The night was not fleeting. It had been purposely made so. And yet while the darkness intended to conceal the messengers, the pounding of their feet was all too conspicuous. The birds themselves tried to act normally, but occasionally one would take flight at the sound of a twig carelessly snapped under a naked foot, or fallen leaves accidentally disturbed by a swish of cloth. The skies were clouded in their own attempt to hide the man and the woman, each with a babe clutched at their breasts. The wind tried its best to compose a gentle song, soft enough that it wouldn’t disturb the forests’ inhabitants, yet loud enough that it would aid the couple in eluding detection. The man and the woman, however, knew that without haste they would never reach their destination before morning. They moved hastily, and by misfortune or carelessness, they were noticed.
The ground suddenly erupted in tremors, and the couple forgot all caution, breaking out into a flight that rivaled the startled birds above their heads. A horrible rumbling emitted from the bare earth in a clearing they passed, and while they rushed passed it their own shadows appeared in front of them, bordered by a scarlet glow. The trees shook with the force of the quake, leaves flying into the faces of the adults while their infants began to cry out. While they ran, the roots of the surrounding trees reared up from their place in the ground, smoldering. Before long the cracks in the earth had cut off their path, but were narrow enough to jump. The couple now scented acrid smoke with every shallow breath, and the forest was illuminated with the red and orange light.
The light erupted from deep within the earth, but did not pursue the two aboveground. The hunters were, too, trying to draw little attention from the nearby slumbering towns; this could arise if the trees were displaced, but not if they were set aflame. The ground did not shake terribly, at least not enough to trip the resolute man and woman. But the fear itself caused the tall woman to halt in her tracks when another glowing fissure appeared in front of her. The short man, too, hesitated after he had crossed the crack, squinting at her through the sulfur.
“We must continue!” the man insisted. A flaming rock hit his slanted forehead just below his receding hairline as he stood there. He felt blood trickle close to his eyes. “Make use of your wits! The children have no other option! There is no other remedy!”
The woman gaped at the slowly opening rift in the earth before her, as if she hadn’t heard him. Her dark hair and light skin were coated in dirt and partly singed, just as her determination was slowly giving way to similar elements. The man snarled, wishing that he had never trusted the Beach Dweller to care for an Island Dweller child.
His fears were confirmed just as the hole had grown wide enough to crumble at her feet, bright enough so that she was only a shadow. For now the woman took a calm step back, and responded, “I know.” The man knew that to protest was useless when his powerless, crying son was lowered to the ground, and the light from the crack grew brighter, swallowing the child. The shadow of the woman disappeared.
The man turned to continue his run, and was hard pressed to cross the next gap. Perhaps he could outrun the cracks, if he kept a clear mind. After all, they were not opening very quickly.
But then he felt himself slipping, and a gust of cold air threw back his mane of hair as he fell. He kept the crying infant close to him when his shoulder hit solid ice.
“Ice?” the man gasped, attempting to maintain his footing on the slippery surface. Below the ice was nothing but the forest floor. Trees still sprouted from the landscape, their sides still reflecting the orange of a fire from deep within the earth. The man could barely put himself on his knees, but looked ahead. He was not alone.
“It is peculiar to offer both twins,” commented the stranger, who was situated on the ice as if it had been firm ground. “If you don’t want them, I will take them.”
The man, full of confusion, hastily gave a small bow, knowing what this creature was that was speaking to him: a spirit. But then he processed its words and intents, and straightened his back. “What are you doing?” demanded the man, tightening his grip on his remaining son. “Why do you help them? Why would you deprive—”
“Old man, there are forces in the work that a simple mortal like you cannot comprehend.” The spirit’s dark outline was shaggy, as if it wore a woolen coat. But then the man realized that the Spirit of Ice had the form of a shaggy, bipedal vulpine creature with scintillating blue eyes. A white light amid its chest fur indicated that it was using its powers against the man. “Give me the child, and you go free.”
The man’s expression transformed from shocked horror to resolution. “I know where my loyalties belong. If you leave me in peace, I will tell everyone that the rumors are valid.”
“Go. Try it! There’s a reason that you cannot go back home. Oh yes, I know where those boys came from. I know who your wife is. Where she is. No one will believe you. As a matter of fact, if you insist that the Lavakoomas are stealing sacrifices, then everyone is going to dismiss the idea as a farce. Now give me the child if you want to save your life.”
“I prefer to die,” hissed the man defiantly. If this spirit would fight him itself, then perhaps he could rob it of the amulet around its neck. It would be risky to kill a spirit, but to remove the amulet would deprive the traitor of its power and turn it to ash.
“I hate granting requests for mortals, especially such rude ones. But who cares? I’ll ensure your body rots.”
The man fought to rise to his feet on the slick ice. But when his feet finally gripped it, he discovered that blood was leaving them. The ice was becoming more rigid as spikes, thin and fragile, emerged from the flat ground. The man slid his feet back and forth to erase the spikes, but where his flesh tore at the cold foundation, so did it tear at him. The tiny spikes grew back again where he felled them, always rising higher up his legs as his feet were slowly being pierced, the rest of his body soon to follow. The spirit approached him, arm outstretched for the child, which still wailed in fear. The man looked up toward the sky, the stars obscured by trees without end. The leaves held perfectly tranquil, the air seemingly frozen along with the forest floor.
But then there was a rustling in the leaves above, and the man briefly thought that some other spirit had been sent by the gods to help him. No noise was made except for the gentle swishing. As soon as it was there, it disappeared.
Now blood spilled from the man’s legs onto the ice, and the spirit’s cold hands were wrapping around the babe’s tiny arm.
In an instant, the man felt himself shoved forward. His head would have made contact with the spirit had it not been simultaneously knocked backwards. When the spirit recuperated, its hands were empty, and so were the man’s.
“It’s not possible,” whispered the spirit to itself, the ice around beginning to fade from sight, melting as the spirit’s power began to diminish through distraction and fear.
The man grinned, guessing what had happened by the talon marks on his arms. “I suppose time is no longer on your side. Someone knows the truth.”
The spirit growled at him, the cold momentarily intensifying. “I’ll kill that Escopu if necessary!”
The man gasped at such a notion, but the spirit soon coalesced into the ice that was fading from the soil. The icy grip released the man’s legs, and he fell, blood leaving him, to the ground. The spikes had diminished, but still pierced the man’s hands. He crouched there in silence to, hopefully, await the Escopu’s return.