Something tickled Yuki’s nose. Given her last memory was of being crushed under a multi-ton ship enroute to the ocean floor, this was as welcome as it was confusing. She batted at the annoyance. It bent and snapped back. Fine extensions slapped her upper lip and nostrils.
Yuki opened her eyes. She was dry, and the landscape stretched out before her was too parched for the ocean floor. It was barren, free of scuttling bottom feeders or writhing horrors. There were only roots, stuck upside down from the terrain. It was as if the plants they were meant to anchor had been dug up, reversed, and reburied. The ground was stone, dark and mottled, unlike anything, volcanic or igneous, she’d seen before. It was level, cracked. Thin trenches ran through it like empty rivers. They cut the stone, but not deeply. In many places the cracks were filled out by roots, or perhaps made by them.
There were no walls, nor a ceiling. She must be on the surface, out of doors, in some terrible empty night. The only indicator to support this was the gentle, constant breeze that buffeted her. It came on from her left, ever the same speed.
Her vision gave out fifteen paces from where she stood, no matter the direction she turned her head. Such was the limit of her eyes when deprived of light. That range had sufficed when she went diving in caves.
“Hello?” No echo returned. She called her greeting louder. “Hello!”
Deciding that at least the wind, faint as it was, was something, Yuki set off, walking into it. Each patch of ground was much the same as the last visible patch she had trodden. She began to think she was in some sort of great mystic loop that regurgitated the same earth under her as she padded along.
She considered circumstances, checked her person, and found herself intact and clothed. Any belongings aside from clothing and ornaments were gone. She could see her hands in all their detail, so it was no dream, but her waterskin was gone, as were her bracers and necklace. When she felt for them there was a fuzziness to the skin that made her tingle.
Astral projection? Her magic items were gone, and if she recalled the particulars of that spell, it would have conjured approximations of her implements. But she had cast no spell and – were she were honest – had no idea how to go about separating body and spirit. She frowned, and as she walked, kicked the ground. Her bare toe scraped and it hurt. That wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be embodied. The only way that would have come to pass would be if she were subject to the most powerful form of projection. Or, she hollowed inside at the thought, she were here in her own flesh.
The lesser spells of astral projection allowed a caster the chance to unburden herself from flesh and fly as a spirit through the world, touching upon other planes or traveling the realms unformed. More powerful, and rare enough to be thought legend, was the power to call flesh to one’s spirit from the surrounding matter of whatever world one visited. If that were the case, then she had a body that could feel and be killed, though that death would only bring her back to her original self.
She shook herself and instilled calm by will alone. It would be stupid to test that hypothesis, given the possible outcome if she were mistaken. Drab as this place was, death would take her nowhere better.
A sound from overhead gave her pause. It was like when the chef back home had gutted a fish, pulling innards from a bony carcass, but mixed with thunder peeling across the heavens. The organs would have had to be the size of continents. She caught herself about to throw up an empty stomach.
The sound grew closer.
She was careful enough to not catch a toe in one of the shallow crevices, but none were large enough to fit her groping hand, let alone her entire self. There was no hiding from whatever descended from the black heavens.
After much running, in which the sound never seemed anywhere save directly overhead, something broke the bubble of her observable universe. It pierced the top and dribbled in like oil, though without a glossy reflection. No light, no glisten. The rolling stalk tumbled wet and thick over itself, bending to follow her. When it was twenty feet overhead it bubbled, boiling from the inside. The affixed hemispheres that marked the its outside split, each right down the middle. They revealed eyes with red irises and pits for pupils. They spun around, rolled in their lids, then every one fixed on Yuki.
Her own voice startled her as much as the thing did. She wasn’t yelping, though. She said the words for a spell, louder than was strictly necessary, and lifted her palm up to face the eyes. A blast of cold shot out and stabbed into the hanging ichor.
She hadn’t known if she could even cast spells in this place. Her relief at being able to do so was short-lived. The ice that hardened in a man-sized patch on the thing vanished into it, swallowed up by the rest of the thing, which accepted her gift like a candy put on a child’s tongue.
Her feet never stopped, but kept glancing skyward. At ten feet away the bottom of the waxy, obsidian dollop split again. She expected another eye, a huge one given the size of the gash. Instead, she saw teeth. Each was a white rectangle, flat and without the grooves of a true animal’s ivories. There was no tongue, no palate, only an emptiness that welcomed her as it fell over her head.
