saying this as much to herself as she was to Luna.
Luna met Kiki’s eyes with her own. Within them, Kiki could see a shadow of darkness swirling within as if Luna were trapped in a living nightmare. Kiki felt a shiver run the length of her spine at seeing the terror in Luna's eyes.
“We’ll do it together,” Kiki said and held her hand out.
Luna was slow to take Kiki’s hand, but eventually did and together they staggered toward the expanse of the Cicatrix looming ahead. As they approached, the mists within started to move like a wave swelling, as if in greeting.
The air thickened and Kiki could almost feel the heavy press of dark energy against her body as if someone had thrown a blanket over her.
"Just push past the feeling," Aurelia called back to Kiki and Luna. "Once we pass the boundary, it'll fade."
The darkness grew heavier and thicker as if a tidal wave was racing toward them. Every instinct in Kiki's body told her to run. This was a place of evil. With each step she took, that feeling magnified tenfold until every breath became a chore.
“Don’t let go,” Luna whispered. She tightened her cold fingers around Kiki's in a death grip.
"We're almost there," Aurelia said up ahead. "Just a little further."
The darkness crashed over them like a curtain drawn over a window. Kiki could no longer see the light of day or feel the warmth of the sun on her skin. The sensation of the dark energy pressed in against her and she could barely see her own hand in front of her face.
"What's happening?" Kiki called ahead to Aurelia. She could no longer see the other girl.
“Keep moving!” Aurelia shouted back. "None of it is real. It's all part of the illusion."
Kiki didn't know what to think of that. Her heart hammered in her ears and her skin prickled with gooseflesh.
Kiki blinked hard, trying to get her bearings. She pulled Luna closer until their arms were linked. Whatever happened, she could not let go.
Up ahead, there was a glint of metal in the distance, a glimmer of something pure. Whatever was up ahead sparked hope in Kiki’s heart. All she had to do was get to that glowing beacon of light. Everything would be okay if she could only reach that point.
Kiki's legs and heart worked in unison. She could feel the surge of hope pulsing through her limbs as she pulled Luna with her to catch up to Aurelia and Turi.
The only thought on Kiki's mind was that she had to reach that pureness beyond. Still, she could feel the darkness trying to break her resolve, every step was like fighting against quicksand.
In the distance, Kiki caught sight of fireflies flittering around, dancing with each other in the darkness. The light from the fireflies illuminated a small figure dressed in Slayer leathers.
Kiki could hardly believe her eyes. "Yari!" Kiki called out, convinced that the apparition before her was in fact her friend.
Out of the darkness, Aurelia and Turi staggered towards Kiki and Luna having doubled back. "Keep up," Aurelia chastised. "Trust nothing."
Though Kiki heard Aurelia, she also felt a pull towards the figure in the shadows. Kiki pulled Luna with her towards the figure she was so sure was her friend.
Aurelia held out an arm to stop her. "Don't you listen? It's not real. Fight the feeling." Aurelia yanked Kiki’s arm and pulled her away from the illuminated shadow.
Kiki wanted to scream and run back to that figure. It was Yari. She was sure of it!
"Keep moving!" Aurelia shouted as she tugged on Kiki's arm and dragged her forward.
"I can't leave Yari behind." Kiki tried to resist, but Aurelia's strength was inhuman. Her friend was there, she had to go back!
"That is not your friend," Aurelia shouted into the darkness. "It's the curse trying to trick you and trap you here."
A black hand reached out of the darkness and wrapped around Kiki's ankle. Despite what Aurelia said about nothing being real, the hand sure felt real. The grip tightened around Kiki's ankle until it felt like her bone might break. That too felt real enough.
An inhuman wail pierced the air, like a wolf howling at the moon, only this was colder and darker. Terror like molten tar poured through Kiki's veins, if she gave in to this feeling, it would harden into amber and she'd be stuck in this feeling forever.
The hand from the darkness grew stronger, pulling Kiki back. "Help me!" It wailed with Yari's voice. Kiki's heart clenched at the sound.
"Don't listen to it," Aurelia said, her own voice strained and cracking.
A black tentacle whipped out of the darkness and wrapped around Aurelia's ankle, trying to pull her back.
"Don't do this," the voice said to Aurelia, only this time, it was the voice of a man.
Aurelia shouted, "Leave me alone!" She kicked at the tentacle and it swirled into mists of smoke.
Luna screamed as a stream of black tentacles wrapped around her leg, pulling her back as well.
"RUN FASTER!" Aurelia yelled.
