Leap of Wraith
Furtive heads peered out of cave mouths, squinted at the sky, then scurried back into the shadows. A cold, harsh, bruise-coloured light was flickering over the dell, pouring from a gash that seemed to have been torn in midair some twenty feet above the ground.
It stained the dark rocks and earth with pale puce blotches. Delicate dark green plants shuddered and writhed away from its touch as it reached them. Some of them sank right back into the ground, their frail leaves dissolving like ink in water.
Every now and then the breach would pulse and rip a little wider as more sparks came raining down.
A small shadow crept out of one of the caves and darted across the dell, pausing to shelter behind a jet-black stone sculpture that stood in its center. A second shadow was lurking behind the monument, also peering at the sky.
The wraith Korbat started and spun to face the newcomer, then relaxed.
"You should come back inside now," the wraith Acara continued. "There's no point in waiting out here." Nevertheless, she handed the Korbat a small telescope.
Nyx grabbed it eagerly and aimed it at the breach in the sky. She only peered through it for a few seconds before jerking her head back from the eyepiece, wincing and rubbing at her watery eye.
The Acara gasped and placed a hand under Nyx's chin to inspect her eye. "You'll just hurt yourself," she said worriedly, retrieving her telescope. "There's nothing you can see from here."
"Umber Wisp would not leave us," the Korbat replied fiercely, more to herself than to the Acara. "Not willingly. So I will not leave either, Ziva."
"The two of you may share a special bond," said Ziva, gently squeezing Nyx's shoulder. "But Umber Wisp is still a Wraith, Nyx. No one has ever understood them completely."
A stray speck of sickly light landed on the ground near them. Seconds later, a small fissure formed on the same spot, and a thin stream of white smoke rose from it, giving off a distinct metallic smell.
"Neither of us can repair this kind of damage," said Nyx, frowning at the tiny crater. "We need Umber's healing."
"Then we'll have to ask our neighbour tribe to send their Wraith. Or we'll send a message to the Wraith City if we must. For now we must hide below the surface, before this storm gets any worse!" Ziva clutched Nyx's hand and gave her a pleading look.
"You saw Grey Shroud and the others fly up as well, Ziva. I don't know what's got into them or what they're doing on the other side, but I'm sure they've all crossed through. Why do you think their caverns are crumbling? Too many of them left, so many that their powers aren't enough to hold the structure anymore. What's the point of hiding? We'll be buried eventually."
The two were interrupted by a deep rumble echoing from above. They immediately ducked behind the sculpture as more sizzling motes of light dropped from the wound in the sky. Another plume of pale smoke rose from the ground next to Ziva. The Acara let out a frightened squeak when she realised that it was forming under the end of her telescope, and she scrambled to wrap it back in its case and shield it from the intruding light.
While she was thus distracted, Nyx looked back at the breach with grim determination in her eyes. She unfolded her sleek wings, pushed off the ground and sped straight towards the sky. "Sorry, dear" was all she could say before the blast of air from her flight rushed over Ziva.
The tear grew wider and brighter with every beat of her wings until her entire vision was filled with blinding white light. A feeble echo of Ziva's cry floated up to her; then the roar of the portal engulfed her ears. The light slammed into Nyx like a wall.
It gripped her from all sides, with a dreadfully cold sting that pierced right through her. The noise swelled into a strident wail. Paralysed, she could not even wince. The pressure was such that the very matter of the wraith Korbat's body seemed about to break apart. Somewhere deep inside her, a primal survival reflex kicked in and her wings flapped frantically, like a small critter thrashing in a Spyder's web.
She broke out. Gasping for breath, Nyx found herself ejected through space, limp and helpless as a wisp of smoke. For a moment the world spun around her and she could not tell which way was up or down. Then her flank met hard, flat ground and she collapsed.
The ringing in her ears was deafening, yet the light was even worse, omnipresent and ruthless. It stung every inch of her so that her skin felt about to burst open. Showers of white sparks danced in front of her eyes. She pressed her ears flat against the back of her head and raised trembling wings to cover her face.
Dizzy and disoriented, she was about to panic when she sensed an area where the light grew dimmer, off to her right. Nyx began to crawl over cold pebbles and grit, one wing still over her head, until she reached the blessed shade and flopped down.
She needed Umber more than ever. Nyx had caught a glimpse of land while peering through the portal, but finding a Wraith in this ocean of aggressive light already seemed like a hopeless task. She was cooling down gradually thanks to the shade; the ringing in her ears was easing up and her head no longer felt about to split.
