Eldan’s heart pounded and his skin tingled with adrenaline and energy. He could feel the air around him like a physical presence, something he could run up like stairs. The cat shook its head.
“You can feel my path but you are not ready, you will drain yourself or worse in the attempt. This land is barren, you have little means for replenishment yet.” The cat gestured with its nose toward the heart fruit still lying on the ground. “Those are from somewhere else, a place where the channels remain clear. Feeding on them will help sustain you until you connect with a source.”
Eldan looked at the fruit, hunger spiking in his stomach, resisting the urge to grab and eat it then and there.
“What may we call you? And what are you, if I may ask? Someone sent me here but I don’t understand how or why, what do you mean by needing a voice?” Cale spoke up from Eldan’s side. The cat shimmered like a wave of heat in the air. Abruptly, it was at a comfortable speaking distance, remaining in its recumbent position.
“You ask many questions, and have more unasked besides. I will answer as I can. Regarding what I am, your kind called mine til’balan, in your old tongue. Long ago, far before my time, most of my species left the skies for the waters. Over countless generations they became the river cats of your present world. My pride would become the last of the winged til’balan. Most of my kind fell as all do, to age, disease or violence, and eventually to the slow, weathering changes of time.
“As for what I, myself, am, that is more complicated. My name was Ak’bis, son of owls, once. Now you might say I am a memory made manifest. I am a fragment of a whole, a part of those consumed to fulfill a bargain. We call ourselves the sunken, and we have need of a voice lest all drown. You are in a unique position, not among our number but having crossed into our realm twice.”
Cale and Eldan looked at each other in confusion. “I’ve heard these terms, the sunken and the drowned, a couple of times now. What exactly do they mean?” Eldan asked.
Ak’bis rested his chin on his paws, managing to make his feline features look pensive. “You must understand that you inhabit corrupted land, and that it is so by design. Your ancestors struck an accursed bargain, sealing paths and channels to concentrate power. Sacrifices maintain the arrangement, each tithe feeding the strength of a corrupted source. We call those lost the drowned,” Ak’bis said, sounding both disgusted and heartbroken.
“Yet, one path remains shielded, and a few from each sacrifice saved, within the limits of our ability. That is to say, we are dead, or at least we are no more... but we remember who we once were and are not puppets forced to consume our own. We call ourselves the sunken, beyond reach of the living but not gone from this world.” Ak’bis nodded toward Cale again. “This path is yours alone, no others may move between this realm and yours in both directions.”
Ak’bis lifted his head again, sweeping his gaze around the room before turning back to Cale. “As I said, though, I am here only to greet you both. One would speak with you, speaker, who was for a time trapped within your path, and may be better able to guide you.”
One of Ak’bis’ ears swiveled as he faced Eldan, as though he was listening to something in the distance. “We can offer little in the way of guidance to you, shield. You may not follow further into our realm, but you already know where you must go.” Eldan’s eyes slid to the water and Ak’bis inclined his head. “I have no wish to speak in riddles but we, too, are bound by tenets of the bargain. I have already said far too much, but I may offer two truths. First, there are many lands unbound by the constraints of your barren one. And second, the histories known to your people, even the secreted ones, are falsehoods. You must seek forgotten knowledge, buried truths, and allies with paths of their own to find yours. We cannot guide you, nor would you benefit from guidance. None have treaded your path since the first shield, and you must forge it anew.”
Ak’bis shimmered, reappearing nearly instantaneously, standing on all fours. A tall woman stood at his side, resting one hand between the wings at his shoulder blades. She flickered, fading in and out of view, present one moment and insubstantial the next. Silver hair tumbled down her shoulders, her gray eyes crinkling at the corners with a warm smile. Eldan sucked in a breath, realizing that he was standing before Iyena of House Goldkeeper.
Iyena’s smile widened as she gazed at Cale. Eldan saw her mouth moving and then she lowered her head, her expression falling in regret as she wiped her eyes. Eldan glanced at Cale, who was staring at Iyena in rapt attention, clearly able to hear her speak. Iyena looked back up after regaining her composure, smiling warmly again. She spoke silently, reaching out one hand toward Cale in invitation.
Cale started to step forward but stopped to look at Eldan, seeming conflicted. He shot her a warning look and turned back to Iyena, eyeing her mistrustfully. Iyena watched their silent exchange, dropping her hand to her side. She gave Eldan a sad smile and turned to Ak’bis, whose ears flared as he listened to her speak.
“Shield,” Ak’bis rumbled, “this one laments that she was unable to truly know you in life. You share not a path, and cannot cross the divide to speak directly. She wishes me to impart her experience, so that you may know her now.”
Iyena spoke to Ak’bis again, pausing to chew her lip as Cale often did when thinking. Eldan was struck by Iyena’s expressiveness, her gestures animated in a way he had never seen. Ak’bis nodded, turning back to Eldan.
“As I said before, this one was once trapped in our path. Specifically, she was trapped in a nexus between the realms of the living, the sunken and the drowned. She was meant for sacrifice but one with foreknowledge of the tithe attempted to shield her. The protection failed, leaving but a fragment of her mind in the physical realm. In that nexus, she became a conduit through which the creatures of corruption could travel to your own. Her body, her words, even her thoughts were not her own. She fought to restore herself but to no avail. In the end, she could only withdraw from her own life to protect those she loved. When the next tithe approached she seized the chance to flee her body, closing the conduit. She knew enough of the paths to escape the corruption and join us here. She grieves, much as you do now, for losses both in life and death. And yet, she must now pass on what she learned of the paths and the devourers. She asks you to hear the truth of these words through my voice.”
Ak‘bis paused, listening again. As Iyena spoke she rubbed the bridge of her nose, in a gesture Eldan found oddly reassuring. Iyena had always seemed so remote, even eldritch… as though, he realized with a chill, she was only mimicking the behaviors of a person.
“How do you know she isn’t corrupted now?” Eldan blurted. “The drowned, they were people once. How can you know she isn’t one of them? Or that they can’t still come through her?”
Iyena lifted her chin to look at Eldan directly. Her gaze was steady, even as her form flickered. “You have only our word that this realm is incorruptible,” Ak’bis growled. “The drowned were complete beings once, but they are one with the devourer now. They cannot conceive of wholeness, the thoughts, desires and griefs that you call personhood. However, I offer no proof of my claims. You must both proceed on trust alone.”
“I will go with you,” Cale said with finality. She turned to Eldan, her face set in determination. “I’m sorry, I know you are trying to protect me, but I have to do this.” She reached out and grabbed his hand, holding it tightly for a moment before letting go. Eldan nodded numbly, his throat tight as he watched her walk across the cavern floor toward Ak’bis and Iyena. When she reached them, Iyena put a hand on Cale’s shoulder, her ghostly face alive with emotion.
Ak’bis bowed his horned head toward Eldan. “May you find the first steps on your path, shield. We will reunite you with our speaker soon.” With a waver of air they vanished, leaving Eldan alone in the cavern.