Kiki held onto Aurelia as if she were a lifeline and ran headfirst toward what she hoped was the exit. She kept her grip firmly on Luna, afraid that if she let go, she’d never see her friend again.
Tree limbs and shrubbery tangled at their feet, slowing their progress, and clawed at them as they ran. They ran until they couldn't breathe. The darkness was seemingly never-ending, the pull of the Cicatrix relentless.
They ran for what felt like an eternity but kept their feet moving at Aurelia's insistence to keep going.
Just when the darkness felt suffocating like a sack had been thrown over Kiki's head and the air was running out, her group broke through the barrier and stumbled into a clearing.
Kiki fell to her knees along with Luna. Their hands were still clasped and their breaths were heavy, misting into the cold air.
Aurelia and Turi were crouched as well, their own chests heaving for breath.
"We made it!" Aurelia exclaimed.
Yes, they’d made it out alive. Kiki felt instant relief as the feeling of despair and terror slowly faded away. She’d never felt more scared in her entire life.
Next to her, Luna started to cry and Turi looked pale and ashen as if the life had been sucked from him.
Aurelia on the other hand looked unshaken. Once she caught her breath, she rose to her feet and started to stretch her arms over her head.
How could she be so nonchalant? They’d almost died!
Anger suddenly flared to life inside of Kiki's chest. She stumbled to her feet and staggered toward Aurelia, a look of murder in her eyes. "You never said it was going to be like that!”
Kiki stared at Aurelia, who appeared completely calm. “You never asked,” Aurelia responded with a shrug.
Anger radiated from Kiki's eyes in waves. "We could have been killed back there!" Kiki shouted.
Aurelia looked at Kiki coolly, clearly unbothered by Kiki's outburst. "False," Aurelia stated, her tone matter of fact. "None of that was real. It's all part of the illusion to keep people away and to keep people in. Nothing you saw or felt back there could actually hurt you."
Kiki sighed heavily and leaned forward, hands on her knees. “You’re unbelievable. I should have never trusted you.”
“Think what you want of me. But I got you through, didn’t I?”
Kiki and Aurelia stood toe to toe as they continued to argue in the middle of the clearing.
Luna headed over to Turi, who was still sitting on the ground and was tenderly touching the blisters on his hands from the solvent that had splashed onto him.
Turi's head was covered in tangles of black hair and his usually vibrant blue eyes were dull.
“It’ll be okay,” Luna said to him, her voice a soothing melody.
She placed her hands on the worst of Turi’s blisters and her hands began to glow. The ground beneath Luna started to wilt as she drew on the energy of the forest to heal him. The blisters on Turi's skin faded with Luna's healing magic and his skin became smooth once again. Turi breathed a sigh of relief as the pain finally faded away.
"What now?" Kiki asked Aurelia, her rage still simmering beneath the surface. Aurelia didn't seem to notice or care.
"I know someone who might be able to help find your friend. It's a long way from this part of the Cicatrix though so we should find a safe place to make camp for the night," Aurelia answered as her eyes scanned the forest, getting her bearings on their location.
Kiki didn’t like the idea of having to trust Aurelia to lead her and her friends to some person who might be able to help. There were too many variables to consider. The first and foremost of those being Aurelia herself.
Kiki silently cursed herself for having trusted the smuggler for even a second.
Kiki’s brooding thoughts were suddenly interrupted when Turi's body started to glow with radiant energy that covered them in an aura of golden light.
Luna gasped and both Kiki and Aurelia stepped back in shock.
"What's happening?" Turi cried as the glow engulfed his hands and traveled up his body until it overtook his face. The light grew brighter as if the sun itself were growing inside him.
"You've got to be kidding me," Aurelia said, her voice full of disbelief.
"What's going on?" Kiki asked, her instinct telling her to stay back, but her concern from Turi making her inch towards him.
Luna scrambled backward, her hands shook and her eyes were wide with fear.
Aurelia held Kiki back with an arm. "Watch and you'll see."
See what? What was happening to him?
Kiki wanted to help but didn’t know how. The glow around Turi was blinding and grew to five times his size. The light started to contort and move as if it was alive.
A chill rose up Kiki's spine as she watched the transformation before her. Goosebumps lined her skin and she placed her hand on her obsidian machete in response. She didn’t know what was happening, but whatever it was, she’d be prepared to fight it. That, at least, she understood.
When the light around Turi faded, there was a leviathan-size bear in his place.
"I think your friend has some explaining to do," Aurelia said as the three girls watched the bear looking around itself in confusion.
Kiki’s mouth fell open. What had she gotten herself into?