Gods of the Valley
the boy whoDeliquesce
Gods of the Valley
the boy who
Gods of the Valley
the boy who Deliquesce
the boy who
Gods of the Valley by Karen Heslop
Gods of the Valley
by Karen Heslop
I'm not a god but I am a mother and that feels pretty damn close. The real gods are out there, through the forest and in the valley filled with the dense fog that stinks of rot and mildew. Village elders say the valley floor is littered with the bones of those who have searched for the gods and failed. That's where I'm going.
They've taken my boy and while I know he's not the first one, he's my boy. Mine. He's the only one of my young ones to stick with me and I'm planning to stick with him too.
The other women in the town told me to let it go. "It's just the way things work," they said, "you'll have to find a way to work through it." Even my son's godmother, Armada, the woman whose opinions I valued above all the others, told me to find ways to work through my pain. Everyone reminded me that the gods choose a child for their own and we endure it so we can live here undisturbed. Well, I don't feel undisturbed. I'm going to get Rekai back.
I packed a bag last night--a few bottles of water, a compass, rags, and whatever food I could put together. The backpack might be a bit heavy to start with, but it'll get lighter over time or I'll get to the point where it won't matter.
The items thud and slosh when I hoist the backpack onto my shoulders. Afterward, I grab an old walking stick my grandfather used to hobble around with and stalk through the door. There's a soft click as the lock engages and it feels final. I hesitate at the cursed forest's tree line and the birds still as if waiting for my decision. A few moments later, I make my decision and their chirps echo through the treetops as my footsteps crunch old, desiccated leaves on the forest ground.
The little I can see of the sun slips across the sky before I get to a slim river coursing through the land. One of my water bottles is half empty, so I finish the rest and fill the bottle from the river. Crossing the water opens up a different world for me to travail. The earth is softer and my boots slide easily in the mud. It hasn't rained in over a month, but I try not to think about what's keeping the soil so moist.
The air stings my nostrils when I inhale and the birds' tweets sound less like chirps and more like haunting melodies warning of what's to come. The bush closest to me rustles and I jump away with a little yelp. My feet slide but I manage to stay upright when the creature scampers from its hiding place. It could have been a rabbit a few evolutionary cycles ago. The long ears and muscular hind legs are still there. Its fur is dark green and riddled with spikes. Its front teeth hang from its mouth heavy and sharp. Fortunately, it pays me no mind and sprints away. Unfortunately, it heads in the direction I'm moving towards.
I drop heavily onto the ground, ignoring the squelch beneath my pants. The rag I've used to wipe my sweat is already dark and grimy but I keep wiping. I don't know how many more days I have to go. I take the time to focus on everything that is going on around me. The smells, sounds, and sights, which are how I first spot ... him. He's looking at me from behind a broad, squat tree. The tree's green vines seem to begin and end in the hat he's wearing. I stand slowly, keeping my eyes on the creature.
"I see you."
"I know," he replies.
His voice is deep and rhythmic. It reminds me of the harmony the birds have been chirping since I stepped across the river.
"Why are you here?" I ask.
"Why are you?"
I consider being completely honest, but I've heard that the gods aren't the most forthright of entities.
"Maybe I got lost."
He chuckles and slithers from his hiding place. Vines snap and reposition around the tree as he moves. So I was right. He was attached to the tree.
"Nobody gets lost here. Who're you looking for?"
I move to reply but only take a deep breath. I decide on a safe version of the truth.
"Someone I love."
"You mean the boy? Dark of skin with umber curls on his scalp?"
He extends his palm before I can answer. There are a few strands of hair curled in the centre of his hand. I recognize them from Rekai's comb and the bath and the couch. My boy. My pretence isn't necessary.
"Where is he?"
He shrugs and curls his fingers around the smattering of hairs.
"I can only say that he passed here. You've come so far, how much farther are you willing to go?"
"As far as it takes."
"Well then, proceed."
I turn away, but his hand snakes around my shoulder.
There are quick yanks on my scalp and a few strands of my hair are wrapped around his fingers when I look around.
"Now you may go," he says with a broad smile.
I have questions, but he is already disappearing into the creeping mist. Mist--the thinned-out version of fog. I push the creature from my mind and move forward. My backside leaves a distinctive imprint in the mud and I absurdly expect the ground to puff up and obliterate the mark. It doesn't happen. At least, not while I'm watching.