The mouth was too large and fell too quickly to snap and split her in two. Instead, it sank teeth into the ground around her. She could only tell by the sound. As soon as it swallowed her a darkness descended that was so complete she couldn’t tell the difference between having her eyes open or shut.
She had never been in the dark. Light meant color, but even without it she could see forms, make out the world in white, black, and gray.
She cried out and fired another chilling blast, from her both hands this time. Her fingers and voice acted out forms perfected by countless hours of practice. The black around her rumbled and the stone under foot shifted. The shovel-teeth broke it loose. It made to swallow her and the ground in one go.
She thought that would be the last thing she heard, that grinding and the noise overhead: a great throat gulping empty air. The next sound was deliverance, like a sandbag punched through by a spear. One clean jerk and then a million particles sprinkled loose. Her vision returned as the thing broke apart. Fragments like ash danced in an upward spiral beyond her
Someone stood beside her, just beyond her view. Turning her head, she went wide-eyed. It was an elf, male. The right side of his face – between cheek and jaw – was missing. She could see all his teeth on that side. Despite the gruesome view, they were more natural, more real, than the perfect blocks of white that had tried to consume her.
The man stared skyward. They were alone. He must have seen past where her own eyes gave out. She studied him as he tracked whatever loomed over them. His face was not the only anomaly. His right arm was outstretched, and she could convince herself it was pointing at her only if she side-stepped to the left. The limb was free of skin and muscle. The bone was naked and bleached. The sleeve of his black leather armor gave out at the bicep. Going from fair condition at the shoulder to withered waste as it fell off the elbow, it ended in tatters.
Beyond the elliptical ring where the teeth had churned and broken stone were the man’s feet. The left was without boot or skin, a match to the owner’s opposite hand. His right eye was gone as well, though a dim light danced far into the black socket. His other eye was gray as steel. Where he had skin it was as soft and unblemished as any elf. His hair was long and as dark as his clothes. It fell like drapery around his face.
“Hi,” she let slip, then started herself into manners. “Thank you, Sir, for saving me.” She bowed her head, careful to keep an eye on her benefactor.
Maybe he only now realized she was there, and had to go about the process of figuring out what to do about her. His first words came slow, and what she had expected.
“What have you done to yourself?”
“Pardon?” she said. She was angry with herself that it came out pleading. Wonderful, she thought. Already on the defensive.
After a long moment he shook his head. “Nevermind. You don’t know how you got here, do you?”
She laughed, rubbing her hands together. “That obvious, eh? Sorry. The last thing I recall is a ship hitting me. Meaning the whole ship, mind you. Uh, my name is Yuki, Sir.”
He did not disappoint. Giving her name got his in return. “I am Kleose.”
“Kleo…” The name of the King of the Underworld was not easily forgotten. She had read the legends. They all ended badly. “Oh. I… I think I know who you are.”
“Many do. Many are wrong.” He looked away, listening to something she couldn’t hear. He didn’t speak until he faced her again. “I thought I recognized you, but I cannot be correct. You can’t be who I thought you were.”
“Why not?” What knowledge of one’s soul did the King of the Underworld have?
“Whatever image of you forms in my mind will be tainted, incomplete. So too your impression of me. It is that. It has the shape of the thing, but is not the thing. Footprints are not feet.”
“I see.” Yuki understood. She didn’t know how the conversation had taken this turn, but she grasped the meaning. She was about to work at redirecting the dialogue, but the man raised a bony finger.
“Excuse me.” He vanished from sight. There was no flourish, no movement of hands or lips, except for the courtesy tantamount to one visiting the washroom. He reappeared and nodded to her. “My apologies. Go on.”
“Am I dead?” Best to ask the most important question first.
“No.” He looked her over, and she felt a lack of sexual appreciation that made her feel safe but unimportant. She knew herself to be attractive. She was a princess, after all. But where recognition of this fact should have come in his eyes, Kleose appraised something beyond meat. “You are more robust than most that visit me. You are alive.”
“Then how did I get here? This is the Underworld, right? The land of the dead?”
“It is the Underworld. The dead do come here, though I wouldn’t think it was their land.”
“Well, you are the ruler, so I suppose it’s more your land.” She kept a nervous laugh from freeing itself. It fluttered around her lungs until it suffocated. She made a show of sweeping the landscape with her gaze. “By the way, why don’t you have a throne?”
