Edam was more wound than woman already, and that was before her injuries. Now she felt like she was all wound, and that made the few days they took to march back to Kallin all the more intolerable. Even after spending a whole day recovering, each step felt like another weight on her back, until finally at the end of the day she would collapse and fall to sleep as soon as a bed was provided. Most nights were filled with the dreamless, empty sleep that exhaustion provided.
When Edam’s eyes closed and her breathing slowed, she found herself again in a nightmare. She could tell it was going to be one right away. It felt too familiar to not be. But now – now it was peaceful. She was back in the church in Tshalagrod. The sun shone in the window in heavy, shimmering tones, and Edam traced a pen over her diary. She had been here before, and she went through the motions again, leaving her diary open to let the ink dry before going to wash herself. Her body moved of its own accord; her vision occasionally blurring into a fractured third-person view that watched herself from corners and windows. She went through the motions. She felt too dirty, too committed to her plan to pray. She drew a bath for herself instead.
Bathing was always a fraught thing for her. Looking too closely at her body – at her scars – felt like bleeding. She’d run the sponge over an old wound, and remember how it opened, the thing that caused it. She’d touch one on her arm, and remember the time she hit another girl at school for badmouthing her; touch one on her belly, and remember how she was scolded for being intemperate. That was the logic and law, blood for blood. There were days that it almost seemed far away, but when she saw the scars and washed herself clean, it was closer than ever. So, to distract herself, she would hum, or sing. Today, she just hummed along.
History repeated itself. She went to eat dinner alone while Ana worked away in the workshop. Distantly, when she took a pause to breathe, she could almost imagine her working away in the dim light, the little chik-chik of the chisel against the wood and the way she pored over her books before making a careful cut. She retired to their room, closed her diary, and waited for Ana’s eventual return.
And she did. Edam couldn’t meet her eyes at first, so she focused on the other details – the straight black hair that fell around her shoulders, there-
She had messed up her collar. Typical.
“Come here,” said Edam.
“You screwed up your collar.”
Ana went over to the bed, and sat. She still couldn’t meet Ana’s eyes. She hesitated before putting her hands on her collar, folding it back down. Then, there was a moment of silence.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Edam as she pulled away, “I- I’ve been thinking. Do you ever think about how you bandaged up that cut on my shoulder that I couldn’t quite reach? How I was shy of it, at first?”
Ana was silent, but she could tell that she remembered. Edam let go of her collar and let her hands fall to Ana’s. They were strong, well-formed; half-callused about the base of her thumb from her labor, but washed of the wood shavings and dust. She curled her fingers over it. It was such a pretty thing.
“I think about it often,” said Edam, “I think – well. I think often about how you’ve been kind to me.”
She sidled closer, until finally she could see Ana’s face and her eyes. There was something in them that let her know. That invited her inches closer, to her strong nose, to bring her hand from Ana’s to her forearm, to drag her fingers to her hair as they came closer, until Ana’s breath came hot on her lips.
“I’m sorry,” said Edam again, “I’m sorry I’ve done this to you.”
The dream blurred. She closed her eyes as their lips met, and it was quiet except for their breathing – and how she could feel it! How she could feel the hot life in Ana’s chest, how it came up from her lungs to her throat, how it left her and came to Edam and she breathed it in and it sustained her, made her feel more alive than ever.
Ana seemed just as excited in that moment. She bumped her forehead up against Edam’s and her hands came to Edam’s body to pull her closer until they tumbled over into the bed, and she simply kept kissing Edam. There was not an inch of hesitation. Months of tension released in that moment, and judging by the sun when Edam briefly opened her eyes, it was far longer than simply a moment, simply an instant of passion. Still, it felt like a moment, and Ana pulled her down further until Ana was beneath her, her legs wrapped around Edam’s waist, one strong arm to hold her shoulders, caress her head.
It was perfect.
And then they came to their senses. Edam went stiff and retreated from her grip, and Ana let her go. That felt all the more damning to Edam. Both of them looked off, and Edam murmured an apology again. That night, she didn’t sleep at all, and that morning she left a note that she was leaving because she felt ill.
The scene shifted. Ana was lying beside her. She was back in bed, but it was not a bedroom. She kicked her legs out from under herself, touching herself to the cold stone floor. All around them were bars of iron which had been burnished to a shine, too thick and well spaced to ever squeeze through – and no door or lock by which to leave. She reasoned then that this was a place where people were to be executed. They were not meant to leave, and she was to kill Ana here. She paced incessantly, not daring to look at the bedside table or even Ana herself. There was not even an implement to kill her with. Edam figured that she was to do it with her bare hands. And then, from the dark, he emerged.
