The end of the world begins not with a scream but with a mist, spreading sinister tendrils on a dark, moonlit night.
Deep as I am inside Ixa’s mind, I don’t even notice. There’s just too much to experience. I may be able to see only the faintest shades of color through my blue-scaled, feline-like companion’s eyes, but even then, everything I glimpse is breathtaking. Groves of soaring silver trees sprout from pink stone hills. Scrubby purple grasses cling to their roots, tiny iridescent lizards darting across them. Glass flitters. They, like the silver trees and the purple grass, are native only to Gar Nasim, the haunting, remote island that is my current location.
Finally, after three months of running and hiding, pursuers constantly at our backs, I’m here on the island that Anok, the only goddess who’s still our ally, told us to seek. The island where, she told me, I would find my way to Mother and, through her, the way to unlock my full power so I can defeat the gods.
Except there’s no sign of Mother. Not even the faintest trace.
I sniff at a nearby tree, nose flaring with irritation when it immediately puffs a noxious odor in my direction. Trees and plants, they all have defenses invisible to the naked eye--after spending most of the last few weeks inside Ixa’s mind, I understand that now. And these silver trees, in particular, are quick to express their displeasure.
The tree sends another puff of odor our way, and Ixa wrinkles our nose, the motion sending a tickling sensation down the rest of our body. Stinky, he says.
He’s in here too, the shadow just behind my consciousness. I don’t know how it works precisely, the way we share one body, one mind. Only that it does. And that while I’m here, I don’t have to be in my own body. In the wounded, golden ruin that’s all that’s left of me after my confrontation with the Gilded Ones, the false goddesses I once thought were my mothers, all those weeks ago.
Britta calls it possession, what I do to Ixa. She says it’s as if I’m one of the demons written about in the Infinite Wisdoms, the false holy scrolls whose corrupt teachings I once followed to the letter. But she doesn’t understand. Ixa likes me here, welcomes me into his body. And I, for one, am grateful.
Whenever I’m in Ixa’s body, I’m free. Free of pain. Free of the torment that plagues my every waking moment.
For the few moments or hours that I’m here, I can just be.
I lope to the next tree, nostrils already expanding to catch the scents in the air. Have to keep moving, have to keep going. This is the steepest hill in Gar Nasim, the site of the Old City. Around us rise the ruins of the long-abandoned city of rose-hued stone, whose fallen buildings and the golden skeletons peeking underneath them tell a damning history. Of jatu, brothers to the immortal, gold-blooded alaki, slaughtering their sisters by the thousands in the very same city they once ruled. Of generations of deathshrieks, the monstrous-seeming creatures that are the resurrected forms of alaki, shrieking their songs of mourning to the wind.
No human would ever set foot here. No human would even dare.
But Mother has to be hiding somewhere close. Perhaps not in these ruins, precisely, but somewhere on this island nonetheless. Shadows, the onetime spies of the former emperor, Gezo, hide in abandoned places when they want to evade detection. That’s what White Hands, my onetime mentor and now firmest ally, taught me.
I just have to keep--
Heat sears my skin and I gasp back into my own body.
Now, Britta is crouched at eye level with me, her burly form blocking the door of the tiny house where my physical body’s been hidden all day, her offending hand still on my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” I hiss, jerking away, but that just sends my back slamming against the wall. The gold-crusted sores on my back tear open and pain explodes across my senses. I have to grit my teeth to keep from screaming.
I should be used to this by now.
In the months since my confrontation with the goddesses, when the sores first erupted across my skin, more and more of them have spread. They do so every time I use any of my abilities or move too vigorously, a constant reminder that my time is limited. As White Hands has made clear to me, every moment that I don’t reconnect with my kelai, which is the ancient name of the substance that gives gods their divinity, I’m closer to scattering into a thousand pieces, my body and consciousness lost forever to the universe. And once I’m gone, there’ll be no one to stop the Gilded Ones or the Idugu, their male counterparts, from bleeding Otera dry in their ravenous competition for power.
When blood begins seeping down my spine along familiar trails, Britta scuttles back, blue eyes wide with horror. “Sorry, Deka!” she says. “I didn’t mean to touch you. I swear I didn’t.”
