Part 9

Hunger and Cold
Daiza stared into the monster's dead eyes. A word--a horrible word--blazed in her mind: horcha.
It was the kind of word you only want to read in textbooks. It meant abomination, perversity. A more direct translation might be 'the paradox of un-life'.
The grim paradox reached a wizened, claw-like hand towards her, unhinging its jaw to reveal a long black tongue with a little gaping mouth or sucker on the tip.
She stared, fascinated and repulsed, as the sucker wriggled closer...
Suddenly, Syll was between them, faster than the girl could blink.
The abomination pitched back with the hilt of a dagger protruding from its eye socket.
"Wake up, sweetie," she said, taking Daiza's hand in a sweaty grasp. "Gotta move."
"That won't work," Daiza said, pointing dream-like at the horcha.
Syll turned.
The horcha was on its back in the mud. As they watched, the left eye--its good eye--rolled in its skull to focus on them. Then, with an inhumane grin, it reached up, curled its long thin fingers around the hilt and pulled out the knife with a hideous wet sqwiiiiip.
"Mother of All," Syll whispered, tugging Daiza into a trot.
"There's more," a detached voice announced. Daiza was shocked to realize that the voice was hers.
Another horcha had cut off Gillion's escape. The little man's shadow bobbed wildly in the lamplight as he defended himself. His sword was a gold streak, hitting again and again--but the horcha was unphased. It advanced, drooling at the scent of his lively flesh. Gillion dodged and leaped, retreating slowly down the trail towards the lantern.
"What will hurt them?" Syll asked, watching.
"Don't know. I've never heard of this variety before. It's kind of interesting, how they use their tongue to--"
"Damn you," Syll hissed, pirouetting to face her. Out of nowhere, a blade appeared in her grasp. She plunged it towards Daiza's face...
The girl winced and closed her eyes. When she opened them, her face was unharmed. She didn't feel a cut nor the hot trickle of blood.
She looked around. A horcha's oozing tongue lay on the ground, still moving. A gray hand suddenly reached up and around her shoulder...
But it never connected because Syll dragged her out of reach then started running. With a backwards glance, Daiza saw the one-eyed horcha was on its feet and ambling after them with its hand up to catch her. It moved in a bizarre three-limbed run, tongue-stub dripping ichor as it went.
"You're welcome," Syll told her heatedly.
"They're tireless," Daiza announced. "They'll run us down. It's only a matter of time."
Another horcha appeared ahead of them to the left. It crawled down to the trail, wide-eyed and slavering.
Syll stopped and spun, delivering an expert roundhouse kick to its face. It jerked sideways and tumbled into the oily waters of the brook.
"Don't you know any spells?"
Before Daiza could answer, she was interrupted by a shatter and a cry of victory.
Seeing his sword was useless, Gillion had picked up and swung the lantern into the horcha's skull. It cracked and spilled hot oil all over the perversity's tangled white hair, giving it a mantle of red flame.
"Fire," Syll exclaimed. "I've seen you use fire before, can't you--"
Daiza shook her head. "Just watch."
The abomination continued its assault unbroken. Only now it was on fire.
"You've got to be kidding!" the little man cried as he ducked a burning claw.
This was too much. Syll stopped moving, mouth agape. At last, she realized how dire the situation was, how hopeless. Daiza had known this from the beginning. The best way to deal with horcha was by exposing them to sunlight. Since she didn't know how to conjure sunlight, there was nothing to be done.
An abomination crawled up out of the brook dripping, while another ran up from behind. They caught the raven-haired woman by her arms, their talons digging into her sleeves so the fabric was darkened with spots of blood. Belatedly, she struggled. But it was no use. A single horcha she might overpower, but a pair was too much.
The injured monster slapped her shoulder and back with its useless tongue but succeeded only in splattering her with gore.
The second, however, had a functioning organ. While Daiza watched, fascinated, its tongue slithered down to the base of Syll's spine and wriggled through the fabric there, attaching to her skin.
Syll grunted once and stopped struggling. Her body stiffened.
The injured horcha continued to probe her, eyes wild with hunger, opening and closing his mouth in desperate confusion.
Syll looked ahead, unblinking, not bothered at all by the hideous worm slapping her face. Daiza could literally watch the life go out of her, see her eyes glaze over with death.