I see a few more of the special rabbits while I walk and the time ticks by. It's dark when I get to the valley's edge. I look on both sides for alternatives, but the valley stretches as far as I can see. Below me, the fog twists and roils like a disgruntled serpent. It is thick and grey, concealing everything that lurks in waiting for the unsuspecting or the stupid. I pride myself on being neither of the two, so I slide the backpack off my shoulders and sit beside the biggest tree I see.
The bark is rough against my back, but at some point fatigue sets in and I drift off.
* * *
It takes every ounce of self-control in my being not to bolt upright from the stale breath inches from my face. Whatever the thing might be is close--too close. I can smell the remnants of a meal on its breath. Meaty and tangy. It's not unpleasant but still unsettling.
A silken voice speaks.
"I know you're awake. Your breathing has changed."
Even though caught in a lie, I take my time opening my eyes. They are still inches from my face. Their feline face has some human attributes that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's the crinkled brows above sparkling green eyes or the thick red lips curled into a smirk while the tip of their tongue languishes on the outside.
"Why're you watching me?" I slurred.
"Nothing better to do."
They finally move away from my face and lounge gracefully beside me. I start when faint growls float up from the valley. The creature perks up.
"Are you heading into the valley?"
"What's it to you?"
They slink towards the valley's edge before turning back to me.
"Nothing at all. I've just heard it's safer to have a guide."
"Are you volunteering? Why?"
They look at me and a long smile stretches from one ear to the other, showing a string of white, sharp teeth. They shift from side to side, cracking their long spine.
"If you're interested, then you should come with me."
Without a word, I rise from my resting spot. My old bones creak and there's a dull throbbing in my bloated bladder.
"Give me a minute, please."
Green eyes appraise me quizzically until I unzip my pants. I bury my bashfulness since the trustworthiness of the human-cat is still questionable. At least they look away until I finish my business and pull my pants back up.
"Aren't you going to eat something?" they ask while nodding at my backpack.
I glare at them suspiciously.
"Did you go through my things?"
They snicker and sit back on their haunches.
"There was no need. My nose works well enough."
I shrug, grab a sandwich from the backpack, and wash it down with a swig of now-lukewarm canned juice. A cursory glance at my guide shows a feigned nonchalance. I slip out another sandwich.
"Would you like a sandwich?"
Their head lilts to one side, before sauntering towards my outstretched hand. A long, yellow forked tongue snakes from their mouth and the sandwich is gone in a blink of an eye.
"No problem. Alright, let's go."
"You'll need to hold on to me."
They flick their rainbow-tinted tail in my direction and instantly pull it away when I reach out. A small smirk greets my glare. Neither of us speaks for a moment, and then the tail lands firmly in my outstretched hand.
"Just a light hold is fine. We only need to be in contact."
They saunter to the edge of the valley and I tip on my toes to look over the edge. The fog is less dense, but from here, everything still looks covered in a layer of varying shades of brown.
My 'guide' leaps over the edge and my screams echo from behind me as if they're bouncing off the valley we're careening into. A tiny swirling vortex opens before us and as our bodies glide through, I tighten my grip on the tail. I'm certain a hiss lingers on the periphery of the vortex, but the fur remains against my palm.
In what feels like moments, we're on the ground. The mist around us is light enough for me to see a variety of bodies milling past us. Some are human-like while others are as far from human as a living being could get. With some irritation, I realize that my walking stick was left behind. They yank their tail from my hands and glare at me.
"Was that really necessary?"
I run my palm over the few curls that have strayed from my hair clips before answering.
"Maybe you should have warned me that you were going to jump over the cliff!"
We glare at each other until we notice the quiet that surrounds us. A line has formed on each side of the street and I can feel the weight of surveillance on my skin. Without breaking eye contact, I address the human-cat.
"Do we just walk away?"
"We? I held up my end of the bargain. You're here, aren't you?"
"What about my son?" I hiss through clenched teeth.
"I'm sure you'll be fine."
They fizzle and whittle into a wisp of smoke, filling my nostrils briefly with the stench of burnt fur. I hitch my backpack further on my shoulder, drawing bits of confidence from the weight. The lines of people are thinning but a few remain, seemingly curious about the new stranger. I wonder if I am the only human in the valley by choice.
I look around and notice a narrow, light yellow building to my right. It's as good a place to start as any. A bell tinkles when I push the door open, its melody an awkward, off-kilter set of notes that set my teeth on edge. The lobby is painted the colour of sunshine with dark violet trims skimming along the wall's edges. A small desk and chair rest against a far wall, but there is nobody to be seen. The air is cool and filled with the aroma of baked goods.
"Hello?" I say hesitantly.
