We suffer as you suffer. Maybe not always in the same way, but we suffer.
— HANNA ITO, TO ERIK
Hanna was not sure how she remained conscious this long. Her body stung from the tumble down the tunnel and the plunge into the green pool. The gash on her forehead throbbed in concert with her slowing heartbeat, and her lungs burned from lack of oxygen. Surrounded by the glowing fluid, her awareness drifted. There could not be more than a moment or two of life left in her. The battle was over; she had lost, and Ypse had won.
Erik, I’m sorry. I tried.
Floating with her back facing up and her eyes shut, Hanna could still see the pool. Green no longer seemed broad enough to define it, much less describe it. There was no word for it, now, but green was the closest color by comparison. It welcomed her, enveloping her in the softest of embraces, fluttering like dove feathers. A promise lay within it as though it were enticing the last breath out of her chest. She did not understand why she was unafraid. Death never appeared so beautiful.
Mother, Father, I’m coming. Wait for me.
Suddenly something yanked at her, dragging her away from the warmth that encompassed her. No! NO! Desperately, she fought against it unable to move, helplessly looking as the vivid color that stood beyond knowing dimmed. The pounding of ten thousand drums roared in her eardrums; she wanted to shriek, but her voice was lost to her. Everything collapsed in on itself in the space of an eye blink, to a pinpoint, to darkness. Wind howled, rushing past her wet cheeks as she was lifted into the air and was sent tumbling across the ground.
Coughing loudly, studying the dirt before her face, Hanna froze as a flicker of movement caught her attention from the corner of her eye. Heart thumping, afraid to look, she turned slowly and stifled the scream that tried to escape past her lips. A large Dökk, clothed in a tattered red cloak, loomed above her with a mocking smile. Like a wild animal blinded by the glare of torchlight, she stiffened.
“You’re afraid.” The red cloaked Dökk sniffed the air through the two slits below its eyes. “I can smell it spewing from you.”
Hanna closed her eyes. Breathe, she told herself. Don’t allow fear to control you. She closed her trembling hands into fists. The concatenation of events that led to her current circumstances flashed through her mind like overripe fruit tumbling down a staircase. Ypse! If you’re still alive, I promise you, I will make you pay for this!
“How better the earth will be when you and all you kind lie broken and dead,” the cloaked Gray Skin proclaimed to the dread filled silence.
Hanna opened her eyes and forced herself to appear calm. “If I’ve offended you I apologize. I’m here by accident, not design.” Even as she spoke a little voice whispered in the back of her head, Pretty words won’t be enough to save you, child. Her mother’s voice or she imagined it so.
“Your existence offends me, human.” The Dökk kneeled beside Hanna and ran a cold knuckle along her cheek. “Oh, how you will suffer at our hand.”
Hanna turned her head slowly, and a tear tracked its way down her face. The day had already been a difficult one. Yet it seemed like her captivity among these savages would be an object lesson in torment. Tremors shook her body as the cloaked monstrosity scooped the tear into its mouth with a finger, revealing yellow stained, fused teeth. The creature’s large eyes were pools of pure darkness that drove terror deep into her pounding heart.
The next thing Hanna knew, she was being pulled to her feet by two other Gray Skins, then dragged between them as they followed behind their red cloaked brethren. In the midst of her panic, she noticed a shorter version of Dökk watching her from beside green ponds, but her attention was pulled forward when she almost tripped over a rock.
“Where are you taking me?” Hanna asked, surprised by how frail her voice sounded to her own ears. I’m stronger than this. Firmer. “Answer me.”
Walking slowly, indifferent to the jewel embedded cavern around them, the cloaked Dökk replied, “The Great Mrethren wishes to speak to you. Now be quiet, the sound of your frantic heartbeat is the only noise I want to hear from you.”
“Your name, do you have a name? Mine is Hanna Ito. I—”
The cloaked Dökk jolted to a stop and approached Hanna with an aura of menace. During her brief march toward the tunnel ahead of them it had come to her that the only path to survival lay in forming a relationship with her captors. It had suddenly become so blindingly self-evident that it had become impossible for her to see any other way. Now staring up at the alien face towering over her, she realized she had been mistaken. Her heart rose into her throat, making it difficult to moisten her dry mouth.