After a few minutes, she dared to raise her head and squint at her blurry surroundings. Everything around her was in shades of white and clear grey. Even the sky shone bright, completely unlike the dark, velvety canopy of her home. Further to her right, however, lay an even darker patch of shade that led into an almost completely dark opening. That seemed more like an appropriate place to find a Wraith, thought Nyx; or at least like a place where she wouldn't burn to a crisp.
Heartened by the sight, she heaved herself over the last stretch of ground that separated her from the darkness. The stones that dug sharply into her limbs felt even harder than those of her homeland, somehow.
At long last, Nyx reached the dark. A tremendous wave of relief washed over her. She let out a contented sigh and opened her eyes wide, blinking fast. Shielded from the glare, she could now see in colour. The reddish tones immediately caught her attention, but she saw practically no cool colours. It was like seeing the world through a filter, except that Nyx knew she was in a different world altogether.
So absorbed was she by her surroundings that she did not notice the obstacle before her, until she stepped on a soft, squishy lump of something.
Her step instantly triggered a siren-like screech that reverberated around her and was multiplied thousandfold. Her head resumed its previous attempt at splitting open. Nyx gasped in pain, paralysed again. She groped for the squishy trap, which squirmed feebly under her touch, until her hand found something resembling a face. She squeezed it - hard.
"Enough," she snarled.
The noise finally died down. A muffled high-pitched whine persisted. "P-please don't h-hurt me again..."
Nyx hissed and jerked her head away from the noise. "Stop yelling this instant or you'll be begging me to finish you off!"
"Wasn't yelling," whimpered the voice, at a thankfully reasonable volume. "Now I'll just murmur under my breath - oh, you're just a Korbat, phew."
"You're still much louder than necessary." Now that Nyx wasn't wincing, she took a closer look at the living sound trap, and immediately regretted it. The rainbow Bruce's lurid plumage was almost as eye-watering as the light outside. "Why in the deepest chasms would anyone scream so loudly in a stranger's ears!"
"I thought you were another one of these things come to eat me up. How comes you're all black and glowy like them?"
Nyx's ears sprang to attention. "Wraiths?" she asked sternly, grabbing the Bruce by the bow around her neck. "You've seen Wraiths here?"
"Y-yes, one of them dragged me in here, and it sh-should be back any minute. You shouldn't linger... Did they do something to you?" the Bruce asked, not unkindly. "Is that why you look like them?"
Nyx abruptly let go of the other's collar. She paced around the cave, watching out for any signs of a Wraith's nest-building.
"I'm Lucia," the Bruce prattled in her corner. "You really should hide somewhere, you know... Knights are doing their best to fight them off, but there's not much to do, except wait for the Faeries' curse to be undone."
Nyx abruptly turned to face her. "Oh, so you're a Faerie-drinker," she said with a sardonic smile.
"Legend says you people love your Faeries so much that you even put them in bottles."
Lucia blinked, confused. "Bottled Faeries won't help," she moaned. "They just turn into stone like the rest."
"Into stone?" The Korbat pondered this for a moment, then her grin widened. "Haven't the Faeries always been made of stone?" Lucia gasped in horror, but Nyx continued casually. "Cold and heartless, such a fitting transformation."
The Bruce was about to retort when a choked sob came from just outside the cave, along with the sound of something being dragged over rocks. "It's back, it's back," squeaked Lucia, terrified. "The knights will never make it! I'm too weak to move - go, fly while you can!"
But the Korbat trotted to the cave entrance, as far as she could go without straying into the light, and she waited eagerly.
Two more heavy tugs, then a semi-conscious green Moehog landed in a crumpled heap at Nyx's feet.
A huge, pitch-black silhouette loomed over them, straightening until it filled the cave mouth almost completely. Its body seemed to be formed of inky black smoke that coiled into wisps all along its outline, in a glowing purple aura, forming pointed horns on its head. Fathomless eyes of the same glowing purple stared into the cave, their expression utterly unreadable. Beneath them, more glowing energy filtered out of a wide slit, like a predator's mouth already watering before its meal. Dark gaps hinted at the presence of large fangs.
A pitiful whimper sounded from Lucia's corner of the cave.
Nyx paid her no heed and flew up to the Wraith's eye level. "Umber," she said with a relieved smile. "You have been feeding. We miss you so much back home. Come, my sweet, with your new energy. I'll find the way back for you -"
The Wraith stooped to pick up the Moehog in one of its large hands and made its way to the back of the cave, sniffing hungrily. It brushed right past Nyx, almost knocking her off-balance. The Korbat hovered on the spot for a moment, astonished.
"B-back off," Lucia cried desperately. She reached for the nearest stones and hurled them at the Wraith with all her strength. Most of them clattered to the ground a few feet from her, but one tore through the whirls of smoke on one side of the creature's body. Umber shuddered and stared at the injury as the dark matter knitted itself back together. Then the Wraith reared with a deep, angry rumble and stomped towards Lucia, raising one massive arm.