"Cold," she whispered through purple lips. "I'm so cold..."
Daiza's heart suddenly fluttered.
She drew her rod of shoma wood and, with a whispered word, concentrated her mind on the dji energy around her. The corrupted hollow pulsed with it--thick and cloying, like the fungal spores in the air. It felt wrong--all wrong. She didn't want to draw it nor channel it through her body. She didn't want it to touch her shoma reservoir. What if the taste got in there and never left? Would she have to throw away her rod?
Syll's eyes rolled back in her skull.
The sorceress had no choice. She chanted, drew the dji in then expelled it into the air around her. The spell was easier than she'd expected: there was a lot of moisture here. It was a simple thing to make that moisture congregate and grow stiff with cold, massing into icy shackles around the sickening limbs of the horcha.
She didn't have to destroy them after all--just delay them.
The abominations were so busy feeding--or attempting to feed--that they didn't notice when she trapped them in frozen manacles.
Calmly, Daiza reached out and tore the pulsing tongue from Syll's spine. It left a gossamer-strand of white ooze as it went.
Pinioned together, the two horcha fell over into a struggling heap, leaving Syll upright and blinking. Her eyes met Daiza's. "That hurt like a bitch," she whispered.
Daiza grabbed her by the shoulders and moved her away from the writhing mound of angry claws. "Wish I'd thought of it sooner. You okay?"
She hugged herself. "I...think so."
"Good. Let's go."
Gillion was still doing his lunatic dance--cartwheeling and dodging this way and that, trying desperately to keep out of his opponent's fiery grasp. The cowl was dark with sweat.
Daiza paused, took careful aim, and did the spell again. She could only do its legs, since the fire would melt any ice on the arms.
The horcha made a lunge for Gillion just as the manacles appeared. It toppled over and rolled to a stop nearby, its tongue slapping its own face like a drunken worm.
Gillion came to a stop, chest heaving, and tore his hood off. Underneath, his brown hair was matted with sweat.
"Finally," he spat, tossing away the cowl. "The conjurer decides to do something."
"Keep moving," Daiza told him. "It won't hold them forever." She ran past the grasping horcha, holding her skirts to keep clear.
Syll followed but as she passed the monster, her left leg buckled. She spilled into the mud close enough that the beast caught her foot with one of its smoking talons.
Gillion pounced, pinning the claw to the dirt while Daiza helped Syll to her feet. When their eyes met, Daiza felt a stab of guilt and fear.
Syll was always pale, but now that pallor had a distinctly unhealthy look to it, and there were gray circles around her eyes.
She noticed Daiza's scrutiny and forced a smile. "Admiring my creamy complexion?"
"We need to run."
Below them on the trail, the two imprisoned horcha were clawing and biting their fetters. Chunks of ice and rotten black flesh fell like snowflakes around them. It was hard to tell, but it looked like they were making progress.
Gillion didn't wait to find out. He dashed by the other two. Daiza thought she heard him say "Scouts go first" as he passed.
With an arm over Syll, Daiza started up the path again, stepping out into the corrupted (but dry) forest. They'd gone three steps when Syll stumbled and sagged in her grasp. Daiza caught her before she hit the ground, but just barely. Her head lolled so a curtain of dark hair fell over her face.
"I need some help back here," Daiza called, slapping Syll gently on the cheek through her hair.
Gillion came trotting back with a grin. "I saw torches! We're saved."
Daiza felt a rush of desperation. It was almost easier before, when there was no hope. Now, so close to salvation, the tension was killing her.
The three of them stumbled through a scattering of low, knotty trees. Beyond, just yards away, Daiza could make out sputtering red torches through the gaunt canopy. It looked like they burned atop a tower or large building.
"Help!" Daiza cried.
"Over here!" Gillion added.
There came no answer.
Daiza stumbled and caught herself. "Why don't they come out and help us?"
"Can you blame them?" the little man asked, trudging along with Syll's arm over his shoulders.
"Dangerous out here," Syll mumbled. Her feet were running into each other.
Daiza straightened the other woman's legs and frowned at the twinkling lights. "So they're so afraid they won't come out. Will they even open the door then? Will they let us in?"
Gillion didn't answer.

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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