There's the dull creak of wood moving and an eye opens in a door at the end of the short hall. The sclera maintains the light brown of the door, but its striations run perpendicular with the vertical ones in the door. A dark green iris and the blank void of a pupil appraise me. I hesitate for a moment, wondering where the other body parts may lie.
"My name is Jania and I'm looking for someone."
"Why does that bring you here?"
I force myself to keep looking at the eye instead of looking for the lips that address me.
"I was hoping someone here could help me."
"What can you offer?"
"I – I don't have any money."
A deep, guttural chuckle fills the room.
"I don't need your money. Tell me whom you seek and I will name my price."
"My son, Rekai. He was taken from my village."
"Which one of the villages?"
I draw closer to the eye.
"Why is that interesting?"
"I didn't know Rashak was still taking tributes."
Another chuckle grows into an outright guffaw.
"Don't you know who you worship?"
As I draw closer to the door, I realize the lips are hanging from a light switch. I drag my gaze back to the unblinking eye.
"I don't worship anyone."
"You're not a priestess?"
"What? We don't have those."
"Well, you must. Otherwise, you would still have your son."
The lips slither closer to my ear when I remain silent.
"Did you think the gods were actually leaving the comfort of their gilded thrones to snatch children?" it asks derisively.
My mind swirls. This is not possible. I've never been asked to worship any being. There are no temples, no churches, so how is anyone worshipping this unknown god and why? I return to the matter at hand.
"How do I get my son back?"
"I can provide a guide for you. You may have already met."
"What did you call me?" a familiar voice asks from behind me. I turn to face them.
"You didn't give me a name."
"You never asked."
The voice interrupts.
"Their name is Ocusa."
I mumble the name begrudgingly and they peer at me without speaking. The voice addresses me again.
"Jania, Ocusa can get you to where you need to be, but we must discuss my fee. As you can tell, I'm a bit scattered."
I jump a little as fingers curl around my calf. The disembodied arm sprouts from the floor, its colour only slightly darker than the sky-blue around it.
"I was a priest in my former life, serving the god of my village. I became disillusioned and derelict in my duties. Because of this, I was punished. At first, I thought she was going to kill me, but I soon realized that would have been a mercy. Instead, she dragged me into the valley, ripped my soul from my body and scattered me into this bakery.
"I felt sorry for myself for a while but then I realized I could learn from the people who came in here every day. Eventually, I became the place people came to for information and I saw I could be compensated for my information and maybe, just maybe, I could get all the parts back together. So from you, dear Jania, I'm going to need an eye."
"You think you can pull your body back together?"
There is a multitude of sounds as lips, arms and feet gather around the eye. For a moment, the parts are multi-coloured, but then they all fade to brown.
"I seem to be doing well so far."
"Will you help me get my son back?"
"I will help as much as I can."
"Then you will have my eye."
There is a searing pain in the middle of my forehead and Ocusa snickers behind me when I cry out.
"Humans," they mutter, "absolutely no pain threshold in the bunch of them."
"It's just a little debtor's mark, nothing too terrible. Ocusa," the building says, "could you please take Jania to Rashak's shrine?"
"With pleasure," they reply.
I can't tell if Ocusa is being genuine or sarcastic, but I adjust my backpack and turn around to face them.
Ocusa yawns and turns towards the door. They seem bigger here, their twitching tail is almost in line with my soon-to-be-taken eye. The bell tinkles when we leave, its tones now melodious.
Without a pause, Ocusa turns left and picks up the pace. I have to break into a light jog to keep up with them. As we leave the town behind, it's harder to keep up when we get on a path filled with haphazardly growing vegetation.
"What's the matter? Too tired or too old? Or maybe the only thing you can keep a grip on is an unsuspecting being's tail?"
I stopped and sighed. They were still annoyed and rightly so.
"Ocusa, I apologize for yanking on your tail."
Ocusa stops a few feet away, and while I can barely see their expression through the thicket of bushes, their sigh echoes through the thin mist.
"It's fine. I suppose it was a bit of my fault since I didn't warn you about the jump."
I start walking again and this time they wait for me to catch up. Soon, the dense vegetation thins to reveal a clearing with a gleaming silvery temple in the middle. Vines run up and down the sides of the building in a beautiful pattern.
"Is this where my son is?"
"How long has he been gone?"
The low timbre of Ocusa's whisper tells me this is not a question they ask lightly.
"It's only been a couple of days."
"Then it shouldn't be too late."
They slip down the small incline towards the temple before I can reply. It's a possibility I've avoided focusing on. Gods only require tributes for sacrifice. I follow Ocusa without a word. If they think there is still time, then I would believe that.
As we draw closer, I realize that there are small creases between whatever blocks or bricks the temple is made of. I place my palm against one of the creases and a soft breeze blows against my hand. Without much thought, I sniff the air and find it pleasantly tangy.
"What are you doing?"
"I – I have no idea. What is it?"
"The source of the fog."
"You mean the fog that coats the entire valley?" I ask incredulously.
Ocusa nods but doesn't elaborate.
"Is this where all the gods are or just the one we're looking for?"
They stare at me for a moment before deciding I was asking a serious question.
"I didn't believe that you didn't worship any gods, but apparently it's true. There are ten gods and five goddesses in this valley. Each governs one of the villages above and has its own temple. Rashak is responsible for your village."
"And what exactly is he doing for my village that's so special? What is he doing that could be worth my son's life?"
Ocusa sits back on their haunches and waves their paws around.
My face crinkles in confusion.
"The fog helps him grant the requests people make."
"But I don't understand. The ... being at the house said he didn't know Rashak was still taking tributes. Yet, I know children were being taken, so what's going on?"
"He's not a god. He only knows what others tell him. You didn't know Rashak was still taking care of your village. Besides, negotiations are handled by the priests and priestesses."
"So a handful of people make decisions for an entire village?"
My voice has become shrill even to my own ears and a long silence stretches out before Ocusa answers.
"Back when I was a part of one of the villages, priests and priestesses were elected. They were good, wise, unselfish people. Everyone had a chance to have a dialogue with the chosen ones before any agreements or negotiations were made with the gods. Usually, as long as the requests weren't contradictory or plainly selfish, they were brought to the gods for contemplation."
They sigh, and I wait out the pause instead of interrupting.
"Sometimes, though, the people got it wrong and elected a priest they only thought was good--someone who only looked out for their own good and not the village as a whole. And then sometimes, the gods found out and punished that person by turning them into something else entirely."
For the first time since I met them, there is a dull sadness in their eyes. I reach out but hesitate before touching them. Would they see it as consolation or petting? They see my indecision and sit up; their body turns towards the temple again. Compelled to say something, I speak to their back.
"Is that what happened to you?"
"The gods are unforgiving of deception and insolence," they mutter before meeting my eyes again. "You should remember that when we're in there."
Ocusa steps forward and their svelte body starts to disappear into the fog. I rush in so as not to lose them. The inside is cool, and surprisingly the air is crisp and clean. Whatever the fog contains, there isn't enough moisture to create the clammy humidity I expect.
The ground feels solid but shifty under my feet – a bit like compacted sand. The fog thins the closer we get to the centre of the temple and things become visible again. Ocusa stands before a doorway to a small room in the centre of a metallic circle. The room's height extends skyward through the top of the temple, and pinpricks of sunlight stream in where the protrusion doesn't seal.
I take small steps to get to Ocusa's side. There are intricate symbols carved on each side of the doorway, and I slide my finger over a few of them.
"Do I need to know what these say?"
"Perhaps when we're back on the outside."
A spark of fear flitters in my heart, and they rest a heavy paw on my side.
"Now what kind of guide would I be if I let you come to harm?"
A small smile touches their lips, and the levity is all I need to get me across the threshold. The room is much bigger on the inside than on the outside. I'm tempted to go back outside and confirm that, but I'm afraid I might not be let back in. There is a large throne in the centre of the room wrapped in thick vines and lush leaves. The wood of the frame is weathered and dark.
"I thought you would never get here."
There's a figure in the corner of the room, hidden in the dark. I hear a wet squelch as plants detach themselves from what must be Rashak. I stay a few feet from the deep voice that has spoken. When the figure approaches, I realize it's the same man from before in the woods. Instinctively, I touch my hair.
"The last time I checked, yes."
"Where's my son?"
He waves his hand, "Around."
"I need my son."
"He is my tribute."
I shake my head in anger, but Ocusa's paw touches my calf before any words can leave my lips. I tread carefully.
"What would it take to get him back?"
He chuckles, "Don't you have another wager to keep?"
"I see no reason I can't keep both."
"And return to the village with your son?"
I haven't thought about that. I can't leave Rekai here, but what if I can't leave either? Who would take care of him?
"Maybe I can bring you another."
He steps into the light and his eyes blaze a brilliant topaz. His skin, as dark as the throne he inhabits, seems even darker against his close-cropped orange hair.
"You don't have it in you."
My frustration builds and words explode from my mouth.
"Why do you even need to kill children?"
His brows raise in confusion.
"Kill them? I have never killed a child in my life. I simply make them a part of my world."