The scarred man stalked with her pacing. He was a curious thing at first, staring through her. A beady black eye flitted about her figure somewhere in between the tumorous masses of keloid flesh, somewhere about where a mouth would be on a human. It was then that she realized she was naked, being examined and interrogated by his gaze. She desperately tried to cover her nudity, ashamed that she had not noticed before. She retreated to the bed again, trying to find something to cover herself from the gaze of the scarred man.
He stumbled like a drunk man as she fell backwards to the bed. Whatever chain that had kept him as her mirror had been broken when she returned to Ana’s side. She froze in place as Ana rose up behind her. Somewhere in the distance a stony voice spoke, phasing in and out of what she could hear.
“You stand accused – and for this crime – in the eyes of the Saints – in the eyes of the Godhead – guilty, guilty, guilty. I condemn you to death.”
Somehow, she felt certain she was hearing her own voice echoed back to her. She felt the words leave her lips in reverse. There was the sudden burst of a firing squad, and then the sound of a blade hitting flesh, then sawing through flesh, sawing deeper and deeper – the sound of a botched decapitation that was being seen through. Someone was whispering behind a door. It sounded like Ana. Edam felt her hand reach up and touch her naked back, the bare flesh and the scars.
Yet something in Edam’s gut told her that Ana was already dead.
She kept whispering, caressing her back as she pressed closer. And Edam was too scared to look back, and terrified of what came ever closer, the scarred intruder into her mind who inched towards the bars, his skin and joints crackling out of their scar tissue. He was a wound on the world. At the same time, the bars seemed so shriek as the stone room shrunk downwards inch by inch.
There was nothing to do but wait as the walls closed in. Fear and curiosity mixed with each other, and eventually it overcame Edam. She raised her hand to the air, trying to caress Ana’s face again without looking back.
She missed, and missed again, and then it became clear that there was no head there to touch.
Still, the whispering. And the scarred man’s hand, now touching the bar.
“It’ll be fine, dear,” said the thing posing as Ana, “Come. Let me touch you. Kiss me, open and clean, kiss the wounds and kiss the open air.”
She shuddered as the dead hand grasped her belly. The scarred man grabbed at the bar, and pulled himself impossibly through the thin gap, flesh deforming horribly, bones breaking.
“You know that you’re dirty. You know that it isn’t going to go any other way. What did you think you were, preening like you were above the Godhead, acting so seductive to me? You wanted me, and you knew it would mean that it would kill me, and you’ve killed me, and you want me still. Corpse-bride. Corpse-whore. Corpse-saint, all, you and I both.”
The scarred man came all the way through and righted itself as it stood. Edam could bear it no longer. In desperation, she looked back – to comfort – to the one damnable thing that had kept her sane, to the one damnable thing that had sent her flying from sanity, and saw her again as she had that night a few weeks ago. Limbs sprawled akimbo, hair spilling everywhere – but in place of a head, a bloodied dark stump opening up into the air. It grasped her and leaned forward. Her body disobeyed her, kissing the stump. She tasted iron, let her tongue fall into Ana’s throat, and woke up sweating.
She still felt disconnected from reality in space and time. She was only faintly aware of the two other people in the room. She tried to speak, and only coughed. One fuzzy figure slowly walked to her side and put something on her lips.
“Drink. It’s just water.”
She did as she was told, greedily taking up the waterskin. The voice seemed watery as it echoed.
“Manguyaat, you should probably leave for this.”
A second voice assented and left the room, and things started to come into focus again. Shivyan was next to her, a concerned look on her face. She had knelt down by Edam’s bed.
“Nightmare, I take it?”
Edam finished her water, and nodded.
“I worry about them.”
“That they’re a punishment from the Godhead,” said Edam, “They’re… they’re sickening.”
She realized that she had been on the verge of throwing up from the stress – that when she washed her throat with the water, bile washed back down with it. Her throat burned. She loathed that. It was one of the few remaining body parts that felt uninjured.
“I have them too, you know.”
She looked over to Shivyan. When she had met her, she had thought she bore a little resemblance to Ana. Now, the resemblance felt even more eerie. She was as if Ana had simply fell down the same path she had been on for twenty years, accumulating valor and scars in equal measure, culminating with a bloody bandage around what remained of her arm. She had been medicated with what they had; liquor, then laudanum when it became available. It made her quiet most of the time, unresponsive and dulled to the world.
