The Life Siphon
Kathryn Sommerlot © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The knock on the door came just as he finished refilling his quiver. Tatsu froze, blood running cold. He put his hand on the leather pack for stability before he was able to oust the lump in his throat. His house was too remote for anyone to simply stumble across it, so whoever it was had meant to arrive. As the air in the small house hung still and heavy, his hand slid to the uneven table with the broken leg he’d never gotten around to fixing, fingers finding the familiar and well-worn hilt of his skinning knife. It was sharp enough to take apart a jack hare. He hoped it was also keen enough to defend himself.
He took a few steps toward the noise, his feet unconsciously finding their way around the long, loose floorboards. He was almost to the door when the knocking came again, impatient. The new round of knocking was paired with a female voice. “Tatsu?”
The anxiety left his body in a rush that felt like the hot sting of Chayd’s summer against his skin, months too early.
“Alesh?” he replied and opened the creaking wooden door. “What are you doing here?”
His first thought was that she had to be injured, sick, or something worse. After all, it had been a long time since she’d last bothered to travel all the way to his hut in the inner woods. But she appeared to be in one piece, her hair worked back into three simple plaits, and she seemed no worse for the wear. Irritation surged through his chest. Knowing she’d been fine but not taking the time to visit made her sudden reappearance cut deeper.
“Please,” she said and, at once, he knew. Alesh wouldn’t journey to his doorstep for any other reason. She needed a favor.
He had half a mind to shut the door right in her face, his insides still untangling themselves from tight knots, but movement flashed behind Alesh’s shoulder. Ral lingered behind her, digging in the constant scourge of weeds growing in front of the house without any care to the dirt embedding itself under her nails. The young woman was laughing at Tatsu’s wildflowers. Her light-brown dress fabric, marking her as enol, or baseborn, was already streaked with smears of mud.
He didn’t close the door, but he didn’t edge it open any further either.
“Hear me out.” Alesh had the good grace to flinch when Tatsu snorted.
“Isn’t that all I’ve ever done?” he asked.
“I need your help.”
Help was not a word that came easily from her, though Tatsu guessed they had wildly different definitions of it. Help to him meant aid and a friendly ear and someone present, offering suggestions and finding solutions. Help was nothing Alesh had ever allowed him to do.
“The last time I tried to help you…” he warned.
She slammed the door so forcefully the ripples shook Tatsu’s arm. “Listen, this isn’t for me, you know. I can’t leave her alone, and I don’t have anyone else.”
Tatsu peered over Alesh’s shoulder again. Ral had gotten a handful of the reedy flowers and pulled them up by the roots, laughing with delight at the white tendrils she’d exposed. When Tatsu’s gaze flickered back to Alesh, her dark eyes were focused on him, narrow and unflinching.
“Please.” The second time sounded much less like a request. She knew she’d already won him over.
Tatsu sighed and called out, “Ral, would you like to come in?”
Ral complied, though she left a trail of dirt behind her as her movement loosened the clumps that clung to her skirt. She might have gotten taller. She was taller than Tatsu, at least. She seemed happy in the house, and Tatsu tried to keep half his attention on her as she moved around, in case she got her hands on the extra snares in the corners. If he had known a houseguest would show up, he might’ve done something with the place.
“It’s only for a few days,” Alesh promised. “This is the safest place I could think of. I mean, who’s going to come way out here? I have some business I need to attend to—”
“Other people’s possessions, you mean? Or is there a new line of criminal mischief you’ve found that pays better?”
She frowned. “That’s not fair at all, and you know it.”
“Do I?” Tatsu asked. “How could I know it, when the last time you bothered to show up here and tell me you were still alive, the first snow had just fallen?”
Her face pinched tight, mouth hard, before it slackened again in defeat. She sighed, equal parts exasperation and resignation, and ran a hand through the few dark strands of hair hanging wild and wavy around her face, too short to plait back.
“Look, can you…spare me the whole spiel?” Her gaze sank and stayed on a spot near the entrance where the beams of the house were embedded deep in the dirt. “I promise you can lecture me all you want when I come back to pick her up. But for now, I really need to go, and I don’t have time for this.”
