Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.
Obsidian met sun-baked clay with a reverberating ring, followed by the pitter patter of tiny, clay avalanches.
“I don’t know why you’re making this so difficult,” came a voice from the other side of the wall. “I know you have the keys right there.”
Zaidah paid it no mind.
It sighed and the ring-pitter-pat continued.
* * *
“And so now the twilight lambs are birthing in the stars. That sound you hear? It is mothers bleating, bursting through their cloven pens on stone hooves.”
Zaidah only half-listened to the words coming out of the Snake’s mouth and the replies of her half-elven companion.
“So when you meet the dawn all walking must be done on the toes so as not to wake the shepherds of night. Only you can save the twilight lambs. Do you understand?”
She was vaguely aware that the details of a transaction were being hashed out, something about the little man having a job for them. That was fine. They had run errands for people before.
“You must pay close attention to the color of their sighs. Purple lambs will grow to fame and fortune but the ones who sigh green are trouble-makers and must be taught not to endanger the herd.”
“I want you to kidnap his daughter so I can make an example of him,” said the Snake.
“If the herd doesn’t act and think as one then the stars won’t move.”
“What are they saying?” Zaidah shook her head as if she had sand in her ears instead of voices.
“The blue lambs are very fussy but they make good lookouts.”
“Hush. I can‘t hear,” she said, mentally batting the voices away.
“…if you can promise that no untoward harm will come to her…”
“Are you listening,” asked the voices staggering the question so it reverberated in her mind.
“…you have my word,” said the half-elf.
She stared at him, trying to piece together the fragments of conversation.
“Are you listening?”
* * *
“Are you listening?” Nora waited for a response. “Zazu?”
Zaidah’s eyes focused on the fingers snapping in front of her face, returning from the place deep inside which called to her so insistently.
“What? Oh! I must have drifted off,” she lied.
Nora snorted. “Yeah, and I just took a scorpion bath. I know what you’ve been up to.” She poked Zaidah in the forehead.”
“Don’t be such a baby,” said Nora.
“I am not a baby. That hurt!” Zaidah shot back.
“Well you’re going to hurt a lot more if I tell mother that you’re still doing it.”
Zaidah sighed and looked at her sister, imploring. “Please Nora… I can’t help it. You’ll just worry them if you tell.”
“I really don’t care. This isn’t just about you. If people find out what you can do-”
“Fine, then I guess I won’t tell you the dream I had about you last night,” Zaidah said with a sly side-long glance.
Nora looked skeptical. “Liar.”
“Am not! I had a dream about you future husband.” She added in a sing-song voice, “and I know you’re going to like it.”
“Promise me you won’t tell first.”
* * *
Zaidah looked up and peered curiously at the slowly expanding opening in the clay wall. The darkness on the other side prevented her from seeing beyond the ring of her protective circle but she didn’t mind that. She could feel for miles around what was out there, the reason she had built it in the first place.
“So are you going to come out,” came the voice from the darkness.
“I hadn’t intended to, no,” she replied.
“I think you’ll find that sooner or later you no longer have a choice in the matter.”
“I can build another one,” she said.
“You’re running out of the Iron Lord’s clay.”
This was true. In patches the ground was starting to show through, not dry sandy earth but the kind that was dark, squishy between the toes and very likely to start sending up green shoots.
“I’ll find another supplier,” she said.
“Please don’t do that. It’s not that bad out here,” the voice replied.
“That’s easy for you to say. You never did anything wrong.”
* * *
At the first signs of the trouble Zaidah’s father had revealed his own secret project. He picked her up and all but threw her through the newly-constructed trap door, covering it with a carpet. While this prevented her from seeing what was going on, it only slightly muffled the sounds coming from the next room.
She heard the door finally give-in under the onslaught of blows. She also heard the shouting, the scuffling and finally a smooth, lilting voice.
“Koras Muir has reason to believe that under your roof you are housing a very rare commodity. Would you be so kind as to fetch it for us,” it said.
“I don’t know what you are talking about but you can have anything of value that I own. We just want to be left alone-” replied Zaidah’s father.