He turned his head, hearing something she hadn’t. “Excuse me.”
When he returned that time, her arms were crossed and she frowned.
“What was that?”
“Forgive my rudeness. My work does not take into account time for conversation. There are incursions.”
She raised her hands. “No no, I understand. You must do important work, this being…” A terrible thought arose from a place she had been avoiding. The ship. The sailors. She tried to work her tongue and lips into the question she was so afraid to ask. Another idea, as dreadful as the first, overtook her mouth. “What incursions?”
“Excuse me,” Kleose said. He was back in a second. He then pitched his head to the right, then answered, “Each time I leave your company, I am tending to one of the Others.”
“Oh? There are others here? What do they have to do with this incursion?”
“You have met one of the Others.” He pointed upward with his enfleshed hand.
She followed the point of his nail and looked to the sky. “No,” Yuki said. “That thing? You’re going to kill more of those?”
“Not kill. They were never alive.”
“Wait. You mean that there was some kind of invasion by things like the one that tried to eat me?” She pointed at the ground. “They’re attacking the Underworld?”
She barely kept herself from screaming that time.
Kleose reappeared and said, “The incursions are not a thing of the past. They happen constantly. They have been happening since before I was here.”
“But…” so many questions and no way to order her thoughts and figure out which was the one to ask. “So you’re here alone? You do this all by yourself? What about the dead? You know, ghosts, or spirits? Souls should be helping, right?”
He shook his head. “Most abandon all that they were along with their body. Memory, history, all discarded. They pass through, broken and clean. You have felt them blowing across your skin.”
Yuki loved the cold. Despite that, she shivered.
She gave Kleose a long look. “It sounds lonely. You don’t have anyone here? Ever?”
“Sometimes there is the sun. Sometimes the moon.” He lingered. She was wondered if that span of seconds were filled with more of those things reaching down into the land of the dead.
“How do I go back?” she asked when the pressure of his stare overwhelmed her. She wasn’t afraid of him. It was that being so close to him and so unable to do anything for him stretched her soul to breaking.
“I can send you back. I have enjoyed your company. But before I do, I would ask for something. You are free to refuse. I will see you home regardless. But there is something I think you could do for me.”
“Name it.” Whatever he asked, she would give it.
“I may not know who you are, but I have a good idea. Could you make water for me?”
Yuki’s first thought in this place, aside from getting the root out of her nose, popped back into her head. It was dry.
“Of course. I could make you gallons, for when I was gone. Have you any vessels? Mine are all back-”
He held up a hand. “No need.” He cupped both his hands in front of him, realized one would could hold onto nothing, and kept the left in place. “Please.”
She thrust out her arm and squeezed her fist over his open palm. As if she wrung it from the air, water spilled from her tight grip and overfilled Kleose’s palm. The King of the Underworld turned his head as the small flood breached the lip of his hand. She thought he might moan in pain as it dripped on the stone ground, given his stricken face. He held his tongue.
When she finished he brought the quivering pool that rested in his hand to his lips. Most went in, but some dotted his mouth. A trickle slipped out his open cheek and down the side of his neck.
He gulped. Her stomach clenched.
Somewhere inside him water sloshed against leather. More than the visible pieces of him were missing.
He had closed his eye at some point. The pinprick of light had winked out, only to flicker back to brightness as he opened the left one. He stared at her with reverence.
Twin desires flared in her chest. She wanted to run. She wanted to encase him and herself in ice and block out the world.
“Thank you,” he said.
“I could make more.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Another drink and I’ll grow greedy for the sensation. You should go. You have a life ahead.”
She took a step back. “Wait. Before you said you were mistaken about who you thought I was. It wasn’t just philosophy, was it? Who did you think I was?”
He smiled. “I choose to withhold judgement.” He grabbed her wrist and held it up so she could see. Her blue skin made the white of his bones stand out all the more. “Live a good life, Yuki.”
Her hand fell away. So too did the entire world, what small bit of it she could witness. There was no pain. She did not fight or scream.
She awoke it on a cot with a promise on her lips.
She was surrounded by the tan leather walls of a tent. Her quiet was broken by a young man’s holler.
“Scaz! Come quick! She’s up!” A pause, then, “Well, she’s awake!”
Fundamental Forces, Episode 17 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.