The silence had calcified. What had been an easy quiet before the death of our captors was now a growing weight, a dull ache that spread daily and intensified, infecting most of my limbs. His amnesia was a farce – he knew our path, the identity of our hunter, could guess at our ultimate fate. But the questions might as well have fallen on deaf ears, he deflected them easily enough. Insisting that he was only beginning to remember a few sparse events, he maintained ignorance about all things, all people, our hunter and her employer. Our path, he insisted, was simply his retraced steps as well as he could remember them, with some minor detours to cover our tracks. I threatened to part ways with him, a half-empty threat I faked convincingly. The tiniest mote of fear in his feigned indifference was all the proof I needed. I was accompanying him on some mission and he expected me to follow in ignorance until it was complete.
Through sleepless nights and mostly-sealed eyelids I gathered much. He slept a few hours most nights, but woke just past midnight, unfolded his map and studied it intensely. He would then leave the camp and wander a bit, map still in hand, ensuring he was on the right path. He rarely wandered more than a few hundred yards, marking a tree or leaving a few stones to act as way markers on our journey the next morning. After he had ascertained our route, he returned to our camp and spent the rest of the night translating his book, writing furiously, making shorter work of it than I would have anticipated.
Studying the map one night while he slept, I noticed that there was a very specific artery we were tracing, towards two points, one en route to the other. Both were labeled with symbols from the language scrawled in his book and all over his skin. One symbol was drawn over an existing point, but the one closer to us he must have divined using some calculations I could not put together. There were arcs drawn around it, equations jotted on the side, and it lay at the intersection of the two widest arcs he had made. It took me a bit to understand where we were on the map presently, but once I had, it seemed we were only a few days journey from the first point. It sated my patience – I would soon have answers.
Three nights later, the moon a sliver, we camped out on a small plateau nestled inside the fossilized rib cage of some vast beast, close enough to a tree-sized bone that our existence was almost impossible to note without climbing to our elevation. There was nothing alive as far as I could see in every direction, and yet I knew we’d arrived. The behemoth’s fossil was marked on the map adjacent to the old man’s symbol.
He never slept that night. Instead, the very moment he was certain I was asleep he gathered his map and book and made his way down the plateau and through the field of tall grasses. I followed from a distance as there was little cover. He walked quickly, with purpose, puffing out his chest a bit and taking in generous draughts of air, attempting to grow in size, bracing himself for whatever he was walking into.
The thick copse of tall, dark trees grew larger and more dense the closer he approached it. By the time he reached the edge it seemed a full forest, sinister, completely devoid of light under the canopy. Before he crossed the threshold the old man opened his book and traced his finger time and again over a few lines somewhere near the end, reciting them to himself until he knew them by heart. Then he took one last careful look around to make sure he was alone, my body pressed firmly against the ground until I was sure I heard his footfall crack a twig underneath. When I arose he had disappeared into the swell of greens. And I followed.
Or so I intended. Lingering at the threshold myself, something arose in me that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. A manic suffocation, my body seemed to collapse inward on itself, some new, sharp pain radiating out of my pores as I fell to my knees. Fear. It had been so long. And this was a new strain, feral and threatening. Before I recovered my consciousness I had scampered halfway to our camp, imagining the forest’s tendrils biting at my feet, chasing me up the plateau until I was safe in the beast’s rib cage once more.
I lay there in a trampled, leaky state until he returned near sunrise. He was at once limping slightly and completely reinvigorated, the energy emanating from his nourished frame palpable. The smile he wore was a lion’s. Was there blood at the edge of his lips? Was it running from his fingernails? The darkness might have created the inky blots, or the embellishing moon. Yet it stayed with me as I fell into a cramped sleep, the dull taste of iron the last thing I remembered.
I slept extinguished but awoke as fire, white-hot, watching him putter around the camp for only a moment before I attacked him, bringing him to the floor, my dagger to his throat. He struggled, spoke nonsense, feigned innocence. I waited patiently for him to speak truth, reading his jaw for specks of blood. The fear in his eyes was real enough.
“There is one left now.” His resignation deflated him, but anger moved erratically under his skin. “I need to find the last one before I am no more. I don’t know how much time I have remaining, and there is still a long way to go. I know not who she is or exactly where, only when. And that when is quickly expiring.I travel faster with you, am safer with a companion, but neither matters any more because now we are both being hunted by an old evil and separating is death.”
His body tensed and then finally released as he surrendered the last bit.
“I am the Ark.” He pointed to the symbols on his body. “I am to summon them all to a safe pocket of time and space. But it must be all of them. And there are few safe pockets left.”
The sounds of locusts rose and fell.
“That is all I can speak of this until I myself know more.”
Stunned by his surrender of words I dropped my dagger, rolled off him and gently helped him sit up, taking in what he said. After some time he spoke quietly. “I have almost finished translating my book. Come, I will read you of some of them. I will tell you of a few more of the sisters.”
Illustration by Chris Baily