“What did you do to her? She’s trying to help you! The cave is just north of here, and we should be working together. Shame on you both for fighting!” Aspen yelled at Khione when she saw the frost on our skin. Aspen’s tone was harsher than I had heard from her. Khione and I both flinched.
“It’s all right, Aspen,” I said as I shook to break up the frost. “I can’t take a freeze as long as Khione can, but I will not be harmed.” I was much colder than I had realized during the argument and started to pace. “We needed this.”
I saw Khione’s acknowledgment. The three of us stood there for a moment, not knowing what to say. Khione looked as if she was reckoning with a deep internal struggle, and I was trying to defend the actions of my younger self to my current self. Aspen looked confused about whom to be angry with and what to do next.
“He is in the cave ahead. I felt his winds earlier when I moved away from the yaks. The snow is shifting unnaturally around here, and it’s been driving me crazy and throwing me off balance. I know you noticed, and that is why I sucked at riding my yak. Not to mention their smell overwhelms my winter senses. But your tracking matches my own suspicions. That cavern to the north is the epicenter of the weird sensations I keep feeling. I’m guessing you feel it, too,” Khione said, looking at me, and I nodded.
I wanted to give Khione the time she needed, but when Aspen was about to speak, I cut her off. The tension between us had eased, even if our relationship was still fragile. “The plan I have so far is simple. We will port to the outside of the cave. There is a walkway by the entrance that is not used, and we can make sure the entrance is clear before going in.”
I picked up a stick and drew a circle to indicate the cave opening, walkway, and layout inside. A narrow pathway winds back to a couple of larger rooms.” I drew a semi-circle from the entrance to the rooms. “The pathway has walls on either side at some points, but in other places, there is a deadly drop to one side. Alcholoë must be using something to protect her safe house because there is a roaring wind the length of the path.”
Khione and Aspen studied my drawing as I spoke, but Khione did not trust me yet. “How do you know all of this? You said you found the cave, not that you went inside. Did you find my uncle and leave him behind?”
She was working herself into a fit again. Snowflakes rose from the ground and twirled up. The unexpected can help distract a temper before it gets out of hand. “Pallas’s cat.”
Silence hung thick in the air before she gave in and asked, “What does that mean?”
That got her. “A Pallas’s cat is an indigenous feline that roams the mountain regions in this part of the world,” I said in my best nature documentary narrator voice.
“I know what Pallas’s cat is,” Khione snapped. “What do they have to do with the cave!”
“Ah, I asked one, and she did a little scouting for me. That is how I know there are three people in this cave, one leaves by foot, one leaves by wing, and one stays in the cave. The cat was able to identify the scent on the feather and scale you gave me.”
That was enough to interrupt Khione’s anger and enough for Aspen to leap up in a bubble of excitement. “You asked her? Did she talk to you? Did she actually talk? Was it interpretive moments? Do you understand meowing? How does…” Aspen literally bounced as her thoughts spilled out.
I held up my hand and said, “Whoa. Slow down. Yes, I asked the cat. No, she doesn’t use words. I opened my mind to her, let a part of myself flow into her, and shared what I wanted. She showed me.” I said in a much calmer pace and tone than Aspen had been using purposely to slow her down. “The bird that led me to the cave saw the cat’s tracks, so I followed them to her den. I stayed at the den while she took a trip to the cave and let my mind tag along.”
Aspen’s mouth was open. Khione was unreadable.
“Small animals know how to stay out of sight and are very useful in a hunt,” I said.
“Could I, maybe, learn to talk to a kitty?” Aspen stumbled.
“It’s a god thing.” I winked at her and continued. “The Pallas’s cat could not make it through the wind tunnel but had seen the layout in previous trips. Other troglobites confirmed the presence of three people and identified their smell in the back of the cave.”
I made sure Khione was looking at me before I continued. “Once we see the entrance is clear, I would like all three of us to go in. Can you do something about the wind?”
Khione thought and then nodded. “I should be able to divert the winds using my own, but I can’t take control of the winds themselves.”
“Aspen, I want you to stay close to me and as silent as you can. Once we get to them, you can talk to Sybil while Khione goes for Skiron.” I looked from Aspen to Khione. “I don’t know what condition he will be in, but you should know, the smell of blood was in the air. If we need to fight, can you get everyone out of the cave who is not fighting?” I asked.
“I can fight,” Khione said defensively.
“Yes, you can,” I said as I pulled a piece of ice off my coat, held it up to her, smiled, and tossed it on the ground. “And you might have to fight. I’m not worried about your ability. I am worried about getting others out. Alcholoë may not respond to reason, and I want to be able to concentrate on her if it comes to that.” I changed focus again. “Aspen, stay at my side, but if fighting breaks out, get to the side of the cave or out of the cave. I need you out of my way and as safe as possible.” I looked back at Khione. “Agreed?”
Khione took a moment and then nodded.
