If I made a list of what I want to see when I regain consciousness, somewhere near the bottom of that list would be the head of a rabbit, the arms of a monkey, and the wings of a bat.
It starts with pain—the kind of mind-splitting, debilitating pain that would make an axe to the head pale in comparison. My eyes crack open the width of a sheet of paper. They must be swollen because that’s how far they’ll go.
Then reality floods in. The earthy scent of grass and dirt. The sensation of falling in slow motion. The distant babble of Conrad’s voice. A medley of sparkling colours swirling in the background. And most prominent of all; the head of a rabbit, the arms of a monkey, and the wings of a bat.
I swing an arm, miss, then sweep at the monstrosity again, brushing it off my chest—that means I’m on my back, then. So the colours overhead, the giant clouds of emerald and violet clashing in an ocean of black, must be . . . galaxies. I’m staring up at the night sky and its transparent view of the ethers.
The steady falling sensation—except it’s more like sliding now I’ve got my bearings—plucks my attention. And there’s something else; an encircling pressure on my ankles. Shackles? No, hands! I’m being dragged!
“You’re saying you came to this world by accident?”
“Not by accident. We meant to come here,” Conrad says. “It’s just that your world is really different from ours, and Hen doesn’t have the imagination for it. So even though he wanted to come, he didn’t at the same time. That’s why his brains got scrambled and he couldn’t breathe.”
“That sounds irritating.”
“Tell me about it. But he’s super smart, you know! One time he beat three people at once at Chess—”
“Conrad!” I hiss.
The sliding stops and my heels thud to the ground. “Told you I didn’t kill him.”
“Hen!” Conrad’s face appears, suspended over mine, flushed but otherwise unharmed. He winces at the sight of me.
“How do I look?” I croak.
“Like a panda, if I’m honest.”
The woman’s hooded face appears opposite Conrad’s. Black eyes, like lumps of coal, bear down on me. I can almost feel the weight of them, the weight of the dark acts that turned them that way.
“Conrad,” she says, eyes fixed on mine. “Wait by the river. I need a word with your brother.”
“Go,” she says with finality. Then she finally breaks eye contact with me to glance at Conrad, and her tone softens by the slightest possible degree. “We won’t be long. Maybe you can find some of those jollyfish you keep telling me about.”
“Jellyfish,” Conrad corrects her, but his face disappears. He shuffles away for a few seconds before pausing. “You’re not going to hurt him again, are you?”
“I’ll try not to.”
Accompanied by his chirping friend, his footsteps trail away, become scratchy when he reaches the riverbank, then fade out of earshot.
Which leaves the two of us alone.
“So you decided I should come after all,” I say.
“Your brother and I made an agreement. You come with us, he talks. Let’s just say he held up his end of the bargain. I’ve never known someone so small to have so much to say.”
“Well, you wanted to kidnap him. Now he’s your problem.”
She crouches so I can better see her out of my almost-closed eyes, and raises her hands. I flinch, evoking waves of agony across my forehead. But she simply removes her hood, driving away the shadows shrouding her face.
“He has no idea. Does he?”
I try to frown. The swelling in my face stops the expression before it begins. So I blink instead.
“About Kitsune,” she clarifies. “Conrad doesn’t know what the deal means for him.”
Great. Conrad has spouted off our entire life story and I’m too injured to even lift my head. I’m completely at this woman’s mercy, and that horrible realisation causes a blockade in my brain—any plan of escape I might have will inevitably slam into that wall of futility.
“If you don’t start talking, I’ll start killing,” she warns, reaching for a pouch strapped to her thigh.
“He doesn’t know,” I confirm. Her hand falls.
“But you do. You know what Kitsune wants.”
“Three pure souls in exchange for our Mother’s,” I recite. “And Conrad will get to keep his.”
“What’s left of it. He won’t be the same if he completes the deal.”
“Hence why we’re here.”
Her eyebrows rise a fraction of an inch, then reset, as if her face is elastic, straining against even the slightest inflection. “You’re here to look for an option C?”
“I’m here to set things right.”
“Well then take it from me. You don’t set things right with Kit. You just hope not to lose more than you already have.”
“That might work if I had anything left.”
She rises to her feet in one fluid motion. “Enough with the pity party. I’ve heard this story a thousand times before. You’re not going to get within a mile of Kitsune before you fall into the wrong hands. And then it’ll be a matter of time before Kitsune learns what Conrad is.”
“Kit knows my brother is pure.”
“Pure? Pfft. That’s only the half of it.”
“What’s the other half?”
She draws in a slow breath. I can only assume she’s deciding what, if anything, to tell me.
“You need to understand. The moment a human touches Kitsune’s tail, he wins. He owns that persons soul the second their vessel dies. Make no mistake, he doesn’t care whose soul he takes, just as long as it’s pure. That’s why he strikes the deal. If you want to save your soul from an eternity of torture, you gotta up Kit’s numbers, give him more souls than he’s giving back. Traditionally it’s two for one, but since he owns your Mother, Conrad owes him three. Whatever, the point is, the who isn’t important. Your Mother, Conrad, the next guy who walks past, they’re all the same to Kit. He just wants as many souls as possible.”
“What does he want with them?”
“You’ve seen the way this world listens to Conrad. Pure means power. So the more power Kit has, the more this world listens. At least, that’s the way it’s worked until now. The people of your world don’t have magic. You’re just not made that way. But when someone from your world touches Kit’s tail, it changes you. It connects you to our world. And that’s the part Kit must have screwed up real bad. Conrad’s magic should be a ghost of what it is. I’ve never seen anyone stop a Sentry like that.”
“You did. You killed it like it was nothing.”
“Oh, it was,” she says, brushing her cape with her hand. “But what Conrad did goes far beyond the simple and joyous act of killing. He overrode the spell. The only way he could have done that is if he is more powerful than the one who cast it.”
“And who’s that?”
“Take a guess.”
Pain forgotten, I shoot up into a sitting position. “Are you telling me that Conrad is more powerful than Kitsune?”
She nudges me back down with her foot. “When Kitsune finds that out, the deal won’t matter to him anymore. He’ll want Conrad’s soul. He’ll get it the moment of his death, and he won’t wait around for that to happen.”
My mind is on overdrive. This is it. Something is finally going our way. We’re not crawling in the dark anymore. There’s a real chance we can turn things around.
“Now, I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve told you all of this. I’m not usually the forthcoming type.”
“I expected as much from a woman who introduces herself with a weapon.”
“It’s never too late for a reintroduction,” she says, patting a collection of needles strapped to her thigh, making them clack together. “The thing is, I need you up to speed so you can understand why I'm letting you live. For now. You see, Conrad chewed my ear off all day, and guess what he spoke about most of the time.”
I answer with silence.
“You, kid. He’s mad for you. Looks up to you for some reason.”
“Your brother is powerful, but wanna know what else he is? An absolute liability. He’s untrained and as disobedient as they come. Right now that’s a breeze for me to handle. But the only thing worse than Kit finding out what Conrad is, is Conrad learning it for himself. If he finds out what he’s capable of, even I wont be able to hold him back, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Conrad is the right person to be making world-changing decisions. So until we, and by ‘we’, I mean I, figure out what to do with him, you need to keep him in line. Can you handle that?”
Rushing footsteps steal our attention. She takes a step back to make way for Conrad.
“Bad news, I didn’t find any jellyfish,” he says, appearing over me, blonde head eclipsing the shimmering galaxies beyond. “But look what I got for you, Hen.”
He grins and presents a giant pink berry in front of my face. A large chunk is missing from the side, the remnants of which are splattered around Conrad’s beaming mouth.
“Eat,” comes the woman’s voice. “Then we move on.”
“Hello? Are you forgetting you knocked me into next week? I’m not moving anywhere.”
“Eat,” she says again.
Conrad gently lowers the berry closer and I gnaw a piece off. As I chew, and the peculiar taste of watermelon mixed with peanuts hits the back of my throat, the swelling in my face slips away. My forehead loosens, relaxes. The throbbing quells, enough so that I can lift my head without feeling like the world is going haywire.
Now that my body—or vessel, as the people of this world call it—has been restored, I rise to my feet gingerly, as if it’s too good to be true and I’ll wind up on my back again.
The field has started to rise into a steady incline, the river sinking deeper into the terrain, so that from a distance it wouldn’t be visible at all. At night the luminous grass is brighter than ever, as if it stored the light of the day to unleash it tenfold at night. True darkness doesn’t seem to exist in this world. Except perhaps within the eyes of those who don’t deserve to live in it.
The woman points uphill. “Henrik first. Conrad in the middle.”
“It’ll be like follow the leader!” Conrad chirps.
The woman locks eyes with me. “It definitely won’t.”
And with that we begin the trek. I lead my brother into the unknown, all the while pushing against the blockade in my brain, the wall of hopelessness, urging some kind of plan to make it over and into the realm of possibility.
A wind picks up from behind, nudging against us. Not aggressively, like the gust that attacked Conrad, but something equally purposeful about it, like a hand on our backs, urging us on.
A/N: thanks to user @SweetRabbit for pointing out a plot hole in this chapter, which I have now removed. (The woman threatened to kill Conrad if they try to run, but obviously that means his soul would then go to Kit, which she wouldn't want). I don't usually go back and make amendments unless it's really necessary, so apologies if this causes any confusion. Thanks SweetRabbit!