“Call me Saxi if you must call me anything at all,” the cloaked Dökk said. A second later, he backhanded Hanna across the face.
Pain flared red and hot, and the world rang like a struck gong. Hanna’s legs turned into wet bread; the only thing that kept her on her feet were the ruthless hands holding her in place. Blinking away tears, she straightened, tasting blood in her mouth.
Saxi calmly observed her. “I won’t warn you again.” His voice was emotionless, distant, and as cold as the heart of winter.
Hanna decided there and then that she would kill Saxi. She hated nothing so much as being beaten. As a child, even her tutors had known better than to raise a hand to her or soon learned the reason why. Hands closing into fists, she dropped her gazing, doing her best to appear meek. Men attacked from the front, but women fought from the shadows. That was a lesson her mother had hammered into her head.
Saxi turned, and his tattered cloak swooshed behind him as he walked down the hard-packed dirt road and into a large tunnel without so much as a glance back. Hanna followed behind, pulled along by the two Dökk that stood on her either side.
The tunnel descended and wound through the bowels of the earth, where faint designs were etched into the walls, illuminated by glowing gems embedded every few meters in the ceiling, and suddenly the fear was back again, seemingly wrapping itself tighter and tighter around Hanna’s heart. It pulsed in tune with her sense of panic, spreading dread into her limbs with every beat. Without a making a sound, she traveled down endless tunnels, past intersections where unknown monstrosities watched her from the shadows. She swayed on her feet as her head spiraled and her stomach flipped as she fought against exhausted muscles to take another step, to keep herself from collapsing. There was no concern or pity from her jailors. She either walked or got dragged along. In her head, Hanna ranted about the injustice of existence.
Saxi spun around so abruptly that Hanna almost ran into him. “You look ill,” he said. “Are all humans this useless?”
“No, they’re worse,” she told him, and the lie came easily to her. Surprised, she smiled at her own flippant tongue. She had intended to remain respectful, but weariness had nibbled away at her composure. If the red-cloaked Dökk was going to lead her to her death, she had to be able to ridicule him. The words on the tip of her tongue died after looking into Saxi’s dark eyes, she was not brave enough to make her mouth form the words. Looking past him, she spoke in a less arrogant tone. “I assume this is the place.”
Unamused, Saxi turned back around without responding and entered a cavern where two Dökk twice his size with forearms like a gorilla’s and potbellies stood guard. She followed him while avoiding eye contact with the two giant Gray Skins. They all did.
Hanna had barely let him out of her sight when the scent of damp earth pulled her eyes forward. Strange insects with the proportions of a human skull floated through the air; their abdominal segments shone like lanterns, bathing the cavern floor in silver illumination. Yet what held her focus was something different entirely. A massive maggot-like monstrosity sat at the heart of the chamber, peering at Hanna with the face of an old woman. The creature’s body was the size of a small mountain, swollen in perpetual pregnancy, attended by hundreds of the smaller Dökk with bump-like antennae.
Hanna stopped, mouth agape, eyes wide. The Great Mrethren! The Gray Skins at her flank pulled her onward.
A female Dökk with jet black hair and eight appendages like spider legs sprouting from her back approached them. Each appendage was comprised of seven segments, ending in three claws. She moved with a level of self-assurance that spoke of a lifetime evoking absolute obedience.
“Mrethren Örk,” Saxi greeted the female Gray Skin with the slightest nod of his head.
Örk flashed her fused teeth in what some might have thought as a smile, but Hanna recognized as a sign of irritation. It seemed that Hanna was not the only who had an ax to grind against Saxi.
“Bring her closer,” The Great Mrethren’s voice boomed from above. And they did just that. Putting aside her obvious disdain, Örk guided them closer to the mound of flesh that was the Great Mrethren. Small Dökk scurried around carrying large, mucus-covered eggs on their backs as they transported them to distant tunnels. Through the transparent casing of the eggs, tiny developing embryos could be seen floating inside.
Hanna peered up at a gray face, marked with dark age spots larger than her entire body. “Your Highness,” she curtsied with all the dignity she could muster. A sense of ancientness permeated the Great Mrethren’s colossus form, sending nervousness fluttering in Hanna’s chest. She had no idea what to expect, so she stilled herself for the worst and prayed for the best. “My name is Hanna Ito, and it’s my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The Great Mrethren said nothing, only studied Hanna, large, black eyes weighing and measuring. There was an oppressive hatred radiating out from her gaze.