“Of course you didn’t.” I can’t help the bitterness that creeps into my voice.
I was away. For almost a day--one glorious, blissful day, I was away from this body. From this pain. I was free.
And now I’m back here, with Britta, who’s standing there guiltily in her whole, unbroken body. Her body that heals within moments of any injury. Her body that’s free of sores and wounds and scars.
Free of pain.
The anger inside me rumbles louder. I hurriedly stuff it back down. It’s always there now--the anger as well as the pain. Monstrous twin serpents, slithering in the back of my mind. My new constant companions.
Even Ixa has never been so faithful.
Almost as if I summoned him, my shape-shifting companion rushes into the crumbling square surrounding the house. Ixa here, Ixa coming, he says, chest heaving with breathlessness, liquid black eyes wide with concern, as he threads over the broken stones and fallen statues.
He must have started back the moment I woke.
I place my hand on his brow, letting out a ragged sigh when I feel soothing relief flowing over me. Finally, I can breathe again.
I don’t know why, but Ixa’s presence is the only thing that ever makes the pain fade. When I touch him, it’s as if I’m removed from my own body, even though I feel it there, dimly obeying my commands. The only thing better is when I’m in his mind, away from myself entirely. Only then am I completely free of pain, of the anger and accompanying emptiness that threatens to consume me.
I breathe again before looking down at him. My thanks, I say silently into his mind.
Deka welcome, Ixa replies, padding closer as I turn back to Britta.
I release another breath before I address her again. “What do you want? I was busy.”
Hurt creeps into Britta’s eyes, but she does her best to hide it as she announces, “White Hands has finally contacted us. She says we should search for any signals yer mother left us.”
“And what do you think Ixa and I have been doing all day, running up and down the island?”
“Ye don’t have to be rude, Deka.” Disappointment, another expression I’ve seen often on Britta’s face over the past few months, swiftly overtakes her hurt.
Guilt swiftly rises in me at the sight.
Hard to imagine, but once upon a time, she was always smiling, always pleasant. If anyone could see the more favorable side of a situation, it was Britta. But now, her forehead is always furrowed and her blond hair hangs lankly around her face. It’s as if the strain of running has sucked all the joy from her.
Or perhaps it’s me and my anger, my continous lashing out.
I force myself to unclench my tensed muscles. “I’m not being rude. I’m merely stating facts.”
“Then here’s another one for ye: White Hands wants to guide us, help us be more effective.”
“If she wanted us to be effective, she’d be here in person instead of merely projecting herself here,” I scoff. “They all would.”
Half our group left with White Hands about two months ago to travel to the Southern provinces in search of more allies for our cause. The twins Adwapa and Asha; Kweku, Adwapa’s once slightly plump Southern uruni; Acalan, Belcalis’s haughty and formerly pious uruni; our red-spiked deathshriek sister, Katya, and her betrothed, Rian; and even a few of the other deathshrieks still loyal to us all went. Now that all of Otera’s deities--both the Gilded Ones and the Idugu--have shown their true faces, the One Kingdom is in chaos, one section of the population intent on sacrificing as many people as they can to appease the gods’ hunger, the other trying their best to just survive these treacherous times.
Which is why White Hands is building an army.
While I’m here searching for Mother, the key to finding my kelai, my former mentor is halfway across the world gathering survivors. Gathering soldiers. If she can assemble enough forces, she can stop the gods, imprison them again before they consume enough sacrifices to regain their power. We can take back Otera without my ever having to need my kelai.
And given my current state, she needs to do it as quickly as possible.
Something is building in the One Kingdom, something devastating. I can feel it in the air--a sense of foreboding--and I know I’m not the only one.
A tingle shoots down my spine. I turn to watch as White Hands coalesces in the square, her small, dark body a shimmering spectral image amid the half-broken statues that ring the center. She’s using her gauntlets, the bone-white armored gloves that are the origin of her name, to project herself here.
The sight of her irritates me further. “Why even bother using the gauntlets when she can’t do anything from wherever she is,” I mutter sulkily. Just because I know the reason White Hands isn’t here doesn’t mean I have to be happy with it.