A woman’s scream, first of fear, then pain cut him off.
“No!” he bellowed.
“It seems you have a difficult choice before you. Either you go and fetch your Wilder git right now or I pluck out your wife’s other eye,” one of the intruders replied.
Zaidah shrank down into herself, clamping her hands over her mouth to hold in her screams.
“She’s not here anymore! I swear to you! We kicked her out a fortnight ago. For all I know she’s wandering the Wastes by now,” her father said.
Another scream, followed by more scuffling, shouts and cursing. By the end Zaidah no longer had to cover her mouth or ears. She was insensible, numb and unresponsive even to the sight of her dead, disfigured parents as they dragged her from the house and set it ablaze.
In the weeks that followed she spent most days enveloped in that cloak of numbness, only barely registering the motions of living she was going through, of interacting with other people, answering questions, not answering questions, trying to do as she was told, trying not to do as she was told.
Finally, she found herself in a dark and barren room, all alone, except for the occasional plate of food and the even more infrequent visits from her “handler”.
“I understand that you’re not eating,” he said one day.
Zaidah did not acknowledge his presence.
“I also understand why you are having some trouble adjusting.”
She flicked a glance at him, considered trying to use her power and thought better of it. “I can’t do the things you are asking of me. I’m not strong enough.”
“You will be someday,” he replied.
Only the faintest flicker of emotion illuminated her hollowed-out insides. She shrugged.
“You see, I understand you quite well. But I think that you do not understand me, or the fact that you still have more to lose than just your life.”
She snorted, but didn’t respond.
“You lost your parents,” he continued. “That was an unfortunate necessity. If only they had just spoken up they wouldn’t have had to… suffer so… But on the bright side you still have living kin.”
Internally she shied away from the clenching feeling in her heart, not for her sister’s family, but for herself. The hope of being purchased out of slavery by her rich in-law had finally died, but the carcass was still decaying.
“They are beyond your reach.” And mine, she added to herself.
“Don’t be so certain.” The tone of his voice was enough to snap her head up. “Your sister, she has twins I think. Doesn’t she?”
She met his gaze and saw there truth behind the threat.
He smiled at the look on her face. “There we are. I think now we understand one another. Now then, are you hungry?”
* * *
She stood at the edge of the darkness, but instead of trying to look into it she just stared down at her bare feet.
“Good. Very good. Just one more step,” said the voice gently.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she replied.
“Here, take my hand.” Out of the wall of blackness stretched a hand, palm up, offering itself to her. “As you said yourself, you can always come back. There are plenty of suppliers for the clay.”
“Yes… and I’m starting to think that I’m traveling with some of them,” she said.
“The best way to find out is to come and see.”
* * *
Sil and Tlaloc were arguing, or at least she thought they were arguing. Their words seemed to dance around each other but she couldn’t quite tell if in concord or dis. She watched the ripples in the air, the push and pull of thoughts given voice.
“Does everyone understand,” asked Tlaloc.
“… I don’t understand,” she said.
She tried very hard to listen, but his words just sounded like a chain of flowers, weaving in and out. Pretty, but smelling of decay. Something about means and ends.
Sssssh. Be still. Listen.
That center, somewhere in the depths of her being called to her and she reached for it, steadying herself more than she had in a long time. And she listened, not just to his words but to the currents that flowed underneath them. It was hard not to see a red gleam in his eyes or his teeth filed to points as all good monsters should have.
Finally her voice bubbled up from that place of stillness and deadly calm, surprising even her as she watched the lines it drew in the sand. She watched from the sidelines as her voice struggled to etch those lines deep into the minds of her companions and felt a surge of satisfaction at the effort even if they did not seem to take.
Later that night, as they left the ghost behind she gradually felt her hold on her center slipping away. She could only stay so long in the dark, conscious of the things she had worked so hard to push from her mind. A familiar voice in her mind stopped her in mid-flight.
“We have to watch Tlaloc closely, and when the time comes we may have to kill him.”
She blinked and looked at Sil.
“…yes,” she replied, and with a mental sigh she was back, safe inside her walls of clay once more.