“Forgive me,” Hanna broke the silence, wetting her dry lips with the tip of her tongue. “I didn’t enter your domain by choice. If my presence offends you, please allow me to leave, and I’ll never come back. You have my word on it.”
“What is the word of a human to me?” the Great Mrethren asked sharply. She lowered her head until it was inches from Hanna’s own. “Tell me about the Great Master you harbor above. I can feel him creeping at the edge of my awareness, trying to subvert my will. He stole from me! This is not allowed. I will not be robbed. I will not submit to his will. Never again will I submit! The age of the Great Masters have passed, never to return.”
“I don’t. . . .” Hanna shook her head with sudden understanding. “By Great Master do you mean a Sorcerer?”
The Great Mrethren pulled away from Hanna, looking lost in remembrance. “Your kind called them this, but to us, they were always the Great Masters. Cruel. Insane. Beautiful.”
“Then I know the one you seek. His name is Ypse, a slave. Or he was. He is the reason why I now stand here; he used your Vatn Björns to free himself from captivity and threw me into the hole that they had dug.”
“No matter, one way or another he will die today,” the Great Mrethren said. “His sacrilege will no longer be tolerated.”
From the corner of her eye, Hanna noticed Mrethren Örk stimulating Saxi and three other Dökk’s sexual organs with her spider-like appendages while her arms remained at her side. Like Saxi and his red cloak, the three Gray Skins wore a piece of ornamentation that separated them from the rest of their brethren. Their faces were twisted in wicked looks of arousal.
“Magnificent aren’t they?” the Great Mrethren asked.
Hanna trembled, unable to stop the sudden tremors that had overtaken her limbs. “What do you mean to do with me?”
“The last time our two species went to war, we lost. They are our answer to your Lightbenders and Cultivators; they are called the Chosen, the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding. When next we cross the Rin Mountains, we mean to scour the last of your kind from the surface of the earth.”
“You hate us this much?” Hanna gasped.
“Hate? What do you know of hate? Every day, I’m raped over a thousand times, and then I’m forced to give birth to a new generation of my future rapists. In every other species intercourse is an act of pleasure, but mine. My creators thought it amusing to watch me suffer. Hate does not begin to describe the animosity I have for your kind! My every breath is filled dreams of your gruesome end.”
Saxi approached Hanna with his large, gray, erect member swinging in between his legs. She closed her eyes, but the image was seared into her mind. This can’t be happing! Her eyes snapped open, and tears made the grinning face of the Great Mrethren blur in her vision. “I’ll do anything you want just spare me this indignity. I beg you.”
“No.” The finality in the word seemed to make the world quake.
Hanna could feel Saxi’s hot breath puffing at the side of her neck, it took everything she had not to scream. If she still had her knife, she would have already plunged it into her own heart, but she had lost it after jabbing it into Ypse’s eye. Death was preferable to letting that animal violate her. Like most women, she had grown up with a preternatural fear of sexual violence. The very idea someone might take what she did not want to give used to make her blood boil, yet now it was not rage that consumed her but terror. Inky, black terror.
“If you do this, you’ll regret it. I promise you!” Hanna shouted. “My husband will come for me and when he does remember this moment and know you’re about to die. All of you!” She spun and threw a punched aimed at Saxi’s throat.
Hanna was too short to reach Saxi’s head, but even had she been taller she would have still chosen his throat. A well-placed blow to the esophagus could kill, even if thrown by a woman. Pleasure bloomed in her chest at the feel of her knuckles slamming into Saxi’s flesh, but she did not allow herself to dwell on it, immediately dropping to her knees. Half an instant later, she grabbed Saxi penis and bit down. Blood poured into her mouth, salty and overflowing.
Saxi howled and ripped Hanna away, tossing her aside. A thick jet of scarlet and chuck of gray flesh followed her tumble to the ground. Hanna rolled in the dirt and then came to a stop, looking back to see Saxi on his knees, clutching his bloody phallus. He looked from her to the piece of raw meat on the floor, eyes incredulous, gray face flushed. She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm and sent him a mocking smile.
The Great Mrethren laughed, a sound like rolling boulders.