“A river?” Silverskin mused aloud. He had gone pale from overexerting himself and his long pointed ears drooped.
“Worse than a river,” Digitalis tsked. “There’s a gorge. If we keep going, we’ll fall right in.”
“But they’re still sniffing our backs,” Silverskin replied. He grit his teeth and blinked his eyes rapidly as if he had temporarily lost his sight.
“You can’t fly us, Silverskin. Remember? You said you’re not that powerful yet,” Gabbie said. She held onto his arm with both hands.
“I can give it all my might. Kind of like a running leap. I can’t back out, either. If we stop, we’re Bull Fist fodder.”
“Then take off your packs. We need to lighten ourselves up as much as we can if we want to do this.” Digitalis fumbled around and dropped the pack full of provisions and medical gear from sub-queen Faeley. Gabbie followed her example and flung off her pack before realizing that she had just thrown away a Fire Gem. She inwardly cursed. That could have been extremely useful. Regardless, without the burden of so much weight, Silverskin was able to speed up considerably.
“Here we go!” The elf boy screamed.
Gabbie closed her eyes, not necessarily keen on watching if they did end up plummeting down into the gorge and straight down to the churning river. She felt Silverskin tighten his muscles as they flew over the gorge. She squeezed her face onto his shoulder, and felt the ground smash against her right side. A rock stoped her from skidding farther. Gabbie knew that the impact must have broken a couple of ribs. She felt the instant pain constrict her chest and restrict her breathing.
“Did it,” Silverskin moaned.
“Cool beans,” Digitalis dryly said.
Gabbie opened her eyes. She saw that they had indeed crossed the gorge. Silverskin sported a gash along his face that stretched from his forehead to his chin. It bled freely and dripped into a puddle below. Digitalis was treated the same way as Gabbie. Blood soaked through her tunic on her left side and she tenderly held her chest as if touch alone would heal the injury.
Behind the three were the remaining Bull Fists. At least five or six of them did not see the gorge or were too focused on capturing them because the beasts had fallen headfirst to their demise. Gabbie heard their screams and the inevitable splash so far below.
“Yeah! Take that!” Gabbie yelled.
“Exactly, you ugly, chapped buggers!” Digitalis joined in.
“Shouldn’t…antagonize them,” Silverskin moaned. It was clear that there would be no more soaring in the foreseeable future. The elf boy had dark circles under his eyes and he appeared skeletal as if using his magic so extensively had drained his strength and the substance from his body. He pointed to something behind Gabbie. “There’s…there’s a.” He couldn’t finish. He laid down his head and closed his eyes, immediately falling asleep.
“A BRIDGE!” Digitalis yelled.
“You mean we could have used,” Gabbie started before she put two and two together. She turned and saw that the Bull Fists had done the math with her. They clambered the ten or so feet it took to reach the poorly built wooden bridge held together with frayed rope. “No. No, no, no!” Gabbie scrambled around her belt and got to her feet. Her ribs ached with a merciless fervor, but she put that pain aside. She retrieved the throwing knives she kept in her pockets and tossed one to Digitalis.
“Take this. Help me!” Gabbie didn’t have to explain her plan. Digitalis caught the knives and clambered over with the girl. They arrived at the bridge the same time as the Bull Fists. The bridge itself was precarious. There were no rail guards and it looked like one wrong move or a sudden gust of wind would spell out the demise of the crosser. The Bull Fists were fully aware of the danger. They tentatively filed onto the bridge, taking their time. Gabbie took to sawing at one of the ropes that kept the bridge in place. Digitalis focused on the other.
It was a race against time.
“Cut, cut, cut!” Gabbie told her knife. Her blade was made to stick into her enemy’s flesh, not to saw. She had to do this with what she had, and all she had were the knives. The first Bull Fist made its way to the middle of the bridge. It had a good fifteen more feet to cross. Gabbie tasted the salt from her sweat as she licked her lips. She shouldn’t think about the Bull Fists. She had to cut. Cut. CUT! Her blade tore through a bundle of the woven rope, and then another. Just…a few…more.
Digitalis cut entirely through her side. Three of the Bull Fists at the very back fell from the sudden lack of support. The last two had the foresight to hold onto the side of the bridge to keep from joining their falling comrades. The beasts snarled and doubled their speed. Faster and faster still until they were just a couple feet away.
“YES!” Gabbie screamed as her rope finally was cleaved in two. The Bull Fist behind the first howled as the bridge disappeared from beneath its large fist. It careened down.
“Not. Yet.” The remaining Bull Fist hissed. It kept and caught the crumbly ground’s edge.
Gabbie let out a primal yell and flung herself at the beast. She angled her throwing knife at the tender joints between Bull Fist’s knuckles. The girl plunged her blade over and over into the beast’s flesh, hitting the bones and vessels repeatedly. Digitalis followed and attacked the other hand. Brown, sticky blood caked their fingers and blades and yet they persisted. If they stopped, they would die.
The Bull Fist relented and let go of the cliff. It fell and Gabbie watched it until the very end. The river ate the Bull Fist like the beast would have eaten them, and all Gabbie could feel was and horrifying nothingness. She couldn’t cry or think. She just stared at the water.