Tatsu leaned against the door. Behind him, Ral had discovered the utensils for cooking and was excitedly going through them all, copper spoons and mugs clanging against one another. Alesh stood slumped on his doorstep as if the weight of the world hung on her shoulders, hobbling her. She seemed smaller than the last time he’d seen her, under the same sky and a moon tinged with red. He thought about saying something, something like stay, but the times they’d shared had long since passed between them. There had been too many winters and too many summers. The word died on his tongue.
Instead, he nodded. “Fine. But only for a few days.”
“Thank you.” Alesh’s mouth twisted up into a rueful smile. “She’s learned to count to a hundred—you should ask her to demonstrate for you. She loves showing it off.”
Behind them, as if in agreement, Ral banged Tatsu’s ladle against his big iron pot, the sharp crash echoing.
“I will,” Tatsu replied.
Alesh tucked a bit of unruly hair behind one ear. “It won’t be long.”
“No,” Tatsu agreed. “It never is.”
He was at home in the woods.
It didn’t matter how many times he walked through the same stretch of thick-barked trees, he always found something both calming and new: a bird’s nest stretched across branches, an anthill at the foot of upturned roots. He could find his footing in the darkest corners of the forest, rain or shine. A few motionless moments with his eyes closed, ears keen, and he knew which animals were slinking around him, eager to get lost in the shadows away from his snares.
The daily chores through the trees were made more difficult with the addition of Ral. While she was cheerful and bright, Ral didn’t care much for keeping her footsteps quiet. Hunting, it seemed, was out of the question until Alesh returned. Ral seemed to enjoy moving through the seemingly never-ending green of the trees, even if she did march through while trying to alert every creature to her existence. The tall trunks of the trees expanded overhead into a splay of branches and coarse leaves with notched edges. The farther away from the cottage they went, the more the woods around them changed, darkened, and grew thicker with pines and the sweet smell of their needles.
Chayd might have physically owned the woods, but Tatsu knew their soul.
“Ral, let’s find some berries for dinner,” he suggested, and she followed, singing a song composed of more guttural noises than actual words. She trailed her fingers along the leaves as they passed. The loss of hunting frustrated him, but his traps would feed them well enough if they could find something to supplement the catch.
It had rained the night before, and the ground was still wet with the aftermath. Tatsu’s boots sank into the dirt as he pushed his hand against one of the trunks and waited. This area of the woods wasn’t known for being rich with edible berries, but he had a feeling something sprinkled the ground nearby. It had been a long time since he’d checked, and the odds were in his favor.
Overhead, a raven flew as they walked, screeching out its song in sporadic bursts. In the mud, the remnants of the forest’s night scene remained, half buried beneath fallen leaves and creeping ground vines. Tatsu could see tracks from a long-gone deer and the erratic path of a rabbit escaping its owl predator. He noted all of them as they trekked. Even if he couldn’t go after the deer with Ral, its existence signaled the possibility of this area being good hunting ground in the days after.
He found what he’d been searching for within the hour: a cache of berries, plump and red, clustered on the branches of a bush. The plant crept up like a thief around the side of one of the weaker, crooked trees, barely holding on to its place in the forest.
“Ral, come look,” he said, kneeling to capture a few of the juicy berries between his fingertips.
She knelt beside him, face open and excited.
“So pretty,” she murmured, reaching for the splashes of red, bright against the backdrop of green. He picked a few from the branch, the juice splashing on his skin and running down his fingers and held out the burlap pouch he’d brought with him. Ral had other ideas, however. She insisted on depositing all the ones she picked into her skirt, which she’d pillowed out over her folded knees. As they collected as many as they could, staining their hands maroon, she laughed and laughed, and Tatsu couldn’t help laughing with her. When she stood, she managed to keep most of their bounty within the fabric, though he knew there’d be no helping the red stain.
If they cut back east toward the Turend Mountains, Tatsu could check the rest of his snares, set up around his usual circuit. He let his fingers rest loosely on Ral’s wrist, smearing her skin with some of the berry juice. He started for his location, saying, “One final check and then we’ll go back, all right?”