“Most of us do, after a certain point,” she added, “If you work in the field for long enough, it follows you.”
Edam was quiet.
“How long does it follow you?”
“I’m afraid to say that it’ll follow you to your grave. I’ve had friends who’ve been retired from field work for decades, and they tell me that they’re still thinking about that one night from ten, twenty, thirty years ago.”
Edam looked down at her hands. She knew she couldn’t keep living like this. One way or another, this was going to come crashing down on her head. The exhaustion was more an enemy than the nightmares themselves; even though she could see the sun shining through the window and the morning light, but she felt as if she had only closed her eyes for a minute.
“How do you stop them?”
“You talk about them, mostly,” said Shivyan, “Whether it was a waking nightmare or a sleeping one, the only good way to exorcize it is to speak it out of you. And I’ll tell you, that’s the toughest part. I couldn’t talk about mine for years.”
Edam stared at her. She couldn’t tell anyone about the parts with Ana, but perhaps she could censor herself enough to tell some parts to Shivyan.
“It seems too terrible to tell.”
“It always does. I can tell you mine, if it helps.”
Edam shook her head.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t do the same for you. It’d be unfair.”
“Comrade,” said Shivyan, “You’re young. Promising. I want you to not make the same mistakes I did when I was young. So if I were to tell you the things I’ve seen, it would be instructional. Because whatever you’ve seen, I’ve seen much the same. And besides, it’s been a while since I’ve done it myself.”
“Alright. Tell me.”
Shivyan shrugged, and leaned back on the thin wall behind the bed.
“Alright. This was about… eighteen years? Nineteen years back. It was the year they finally declared that there wasn’t a single lead pipe left in any of the major cities in Koletya. Whichever year that was.”
“I wouldn’t know. I was barely out of swaddling then,” said Edam.
Shivyan suddenly groaned and put her one remaining hand over her face.
“Godhead save me, I am getting old. It was a bad year for it, you know. The skinner, that killer out in Darvily who’d been using witchcraft to keep out of the way of the law, had just been stopped and when you had a case like that people got panicky. The word spread round and soon everyone was reporting witchcraft for damn near everything. So, when we came up to a hamlet on a report of ‘strange animals,’ we were expecting something simple.”
The skinner was an infamous case. Even with the distance, when word reached the border that he had been caught there was a collective sigh of relief. He was an oddity even among witches. Where most had a motive of some kind, his killings were unconnected except by some vague traits. Youths, aged as young as sixteen and no older than twenty, blond-haired but of either sex. Just as uniform was his method; stabbed repeatedly, bled like animals, and skinned everywhere but their faces. It almost felt like a taunt – an intentional leftover to let them be identified.
Stopped was an interesting choice of words, too. Stopped was the word that was let out to the people, the word that put them at ease. The truth was that the Inquisition had done very little to stop him. They had found him, but the story was well-worn within the Inquisition that the moment they knocked on the door, he shot himself. An enigma to the end, he left no writing to discern a motive from. In fact, when asked, his sole neighbor said that he was illiterate.
“Definitely a rough year for false reporting,” said Edam, “But this one was real.”
“Yes. Feels like the only real one that year at all,” said Shivyan, “So. We went up. It was a little hamlet, mostly farmers and shepherds. They had heard strange noises up in the woods, hunters had seen something odd off in the distance at times, but nothing certain, nothing definite. They were scared, though, and we wanted a change of pace, so we waited around to see if anything interesting happened for a week. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m pretty sure I said that word for word.”
Shivyan’s face took on a darkened pall.
“That night, we heard screaming out in the dark. Maybe we had arrived just at the right time to stop it – and maybe that was true in a sense – but it was a nightmare. It was. There was no other word for it. We went to investigate a little house on the outskirts of the village.”
“And of course, you know how it feels to arrive too late, don’t you?”
Edam nodded in sympathy.
“He was an old-fashioned fellow, this witch. A lot of grimoires ended up floating around after the revolution, and I suppose he found one. The old nobility were obsessed with bodies. How the body met the mind and the soul, how the body could be pushed, pulled, warped under the right circumstances, and they had a special interest in devils that could do the same. I suppose he was interested in that too.”
She swallowed heavily. She moved her bad arm as if reaching for a gesture she could no longer make.
“I didn’t know what it was at first. It had the fur like a dog, but its physique – all twisted up and gnarled – it seemed as if it were a horse. Seemed to be a mix of the two, because it had too many eyes for either one alone, too much mass. It had borne down on this man, so many teeth chewing her up, the witch keeping it on a leash. My partner took after the witch and that left me with the beast. It was all so dark and chaotic, I could hardly see, I didn’t have as much experience then, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it off.”