“Gabbie.” Digitalis held out her arms. Gabbie thought that Digitalis looked even more pretty than usual. The Bull Fist’s brown blood spattered along the Lived Being’s cheeks and hands made her bronze skin seethe with a hidden, coursing energy. Gabbie wanted thought that her eyes sparkled like gems, but scrapped the idea. She scoffed at the eye-being-gem-description in the fantasy books she read before. Maybe her eyes looked like comfort. Greens and browns and the shades of the world cast into the darkness of night. Gabbie let herself be hugged by the Lived Being. She felt Digitalis’s soothing warmth envelope her as the Lived Being rubbed small circles along the girl’s back.
“Feeling a little better?” Digitalis asked. Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat to ask again. “Better?”
“As much as I can.”
“We should check on the elfling. He overextended his power, the fool.” She parted from Gabbie and wiped something off of the girl’s face with the pad of her thumb. “And we were saved because of his overconfidence.”
They used each other as support as they hobbled over to the sleeping figure ahead. Neither of them noticed that their skin began to knit together. The blood upon Silverskin’s face no longer covered split skin. The ribs broken, sealed back. The injuries, taken away.
Ginger ignored the tingling sensation on her right shoulder that usually meant Gabbie was in trouble. Ginger never used to have this odd sixth sense back on Earth. She was told time and time against that twins knew what the other was thinking. If one felt pain, the other did, too. They made up languages. They did everything together. They were inseparable, or in the rarer case, driven mad by each other. Ginger once read about twins who had become insane from feeding off of one another’s negative feelings. The women both climbed onto a highway and jumped in front oncoming traffic. They did survive, but, well…stuff happened after that that gave Ginger the willies.
She never wanted to be bound to someone so completely like she was expected to do with Gabbie. Sure, she loved her sister and brother. She’d even love the new the baby her parents were planning on adopting next spring. Ginger did not want to be tied down, and being a twin made her feelings complicated.
Now that she was in Soielle, there was an undeniable magic that bound her completely to her twin. At first, there were drops of unfamiliar emotions sprinkled within Ginger’s mind. They splashed her back in the Kitsune Wood, but the more time went on, there more the gentle sprinkle became a raging rainstorm. She could feel when Gabbie felt angry. She could feel when Gabbie was tired. She could feel everything about Gabbie. Ginger couldn’t feel who she was underneath the torrent of the ocean of Gabbie.
The best she could do was attempt to ignore everything, even if that meant ignoring herself. That was until the sub-queen of Rockestel bent down and whispered something into her ear, changing absolutely everything.
“Well, this is nice,” Ginger said. She gripped her throwing knives tight, unable to make a move. “I like being trapped.” Ten or so Bull Fists had at last caught up with them. Instead of popping them into their mouths for a salty snack, they formed a formidable circle. Somewhere in the back of Ginger’s head, she could feel that Gabbie was terrified. That she was unconsciously calling for help. Ginger shook her head, clearing the clutter away.
“Why haven’t they done anything?” Alastair said.
“They’re waiting for commands.” Tipper scanned the waiting Bull Fists.
“You’re quite intuitive,” someone said from behind the wall of beasts. “Too bad she doesn’t want you.” The Bull Fists parted. The woman in her ratty yellow dress sauntered in.
“Did she say something?” Tipper glared at the woman with distrust.
“Yeah. She said your brilliance is wasted,” Ginger said.
“Ah, ah!” The woman swooned. She held merrily held her hands together and twirled. Her soiled dress, patched and embroider with dull green flowers on its edges, swirled around her bony legs. The woman was tall and gangly. Taller than Tipper with Perceval on his shoulders. Her straw-like hair was tied into a low ponytail and was the color of the sky at dawn. She had only one eye. Just one. It was set in the middle of her face where her nose should have been. The iris was aquamarine with flecks of dark purple, and her pupil was a hazy red. Her mouth was normal, or as normal as it could be. Her lips were full and a sweet shade of pink. Really, she would have been pretty if she had not just set Bull Fists onto them.
“You really are humans! Oh yes, my dears, I thought I smelled you!”
“How?” Ginger asked before she could stop herself.
“How what, lovely?” The woman’s voice was as tender and as kind as a school teacher’s. She sounded like she cared. Like she was a mother.
“How can you smell us? You don’t have a nose.”
“Ginger,” Alastair hissed.
“Oh no. Oh, no, no, no, dear child. I do not mind.” The woman walked closer to Ginger. The girl could smell the rot of roses invading her senses and forced herself not to cover her nose. “I can smell your magic. Not through traditional means. Ha ha! Ah, no.” Her tone lowered and Gabbie felt chills scatter down her arms and back. “I can smell your weak human bodies through my skin. I can taste you. Your, power. Your, magic. You’d all be mine. Mine and my children’s if she had not ordered your capture.”
“Alright, I don’t know what she’s saying, but it’s not good.” Tipper put his body between the woman and Ginger. “You leave these kids alone before I roast you to a crisp.”
“Child of the Kitsune Woodssss…” The woman mused. “Oh, how I used to feast on your kind’s flesh. Soft and buttery. Aaah. How I miss being young. Taking what I wanted. Eating the human warlocks and those with magic crafts.” The woman wrapped her arms around her shoulders as if she were cold. “But then he forced us into this, this valley. Nothing but scraps. Nothing but what we’re given.” She spat on the ground. “I am Malefa! The Bull Fist matron!”
“So, That didn’t sound like she was going to leave us alone with a pat on our backs,” Tipper concluded.
“No!” Ginger and Alastair said as one.
“What do you want to do with us?” Ginger asked.
“Aaaah, yes! I will take you to her.” Malefa nodded triumphantly. “And I will let my children consume your non-human friends. They aren’t needed.”
“Can you stop with the pronoun game? Who is ‘she?’ And who was ‘he?’”
“Never-you-mind. What use would such information be for prisoners and food?”
“Fine. I got what I needed to know.” Ginger nudged Alastair hard with an elbow. “Do it.”
Alastair furrowed his brows. That all he did. Ginger did see anything else happen. Alastair furrowed his brows and everything else besides Alastair, Tipper, and her, stopped. So this was why Ginger felt Gabbie’s confusion when the Lake God was freed. She understood now.
“I think your pocket is what’s helping you,” Ginger pointed out.
“Really?” Alastair dug around and pulled out his silver watch. It glowed an endearing pure silver, and for reason, that glow made Ginger hungry.
“I saw your pocket glowing and thought that must be it.”
“Cool,” Alastair held the watch tighter. “Go get the monsters, now. I don’t really know how long this stop-time-thing can last.”
Ginger got straight to work. She quickly aimed and threw her knives at the closest Bull Fist. Her two knives landed and snug tight into the beast’s eyes. She had six knives left and used all of them on three more Bull Fists.
Tipper, lacking a substantial weapon, settled for conjuring his black flames and letting the Bull Fists roast. He took out four in total with his diligence.
Alastair hesitantly unsheathed his sword. The Bull Fists were too tall to reach with his weapon, and so all he could do was slash and hack at the last two’s knuckles, If he could hobble them enough so that they could no longer walk when they woke up, he’d make it easier for the other two to fight the beasts.
Malefa watched. She was completely frozen. Her arms were locked tight. Her knees sewn together. She could do absolutely nothing from her side of time. All that could be done was witness the destruction of her brood and her own impending death.
“We have to kill her, too!” Ginger barked when all of the Bull Fists were incapacitated or killed.
“No, we shouldn’t,” Alastair argued. He pointed at Malefa. “She may have tried to capture us, but she’s unarmed. The Bull Fists were weapons in themselves. Malefa has nothing.”
“Remember when you tried to help her before? Whoops, turns out she was the mastermind behind herding us all along. Now we’re separated from the others who for all we know might be dead!” Her voice cracked on the word, dead. “We have to take out Malefa now!”
“We don’t have to kill her,” Tipper offered. “Just a tap on the back of the head. She’ll be out for a few hours.”
“And then she’ll come after us again. We’d be putting everyone in danger.”
“Valid point, dear one.”
“Thank you.” Ginger took a moment and then groaned.
“After what you’ve done to my children,” a very in time Malefa snarled, “I would hunt you all to the ends of Soielle. Never mind orders! I’ll tear your puny fingers off one by one, then your hands, then your arms, and feet, and legs. When I have you down to stumps, I’ll stick you onto a spit and eat you alive one bite after the other, up from your bellies to your chests, to her nose. I want your last sight to be me as I consume you all.”
“That’s mighty pleasant,” Ginger sniffed. “How are you going to do that? If you haven’t noticed, we have swords, knives, and fire. Your just have your hands.” Ginger knew that mentally poking and upsetting Malefa was dangerous, but she had to know what she was dealing with. Malefa just wore a dress. There were no weapons along the belt at her waist. Nothing woven through her silken hair. How could Malefa have so much bravado?
“Ginger, I can’t use the watch! I’m out of watch mojo!” Alastair pointed at the silver watch dangling on its sparkling chain. “I also feel whoozy. Please poke less.”
“I think I may enjoy gnawing on your bones for the next month or two!” Malefa threw back her head and laughed. Her laughter attacked her entire body. Her rib cage cracked and expanded. Her long, spindly arms grew and expanded. The soft grays of her skin thickened into large plated scales. Three spiraling bone horns grew out of the crest of her forehead, growing as long as Ginger’s right arm. Her bottom jaw dropped down and clicked into an underbite. Fangs the size of cat tails scissored out from Malefa’s mouth, and her eerie grin at last matched her newly formed oversized fists. Malefa was at least four sizes larger than just one of her children.
“Now that you’re out of tricks you should be easy pickings,” Malefa somehow said between her crooked teeth.
“We aren’t out of tricks!” Shouted Alastair. “We can always…RUN!”
Tipper, Ginger, and Alastair ran past the fallen Bull Fists and did not dare to look back. Malefa roared with the pleasure of the hunt.
“The lady just lost eight, no, ten of her kids and she’s having fun running after us?’ Ginger panted. “How many more kids does she have where that many didn’t shake her?”
“I don’t like thinking about that while running for my life,” Tipper answered.