She didn’t protest, though her steps were as loud as ever through the underbrush.
His traps had collected an abundant bounty. Two hares and a ground squirrel, all relatively fresh and untouched by the raptors that made their nests overhead. He tied his catches up by the legs and swung them over his shoulder, one by one, carefully resetting the wires and triggers disguised by the long grasses around bumpy tree roots. Finishing the last one, he stood, pleased with how the day had gone despite everything. He turned, expecting to find his companion already snacking on her berry haul.
Ral, however, was gone.
Tatsu turned and then turned again, all the way around, and saw only the tree trunks he knew by heart. Ral was nowhere to be seen. How, he cursed, could she have disappeared so quietly when all day she’d scared off his game? To slip away in the woods while he was otherwise engaged… Tatsu darted forward before he stopped again, crouching and attempting to calm his racing pulse. He knew the woods and she didn’t. He pressed his fingers into the drying dirt and closed his eyes, allowing the scent of the still-moist mud and dead leaves to wash over him. When he opened his eyes again, there in the mud were the tracks left and the leaves bent as she’d passed them by.
He took off in the direction her trail led. In his haste, he dropped one of the hares, and while he was loath to leave it, Ral came first. The predators in the trees didn’t bother him, but she was unarmed and vulnerable, and the closer they moved to the cliffs, the closer they came to the territory the wolves liked to patrol.
“Ral!” he called, sharp and almost angry.
He lost her trail and, after a wild moment, found it again, bolting forward like a vole evading a falcon. He was moving quickly, and he swerved too close to a low-hanging branch. Its bark made contact and stung against his cheek, but he didn’t even bother to wipe the blood away. He kept moving until his lungs burned and his hands shook. Then, all at once, he burst out of the tree cover at the side of a cliff, overlooking the mountains stretching out like rocky roots protruding from the ground.
Ral stood with her skirts whipping around her body. The berries were strewn across the grass in front of her, a bloodstain on the green, forgotten.
“Stop,” she said. She looked frightened, but she wasn’t giving him an order. It took Tatsu a few steps to see what she was talking about.
The mountains were dying.
Not the cliffs themselves, of course, but the vegetation on them. The steep sides had once been lush and green, pines forming stripes of year-round color constant even when autumn came and dyed the other leaves gold, but instead of bright swathes of color, everything was dead What little was left of the trees had darkened to almost black, limbs twisted over one another and hunched down toward the soil. It wasn’t just a small section, like a victim of a tree blight, but the entire slope of the peaks. The angry brown continued as far as Tatsu could see until the life stopped along the uphill climb of the mountains themselves.
The sight shocked him so much he stumbled back a step before he caught the real horror of it. A line had formed in front of him in the grass, nearly perfect between the withered blades and the still-living green of the rest, just near the edge of the cliff. The ghastly contrast of colors continued along the divide until the clearing ended and the mountain sloped steeply downward. The dead grass swept into the valley, and the green continued back into Tatsu’s woods.
“What is this?” Tatsu whispered. “What’s happening?”
Ral whimpered, weak at first and then more forceful. Her hands clutched the sides of her head as she sank into the grass and the remnants of the berries.
“Scary, scary, scary,” she repeated. “Bad! Stop, stop!”
“Ral.” Tatsu reached for her, nearly missing her shoulders because her shaking was so violent. “Ral, stop! Come here. Let’s get away from this.”
She allowed him to lead her back into the relative safety of the trees. Once they began to put distance between the border of decay and themselves, her condition seemed to better, but Tatsu couldn’t purge what he’d seen from his mind. Those mountains had once been a thriving ecosystem. If that line meant what he thought it did, it was only going to expand farther and farther, reaching his woods and devouring them whole. If that wasn’t bad enough, he didn’t think the forest would be able to stop it.
Beyond the trees, beyond his snares and traps, Chayd’s capital of Dradela sat directly in the path of the unnatural destruction.
The birds were chattering above them on their walk back to the house, but the warning roared against his ears, a white noise of fear and dread that silenced everything else.