Then again, I’m rarely happy about anything these days.
“All right, stop.” Britta’s tone is stern now, and when I look up, her expression is laden with disapproval. “That’s enough self-pity, Deka.”
“Yer in pain, I know this. We all know this,” she snaps. “But that doesn’t mean ye get to turn into a surly bear every time someone so much as looks at ye. We’re here. All of us--even Keita, who ye can barely speak to--”
She nods pointedly, and when I turn, my sweetheart’s watching me from a nearby rooftop, that fire, as always, burning in his golden eyes. The moment he sees me looking, however, he turns away, a long, lean shadow in the darkness. He descends toward the rest of the group, who are now swiftly making their way toward White Hands.
Britta’s not the only person I’ve been growly at these past few weeks.
“We’re all here with ye, even if ye’d much rather snarl at us than just talk.”
I sputter, “I don’t--”
“No, Deka, ye let me finish.” Britta steps closer, mouth set in a grim, determined line. “I know what is at stake here--we all do. More to the point, I know that yer not really angry.”
I look up at her, startled, and her expression gentles. She heaves a deep sigh. “Yer sad, Deka. Yer stallin’.”
I huff out a laugh. “Why? Why would I do that?”
“Because once we find yer mother, we find the way to yer kelai, an’ once we do that, ye become a god. Ye leave us.”
And there it is, the fear that’s been haunting me all this while:
Once I’m a god, I’ll lose all my friends, the family I’ve painstakingly created over the past two years.
I’ll be whole and free of pain, but I’ll be alone again.
Suddenly, I can’t think; I can’t breathe. I have to clasp my hands to still their nervous trembling. “How did you--”
“I’m yer dearest friend, Deka. I know ye. We all do.” She nudges her chin toward my friends, who are all waiting with the projected specter that is White Hands, the moon gleaming high above them.
Britta continues: “I know yer frightened, Deka, but we all are. Otera is fallin’ to chaos around us--plagues, deluges, monstrosities at every turn. But that’s why we have to keep movin’. Because if we, the strongest an’ the fastest, are terrified, imagine wha it’s like for the rest of Otera. Imagine wha it’s like for the children, the girls.
“We have to keep goin’, Deka, no matter the cost.”
“But it’s always my cost.” The bitter words spill out of me before I can stop them. “Always, always. It’s always me making sacrifices. Even now.” I glare down at my wounded hands, at the golden sores crisscrossing them like lightning bolts.
“An’ wha about me?” When I glance up again, hurt is shining in Britta’s eyes. “Don’t ye think I suffer?”
“How?” I scoff. “You’re not the one in pain. You’re healthy. You’re still--”
“Whole?” Britta steps closer, eyes wide with pain. “How can I be whole when every step ye take makes ye flinch? When every movement makes ye gasp in agony? Do ye think I am without conscience, Deka? Do ye think I am without empathy?
“I can scarcely breathe, watching ye. All the time, I can’t breathe. Ye may be the one in agony, but I am the one who watches. Have ye ever considered that--wha it feels like to be the one who can’t do anythin’ but watch an’ hold their breath? Hope that they’re there in case ye-- In case ye--”
Britta stops there, unable to speak further. Her breathing is heavy now, ragged with the weight of all the things she’s too devastated to say.
“My apologies,” I whisper. “I didn’t know.”
“Of course ye didn’t know. Because instead of leanin’ on us, ye’ve turned away, become this rageful . . . shell.”
“Because I hurt, Britta.” The words rip out of me, a deep and painful admission. “I hurt all the time. Every single moment of every single day, and I don’t know what to do. When I was in the cellar back in Irfut, there were moments of oblivion, at least, but this--it’s unending. It’s like my body is a prison, and I can’t break free no matter how hard I try.”
By now, Britta’s eyes are welling up, and she looks horrified. “I’m so sorry, Deka. I wish I could share yer pain. I wish I could take it into myself, or better yet, heal it. But I can’t. All I can do is support ye. An’ push ye, because . . . yer deterioratin’ . . . fast. So we have to keep pushing forward. And swiftly.”
Copyright © 2024 by Namina Forna. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.