“Agreed?” I asked Aspen. She was much less bouncy now, but she nodded.
I held out my hands. The other women took them, and we ported to the cave.
Our footsteps echoed down the passageway inside the cave. I motioned for everyone to stay quiet and showed Aspen how to place her feet so her footsteps did not make a sound. A formidable wind hit us when we stepped from the cave entrance into the tunnel. It took an effort to move forward, and it was difficult for Aspen to take a step.
Khione called a blizzard and guided it between the cave wall and the cold wind, creating a pocket of still air we could move through. I pulled Aspen close and guided her to hug the wall as we moved forward. I notched an arrow now that I could hold the bow steady.
The fight between the strong winds had Khione panting before long. Toward the end of the long tunnel, a shrill shriek penetrated the loud roar of the wind. The echo of that sharp sound hit us several times, causing Aspen to stumble.
“Just transfer some to her! Give her your legacy! Let her be a part of this family!” Aspen held her hands to her ears.
The harpy’s shrieks pierced our minds, and the echo bounced around in our heads. I hate fighting with anything that addles my senses, and I’d had enough of that recently. I shook my head and pushed on. The winds grew fiercer the closer we got, but just outside the back room of the cave, we could make out a human voice.
“Mother, I want him to be willing to give them to me. Do you understand? I am his daughter. I am a daughter of the winds. Why don’t you accept me, Father? How can I prove that I am worthy of your love and power?” A crazed voice came from around the corner.
Aspen caught our attention and mouthed, “Sybil.” I looked back and Khione, who was visibly tired but determined and angry. She was a fighter and would have done well with my maidens.
“Someone is here!” Alcholoë shrieked suddenly.
We ran in and stumbled because the wind tunnel we were pushing against unexpectantly ended. Aspen spotted her friend and ran towards her before I could prevent it. The harpy plucked Aspen from the ground and shoved her against the wall. “How dare you bring them here?!”
“Mother! Drop her! That’s Aspen!” Sybil yelled. The harpy let Aspen fall. I ran, but clouds of snow formed under her to soften her fall. Aspen’s friend ran to her, and Khione went to her uncle.
It was time to distract the harpy and give them a chance to escape. I lifted my bow and pointed my arrow at her swirling eyes. “Where are the keys?”
She cackled and hovered in the air. “These keys?” Her gnarled fingernails wound through a large number of keys hanging from her neck. “I found these keys fair and square. They are mine. Why? Do you want them?” She was going to try to toy with me.
“Alcholoë, you can give them to me, or I will take them by force,” I said dispassionately while she deliberately flew around me as if I were her prey.
I could hear Khione’s uncle explain how the harpy found a key when she discovered their adopted daughter, Sybil. For years the harpy has been possessed by the keys and had been tracking them down. Sybil had been possessed by that key as well. I had hoped I would find answers to the key mystery, but it seemed this would be a long hunt. I wondered who and why someone would possess a baby.
Alcholoë was happy to keep up a barrage of insults, which let me overhear the other conversations in the cave. I needed to keep her focused on me so the others could get out. I didn’t attack when the opportunity came up. Throwing insults at this deranged creature would normally have been tedious, but today it was a much-needed outlet. I had not been aware of how tense being around Khione’s fragile state of mind had me.
“If you want me, come at me, addled-brained ostrich reject!” I yelled, having more fun than I had expected. The harpy was not an idiot. She was slowly circling closer, using the time to find a specific key.
Khione’s uncle, Skiron, said that Alcholoë had found a key that would transfer his power to the mortal girl, but it had to be done voluntarily, and he had been refusing. A mortal would be killed by such power, so there had to be a reason Alcholoë wanted his power removed.
Alcholoë’s fingers stopped moving, and a smile sliced across her face. I took this moment to release the arrow I had been holding at the ready. She jerked out of the way, and the arrow missed, as I expected. She would have to find the key again.
“Don’t think you can hit me, Huntress. I’ve got more power than you!” she screeched. I released another arrow, but her hands had found another key. Her wings banged against one another, and a strong blast of air blew my second arrow off course.
“Sybil, draw me a square,” the harpy ordered.
“Don’t let her put Artemis in the square. She’ll seal it with a key, and it blocks all powers!” Skiron said frantically to Khione.
I continued to pump arrows in the air, but they all missed their target. Something was pulling them to the side. I could see them jump from their path or fall short of the harpy, who was still yelling at Skiron to give up his power.
“Aspen, stop Sybil!” Khione yelled when Sybil began to draw a line on the cave floor with chalk.
Alcholoë flung another blast of wind at Khione, and the roar deafened everyone in the room. The harpy used another key to create a tornado with that blast of wind. I jumped in front of Aspen but was pushed back by the tornado. When I caught sight of Alcholoë again, she turned a key in a locking motion. It looked like charades, but we were trapped.
- A Goddess Down - January 27, 2023
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