"Umber, no!" Nyx flew straight towards the Wraith and landed on its head, somehow finding handholds among the coils of smoke. "This is not how you feed! You'll end up in trouble -" She held on for dear life as Umber flailed under her and tried to throw her off.
Far below, Lucia cowered and squeazed into a small crevice. "That monster has a name?" she muttered.
"Umber is not a monster - you're not! You'll make them hurt you!" Nyx continued, her voice quavering. "Don't you... don't you hear? It's me, Umber!"
The Wraith was pawing at the ground near the cowering Bruce, growling in frustration when it could not seize its prey.
"D-don't you remember all the times I fed you?" asked Nyx, her throat tight. She hugged the back of the Wraith's neck. "After Ziva's birthday party, when I finally told her..."
The joy brought on by that memory warmed her heart. Beneath her, something within Umber resonated and stirred. The Wraith paused for a moment, in the middle of shifting rocks to try and dig out Lucia.
"And when I lost the fencing tournament..." Nyx swallowed, reliving the guilt and shame of that day. She felt Umber ripple with the exact same feelings they had shared back then, relieving one and feeding the other. Still the Wraith reared and swiped its arms at the cave walls.
"And... and the last time we saw my parents..." Nyx shut her eyes tightly and buried her face in the Wraith's mane, quivering. Umber suddenly stood still. A jolt coursed through them both. For a second, the two of them were as one, made of the same fabric.
With a deep, rumbling sigh, Umber's body seemed to shrink and melted into a fluid curve. Nyx rolled down the slope of its back and the Wraith caught her gently in one hand before she could hit the ground. Umber blinked several times, its glowing eyes full of confusion.
"It's all right, my sweet," Nyx said with a weak smile.
Umber replaced her on the ground and curled up on itself, shrinking almost to the pets' size. It was trembling. Nyx petted the top of its head, to soothe them both.
"W-wow," came Lucia's voice all of a sudden, as the Bruce finally crept out of hiding. "You know how to tame them? That's... that would be really useful for the knights." She leaned down to peer at the unconscious Moehog. "We should go and find some help for this lady..."
"No," said Nyx, much calmer now. "You stay here for a while. I need to venture out, and then I will take Umber back home, and I promise we'll be out of your hair. If anyone comes, make sure they stay away from Umber." She shot the Bruce a stern look. "You got that?"
Lucia frowned, but nodded.
Nyx gave Umber one last pet. "I'll be right back," she said before making her way back to the entrance of the cave.
She took a deep breath. It had to be easier the second time, right. Nyx took off and flew into the glaring light once more. She ignored its bite, focusing instead on the ground where she had crawled and the blurry grey rocks all around. A gully of some kind, or a rock quarry, perhaps.
Looking at the sky was most difficult, especially as she barely knew what she was supposed to look for. Searching for a blinding light in the middle of a vast expanse of more blinding light was torture to her eyes. Nyx had to stop to rest several times, curling up in small patches of shadow and quietly cursing herself for wasting precious time.
Just when she was beginning to lose hope, a faint distortion caught her poor bleary eye. It was a patch of true darkness, distorted and almost invisible in midair, but definitely present, through which the harsh light of this world was polluting Nyx's home.
With a victorious laugh, the Korbat swooped down to mark the spot on the ground beneath the portal before dashing back to the cave. They were going home; it would be all right. Her tribe would welcome her as a hero after yet another successful quest. Despite the incessant ringing in her ears, she felt a hundred times lighter.
Then Nyx realised that the ringing held the sounds of several voices in it. Through the glare, she perceived several figures standing in front of her cave. Even though the Bruce's colours were dimmed by the light, Nyx recognised Lucia, who was talking and pointing anxiously at her.
"There! I told you she looked exactly like them!"
As the Korbat landed, an armoured striped Ruki walked up to her. Like the other newcomers, she bore a sword and shield. "Those Wraiths really did a number on you," she said, eyeing Nyx warily. "You're lucky we got here in time. It's over now, you'll be all right."
A terrible sense of dread seized Nyx. Without even waiting for the Ruki to finish her sentence, she dashed into the cave, making her way once more past the angry red rock walls, across the ground where she had soothed Umber earlier.
Nyx walked around the cave, one hand held out encouragingly. "It's me. You can come out now."
A tiny plume of inky black smoke drifted over the ground like a dust bunny. It fluttered nearly as high as her hand, before sinking back down.
Nyx looked lower. A myriad of little wisps wafted around her feet, giving off a feeble, flickering purple glow.