“And I wasn’t certain but I didn’t have a choice. I was carrying a sword, and I ran it through, and now I had its attention. And I won. I- I won cruelly. I won like a butcher wins over a pig. And the man was screaming the whole time but I couldn’t hear him. The blood was in my ears, the wrath of the Godhead was in my arms – how could I have been wrong?”
She looked at Edam again. There was a deep sadness in her face.
“Six eyes. Which meant three things put into the mix. Which meant-”
It sunk into Edam slowly.
“I looked into her eyes at the end and – and I saw her in there. Her name was Tasha. She knew what was happening to her. She knew. She was afraid. And I killed an innocent soul. Even with the witch undone, the magic only came apart at half the seams. They could barely recover her body, and I knew I had to make up for it. I dug her grave and laid her down and still – I see her every once and a while. That’s the nightmare. Just her, sitting in the corner of a room. Looking at me.”
Edam was quiet for a while before she had the courage to speak again.
“Thank you for sharing with me. I’ll keep you and her in my prayers.”
“Thank you,” said Shivyan.
She felt her courage grow a little more, and she found the space to speak on something from the nightmares.
“I see something. I’m not sure from where,” said Edam, “It’s a sort of – it’s like man. It’s covered with too many scars to be human, though. It stalks me. Tells me things I’ve done wrong. Tries to touch me.”
Shivyan nodded knowingly.
“You said that they felt like a punishment from the Godhead. I never put as much stock into the interpretation of dreams, but there is something to them, I suppose. I think you’re very upstanding, but perhaps this man – he represents your guilt? Your desire to repent?”
“Perhaps,” said Edam, remembering what repenting last felt like, “Perhaps.”
She stretched the sleep out of the bones before cringing at her injuries. She looked at Shivyan again.
“I want to ask – I don’t mean to be insensitive.”
“I won’t be offended.”
“What will you do now that you’re…”
“What? Spit it out.”
“What will you do now that you’re retiring from field work?”
Shivyan looked back, and cracked a grin so broad that it seemed to outshine the early sun.
“What, this?” She asked as she pointed at the stump where her hand once was, “You think this is going to make me retire? I’m nearly forty-three! I’m too old to retire.”
She stood up, suddenly brought out of her moodiness, and looked to Edam.
“I’ll keep at field work till I die, or till they make me retire. They’ve been telling me for years that I should think about it soon, but I couldn’t stand a job at some desk.”
She walked over to the door, and looked back.
“Dust the sleep off, comrade. I’ve got to learn how to make breakfast with one hand, and you’re going to help me.”
Edam couldn’t help but laugh a little herself, and the pain in her chest felt just a bit more bearable from that. She slowly stood, stretched, and walked to meet the day.
By the time they reached Kallin, Edam almost felt like an entire person again. That wasn’t saying much, but it was something, and she had bigger things to deal with than some simple aches and pains. She found Manguyaat where she expected her – her apartment. She had given up pagan fabrics and silks and traded them for navy pants and a white shirt in the Kolet style. She invited Edam in.
“Inquisitor,” she said.
“Manguyaat,” said Edam happily as she waved herself in. She had mostly finished refitting Qeqem. A few fingers missing there, a bit out of his chest there, but otherwise mostly a whole man.
She shook her head.
“No longer,” she said, “I’ve decided that while the war continues, I no longer need my war name. Call me Varna.”
“If Varna suits you.”
“It does. It was the name I was given when I was born.”
She rolled her shoulders.
“Are you doing alright? Recovering?”
“As much as I can,” said Edam, “I think I’m on the mend.”
“Good, good,” said Varna, “How, uh, is your cousin? The other one who was with you?”
“Both are fine. We’re on to Ana now, mostly.”
Varna looked down as Edam sat down and sighed.
“So you’ve come to me for help yet again.”
“Yes,” said Edam, shamefully. She was their best lead. She’d need to doctor the information, to carefully edit so that the way that the lead shook out would make sense to those that looked it over. And then when she found Ana-
One thing at a time.
“Alright. What do you want from me. Payment? Help with Allatsha?” Asked Edam.
Varna shook her head.
“I’ve got Allatsha handled. I need honesty from you – total honesty – about the woman you’re hunting down.”
One thought on “And The Dogs Came Running 5.2”
Oh boy! Things are about to Really get going!