The tone in her head let her watch her two companions straighten out and meet the water with their hands, a moment before she smacked on her side into its black face, arms out against the bucking shapes hurled down on her, their braying cut short as the freezing darkness burst and swallowed them impartially. The surface soared away overhead, lost to her as she fought to disengage from her pursuers; her clothes flooded, plumes of silvered, beaded air crawling over her while cobblestone knuckles pounded and raked at her face and chest. She twisted and tore free of them, kicking desperately against the boots that dragged on her legs like sacks of stone. The night above proved a fouled and battering hell of choking spray and scourging limbs and she was trodden under again, gasping a throat full of water. Clutching the creature floundering beside her, she saw its great head swing back over its shoulder at her, jaws slamming with the sound of snapped bones; she braced her boots against its flank and dived back under.
Within the river's echoing bourne the blackness was a backcloth against which all pale shapes were rendered in plastic, bloodless white, her hands corpse-like before her. The water had carved itself a depth too great to reckon by the moon; she lost her bearings and pulled around toward the crack and rumble of submerged violence, using all four limbs and brushing back her snaking tendril hair. From her remove she watched Edward ascend from the obscurity beneath one of the struggling beasts and stroke his arm across its belly, drawing a wound that birthed a gravid flush of serpentine entrails and stained him marbled shades of cold, sweet pink. With no need of the surface he read the rhythms in the champing jaws and toiling limbs, moving to their dictates, becoming one more of the water's horrors with a knife that opened their assailants as though their bloody contents longed for the release; he joined his brother as the latter drowned the last uninjured beast, dragging it beneath the surface with his arms locked around a head that spun slowly in a grinding circuit. Hooked claws in his feet tore its taut skin as he punched his knife into the silver-flashing eyes and the gleaming, knotted flesh behind its skull. Turning away, Susan caught a draught of air and sounded again. Through the gloom the far bank loomed as ashen and uncertain as a distant sea mount, rising steeply beneath an unseen shore.
The shelved stone offered little purchase to boots that skidded hopelessly against it, forcing her further along the ledge. She kicked herself onto a stretch of silt, humping over mud until her knees found solid ground. One and then another of her companions hauled up on either side of her, Sachiin grasping her with a torn hand while the last beasts pawed at the far wall of the gorge, vainly seeking egress. Overhead and clearly limned for the first time, their remaining fellows loomed atop a cliff no longer entailed by shadow. Where she thought of the wolf, they scarcely obliged her, both canine and hominid subsumed by a churning fusion that confounded the sum of its parts; they crouched, held down by the weight of their saurian heads, funeral hues caping their minotaur shoulders before flanks stratified with heaving musculature. They sucked the breath from her mouth with their argentine stares, maws lolling open and thickly spiked with fat, flared tusks.
Sachiin boosted her over rocks she could not negotiate in her mud-greased state toward Edward, and they climbed into the trees where she sat down, the river pouring from her bagging garments and the mirror bag still hanging round her neck. Her arms and shoulders shook, but he lifted her back onto her feet.
"Thi'i sai'inae." Sachiin told his brother, wiping his face on the torn sleeve of his shirt. She watched dumbly as he headed back down to the river, Edward catching hold of her arm.
"He's going for your pack." he advised, anticipating her demand as she gasped its first syllables. Taking the rifle from his shoulder he chose a clear line through the trees and targeted the beasts still leering on the cliff top, scattering them back into the scrub while she closed her eyes against the muzzle flash.
On the far side of the ridge top Edward let her lie against a tree and catch her breath, though she continued the broken song that she had droned during their march uphill, her damp clothes still sucking at her skin. The moon's shadow leant out across the tiers of broad, sedate nocturne beneath them; the river, having curled south and looped behind the ridge, passed eastward, seated deeply in the basement stone of the wider valley. Conifers once more usurped the broadleaves of the hills behind them, clothing the windward mountains with their dour, balsam-scented recurrence, thin arms held out as though in an expression of dread. When he glanced at her again she was staring back at him, unblinking, and he replied with a look that should have discouraged her. He took up his rifle and moved off and she fell in, catching and pushing past him on the narrow way and trundling down into the swept and dusty vacancy beneath the pines. As if something had tripped her Susan went over on her face and lay flat out on the ground; he stooped to catch her parka, standing her back upon her feet and watching her continue on without a word like a toy he had set back onto its tracks.
A thick pelt of dead needles had blown across a narrow way before them, its regularity evolving into a crooked line of hand-cut steps pouring like a frozen cataract from a crevice in the stone. Their cracked, decrepit increments could not have been more welcome if they had been clad with carpet and lined with rails; she leant over to inspect them minutely, first scowling suspiciously, then laughing to herself in macabre delight, the sound tumbling away into the valley. Blood ran from her mouth and spotted the stone, her cackles giving way abruptly to gurgling expectoration. She followed them to a divergence where one flight headed down into the gorge, the other cutting across a cirque toward the north and its termination in a basaltic redoubt, the formation standing like the lonely corpse of some slab-sided pachyderm. A shallow curve of hollowed shapes crowned it in the waning moonlight, a plain, perfunctory colonnade staring through arches toward sister peaks on the far side of the gorge; Susan trudged the path across the slope to its agreement with the flank of rain-streaked stone, where it barely allowed the width of her companion's shoulders. The steps ended in a mound of alluvium washed from the cracks in the rock overhead and the studded ruin of a postern door, its black timbers fretted with finger-deep cracks. Leaning against the abutting stone, Edward spoke in Russian, as though to someone standing on the other side.
Ten minutes passed before he was answered by the tapping of miniature feet. The door was hauled back off its giant latch and Petrouchka retreated with it in the folds of a black fur, murmuring a greeting to him while Susan stood humming tunelessly, her own blood dried around her mouth and chin, hair and clothing hanging like a drowned pelt.
"You are very, very strange girl." the vampyre remarked as the latter shuffled past her.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce