Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for violence.
The afternoon sun blistered on the black earth. Yao looked out from under the forcefield, the divider of worlds. It was quiet. Only the buzzing of mosquitoes in summer. Sometimes she wondered why the man with the long hair continued on this route. Other times, she counted the red frustrations of humans in the air, lay down, and waited for prey.
The man looked grey to her, though his face was a cold beige and his hair, in actuality, black. Age flowed fast and runny down his features, and so Yao perceived his being as a grey, throbbing ache.
Today she was going to ask him to come with her.
He arrived in the burnt remains of the forest, trailing along behind two women, both statuesque, both much taller than he was, who glowed golden and sweated the scent of untouchability.
The first woman turned around, holding her rucksack over one shoulder. "Come on! What are you waiting for?"
The man eyed her warily. He had his shoulders bunched up, the packs of supplies like a bulky tortoiseshell he was receding into. "Thought you two wanted time alone."
"He's doing it again." The second woman said to the first. She was lean and white, her eyelids fluttery and sinewy like the stems of bird feathers. "Sulking."
"Why do you always have to be like this?" The first woman raised her hands to the sky and sighed. Yao watched her sling her rucksack over the other shoulder and continue walking.
Three days ago, they had tied the man to a wooden pole in the middle of the deserted valley.
It had been wet. Just past a summer shower. There were mushrooms sprouting around the first woman's feet and the second woman wore a shawl and crossed her arms peacefully about her waist.
"I keep telling you, it wasn't me," the man intoned. He looked into the first woman's eyes with a deadbolt earnesty.
The second woman cradled her belly. "My dear," she said to her partner. "But I could feel it here. He was using his magic."
The first woman made a full body turn towards her. She was like a bear, hovering protectively over her mate. With an ocean-deep gaze, the man searched for a listening ear from her - and failed.
"Magic," the first woman whispered angrily. "You dare to use our art in front of us."
"It's not just yours," the man whispered back. His hair was a tangled mess over his shoulder, his neck bearing three green lines from the spell the women had cast upon him. They had locked his elbows taut. Something was done to his spine to make sure he could not squirm, or use his legs. Yao would have admired their work, maybe. But she had her own wants, thoughts, beliefs.
She was thinking about red wisps and cotton wool.
"So you admit it, then. You did use your magic on my wife."
"I never said anything of the sort. I never - did - anything of the sort. Please," his tone softened. "You have to see reason. It must have been a passing ghost, or the river was angered by our fording of it the other day. If we do not ask permission, then we have no permission to cross. I know the arts, my mother taught them to me. And I was taught when to use them."
He said he last part pointedly. It was a cute, sunflower-yellow sort of point, Yao thought. The sort that came from the people that lived in children's stories, and not the sort of stories that adults liked to read. It made her double-heart chortle and squeal.
The first woman folded her muscular arms. A stormy expression came across her face. "Fine," she said. "We need you to carry the bridge when we arrive. But we will keep you tied up at night."
The man met her gaze with an icy glare of his own. "Very well."
He was small, the long-haired man was. Yao liked to watch his ponytail sway behind him when he walked. She could taste his thoughts. They all tasted like rice, with the texture of rice. They were small, grainy, utterly unremarkable things.
"Doesn't he have the creepiest face?" the second woman said to the first, when they thought the Man was out of earshot. "I wonder what he's up to."
For a while, Yao let her attention rest on the women.
They were beautiful, they were. Beautiful and Good, in the way that humans liked to think of Good. The first woman seemed to be coated all over in bronze plating, which she brandished like armour. She pitied herself for it, for the armour she wore. And all day she thought about taking it off. And then she didn't. It was something that frustrated Yao.
Too complicated, Yao thought. She would much rather the long-haired man, whose thoughts were easy to chew and easy to digest. Could anyone else guess what he was thinking?
The second woman chose her clothing very carefully. She had a mantel made from the feathers she had plucked from her dead father's breast. He was half-avian, and her memories of him were soft and coddled and tasted like bitter ash. Her blue skirt was dyed with grated seashells, and on the very pads of her fingers she wore little flat stones, held together with tight chains, so that her every ministration was cool to the touch.