Nyx stared at the torn remnants of the Wraith. The receptacle of all the most important memories of her life. The scattered, shredded history of her entire tribe.
Cold seeped into her once more, numb and pervasive this time, unlike the sting of the light.
She started when the Ruki's hand fell on her shoulder. "You're safe," the soldier said, trying to sound soothing. "The beast can't do anything to you anymore. You no longer have to do its bidding."
Wordlessly, Nyx allowed herself to be guided back to the outside world.
"We'll do our best to heal you and the other victims," the Ruki continued. "You'll see, when the Faeries return, they'll be able to fix whatever the Wraiths did to you. It's all right if you can't go home, you can stay with us as long as you need. So don't be sad, all right? That won't help."
Nyx stopped in her tracks. "You strange people," she said, her face stony. "You drag your shadows on the ground behind you. You trample them, instead of wearing them with pride. You cannot even tell them apart from other shadows."
The Ruki quirked an eyebrow, unsure how to respond.
"Could I please have a moment to myself before we leave?" asked Nyx, wrapping her wings around her torso. "It's been... difficult."
"Oh, of course. We'll be waiting." The Ruki walked out of the cave by herself, still mildly confused.
Nyx straightened up and, for the last time, returned to the part of the cave where Umber had settled. The Ruki had been wrong. Despair did help. Nyx let it invade her, painfully. The fallen black wisps shuddered and began to slide across the ground towards her, like small objects attracted by a magnet.
Outside the cave, Lucia huddled in a blanket next to the Moehog, who was now sleeping with a bandage around her head. Munching on some trail food brought by the soldiers, the rainbow Bruce remained blissfully unaware of the shadow she cast on the rock wall behind her. That is, until it grew a large Korbat wing that reached out and grabbed her by the chin. Lucia screamed.
"I should have known not to trust a Faerie-worlder," a voice hissed from inside the shadow.
The startled soldiers leapt to their feet, unsheathing their swords. "Let her go!" barked the Ruki.
"Let us go," the shadow snarled back. Nyx leapt away from Lucia and slithered over the ground, fangs bared, ready to pounce. The Korbat seemed to have expanded, as though twice the amount of Wraith-matter was now condensed within her body. Her purple glow shone much brighter and long wisps of smoke trailed behind her.
"You Wraiths have caused our people too much pain. We will not be feasted on like prey!" The Ruki gestured towards Nyx and the three other soldiers began to close in on her.
One of the soldiers threw the first blow, a warning slash of his sword. Nyx's body melted out of the way like smoke. One of her wings suddenly expanded and stretched out until it struck the side of the soldier's head. She then knocked the sword out of his hands with a downwards slap. The other two hesitated. The Ruki stepped closer, clenching her teeth as she reexamined their opponent.
"This is how you fight?" Nyx taunted. "I don't even need my sword."
"What is possessing you to help these infernal creatures?" shouted the Ruki in disbelief. "Are you no longer Korbat and entirely Wraith?"
"You know nothing!" Nyx's tail lengthened and sank into the ground, fusing with the Ruki's own shadow. The guard jumped back hastily; then the Korbat's tail sprang out of her shadow, twined around all four of her legs and slammed her down.
Nyx took off, dodging the other two soldiers' half-hearted attempts at grabbing her. Her newly boosted wings propelled her across the sky in smooth, powerful beats, defying the cruel light. She soon reached the portal. It had withered into a narrow crack. The Korbat reached out with her claws and let them expand, too, before tearing fiercely at the edges of the breach. As soon as it was wide enough to fit her, she charged through, her wings battering the barrier of light furiously until she finally left it behind.
She tumbled through darkness - quiet, homely, comforting darkness. She smiled. Her vision faded before she hit the ground.
When she came to, Ziva's tear-streaked face swam into focus above her.
"I thought -" A heavy bout of coughing shook her. "I thought there was no point in waiting out here," choked the Korbat.
"I would never leave without you." Ziva stroked her face tenderly, then leaned down for a hug.
Clutched in Nyx's hands, against her chest, was a small inky black bubble.
Nyx emerged from a deep slumber days later. She stretched languidly in her own bed, in the home she shared with Ziva. Relocated, perhaps. She was in no hurry to find out. The Acara brought her a light meal on a tray, smiling.
Nyx unfolded one of her wings. Like the rest of her body, it was still covered in hard, sore cracks, through which her purple glow seeped out. Her journey through the light would take a long time to heal.
"You're still beautiful to me," said Ziva, placing a bottle on Nyx's bedside table. Inside the recipient was a larger inky black bubble. Nyx could see its faintly glowing purple face. It slept peacefully.
"I see Umber's recovering too. Well-fed, I presume?"
"Oh yes. Full of everyone's happiness at having you back."