Her thoughts were like glass slides. Very visual, always looking from one pretty, well-lit little thing to the next. Her lover's eyelash. A flower petal. Pearls.
Pearls were crunchy, but rice more filling. Did anyone besides Yao know what the man thought about all day? They speculated, of course, but speculation was never the same as knowing.
On the way to the mountain village, where the three were headed, there had been news of a string of killings on the road. They passed by the unmarked graves, dug by some kind samaritans. Rumour had it - and the crows whispered alike - that a Man was going around killing women travelers who walked alone to the mountains. And of course, the Man the two were travelling with was immediately suspect.
The third night came, and the two lovers tied him up with a special iron-threaded rope, and made him sleep on the other side of the camping grounds.
While the two women slumbered, Yao emerged from between the layers of time and space. She stretched her split-spine, felt the splinters fan out into the night. There were no sensations for her to feel there, of course, but she enjoyed doing it nonetheless. She turned one of her six eyeballs in the direction of the second woman and re-cast the spell that was making a root grow from her small intestine.
There were crows squawking in the distance, and Yao figured they might be hungry.
With her errand complete, she gathered her orange energies back into a straight line, so she could focus on the real reason she came to this place.
The old boy was asleep. She liked to call him old boy, sometimes, because that was what he was. His hair was still tied, sticking uncomfortably to his neck as he could not move. The white edges of the forest ruins flickered when she made too fast a move, so she was sure to drift quietly and slowly forward, ghosting through the campfire and the rocks.
He turned around. Eyes still closed. She blinked, and forced them open.
"You again?" he gasped. "I thought you were a dream."
"And I thought you would want to resume the conversation we were so engrossed in the last time," said Yao, and she swayed languidly from side to side. The old boy watched with wide, bloodshot eyes, transfixed and horrified by the movement. But he did not break eye contact with her. As well as he could, given that she had six eyes and he had only two.
When he had calmed down, and schooled his face into the neutral coolness he kept on all day, he spoke once more. "There's danger on the valley here. You'd best leave."
"Danger?" Yao giggled, and the sound made one of the blood vessels in his eye burst. He made a noise of pain and squeezed both eyes shut.
The sound carried across the campsite. One of the women tossed in her sleep, but did not awaken. Suddenly, Yao found herself alit with a blaze of scorn. It occured to her that she did not at all like the capital-letter sort of Good. As a matter of fact, she found it very irritating.
"Was it you?" he said hoarsely. He was suspecting her of the magic. He threw a concerned glance at the two sleeping forms across the camping site. And then he yelped and curled like a worm because Yao was sending a ringing into his head out of annoyance.
He tried to use a spell on her. It made Yao laugh, which sent a couple of stars careening across the night sky, an impromptu meteor shower.
"Come with me," she grated the words against her comb-like teeth.
"Follow me," she blew the words into his head.
"I am your dearest friend," she whispered between the memory of his mother's death and the thought of his that he had to check their grain supplies for mould the next morning. "Your only friend."
And though he did not say yes, she caught within him the whiff of impossible longing, and it felt cold, like sleep without a blanket. And then he tasted it too, because he choked out a wet cry, "Yes."
She reached light years through the cosmos to hold his hand, and he burst into an amber rain of pure energy. Humans, when they were all grown up, were just suffocated fire-rain.
The next morning the women awoke to find their companion gone and themselves besieged by crows. They shouted curses at all the men they had ever seen in their lives, and at that Man in particular, and all the men they would never see, much less get to know. Yao's old boy shivered, remembering how they had forded the river without her permission. But he also didn't want them to die.
Yao did not care what the old boy wanted now. Yao did not care about anything at all now that she alone had what she wanted. She couldn't. It was not in her nature. Crows ate everything, from camp supplies to the people they were meant to supply. So it cannot be said that the two women suffered a painless death. But it could likewise not be said that the old boy had suffered a painless life. Yes, human beings were a funny race.
She wondered what it would be like, if they could taste each other's thoughts.