"You take our children so you can have company?" I scoff.
His eyes brighten with fire until I can't bear to hold his gaze. I open my mouth to apologize but Ocusa intervenes.
"My Lord, please forgive her. She doesn't understand our ways."
"Yes." I hurriedly add, "Please help me understand."
I don't look at Rashak again until his breathing slows.
"I am trying to understand but," I take a deep breath, "I need my son back."
Rashak sighs and trudges to his throne. The old wood creaks and groans as he settles into the seat. He strokes the leaves hanging from the armrests while Ocusa and I wait patiently. A light breeze tickles my face until it becomes a rush of wind. A tornado of dust comes together before me and again fear starts to build in the pit of my stomach, but I don't look away.
It takes a few moments but the cloud of dust takes shape and form until I can see my son. I wait until his body looks dense and compact before reaching for him. I expect his skin to feel rough or sandy, but it's as supple and smooth as I remember it. His tightly coiled curls spring back easily into place when I move my hands from them.
"Yes, the hair is the trickiest part I find. That's why I keep a few to remind myself."
I look up to see Rashak plucking at a tiny spot near to the breast pocket of his cloak. My lips part to thank him, but different words tumble out instead.
"Is your coat made entirely out of children's hair?" I ask incredulously.
"That and those who've crossed me."
A tight smile plays on the corner of his lips. I push my son behind me and step forward.
"What do you do with the children?"
He sweeps his hands around the room.
"They're everywhere. Don't they teach the basics of the world anymore? Even the gods can't create something out of nothingness. Your kind asks me for rain, more cattle, more, more, always more! Where do you think the building blocks come from?"
"I've never asked you for anything."
"Except the son that you now shield behind your frail body."
"He was never yours to take!"
"Well, you'll need to have that talk with your priestess. I didn't choose your son, she did."
I realize I don't know who stole my son away on his return from school.
"Who is she?"
Another whisper of wind and someone I recognize swirls into existence at Rashak's side. Armada. A woman. A friend. Godmother to my child.
"Lord, why have you ..."
Her words wither as she notices us. I'm not prepared for this and my brain scrambles to string letters together into coherent sentences.
"Jania? What are you doing here?"
My voice is raspy when I reply.
"I came for my son."
Her eyes widen with understanding. She looks from me to Rashak and back again. I wonder if she is contemplating who deserves an explanation first. I take advantage of her silence.
"Are you going to explain to your lord why he's not being worshipped? Can you tell him why he thinks he's been doing things for us when that's not the case?"
Rashak's smirk slips.
"What is she talking about, Armada?"
"Nothing! She's just ..."
"I didn't know we still worshipped the gods. I don't think anyone does. I thought the gods stole my son because of cruelty. There are no temples in your honour. As far as we knew, we've been on our own for years. Whatever your priestess has asked you for, has not been for us."
"Lord, I ..."
Rashak's arm wraps around Armada's throat like a vine. She gasps for breath, and he nonchalantly plucks a few strands of her hair. My son's arms wrap around my waist before I can regret what I have started. Rashak sprinkles the stolen hairs onto his cloak and they intertwine with ease, creating a fresh black patch between the second and third buttons.
His arm tightens around her neck and I brace myself for the crackling snap of her bones. Instead, her skin withers and shrivels as she loses mass. Out of his other hand, Rashak releases blue-tinted globs of liquid into the air.
"What the hell?" I mutter.
Ocusa moves to my side and I do a double-take when I realize most of their feline characteristics are gone. The bright green eyes and plump pink lips remain. They're enchanting.
"The circle of creation at work," they say with a frown.
I tear my eyes away from Ocusa just in time to see the last of the globules flit through the opening in the roof. What's left of Armada writhes on the dusty ground until her form settles into a creature that is a cross between a snake and a grasshopper. I wonder if this is where the abominations in the forest come from.
I wonder if she's as intelligent as Ocusa and the house I owe an eye. Before I can test my theory, Rashak addresses Ocusa.
"Well, Ocusa, I see you've gotten your second chance at serving me right."
"I have learnt my lesson, lord Rashak."
"I would certainly hope so. You may return to the village and resume your duties."
"My village?" I ask.
I look at Ocusa in confusion and a blush spreads across their face.
"I-I should have told you before. Yes, I was from your village, but it was a long time ago."
"And you knew this is what he was doing to the children?"
My anger seeps from my pores like sweat. The idea that Ocusa has done this to other parents places heaviness on my heart I thought I had released when I got Rekai back. Ocusa shakes their head slowly but doesn't speak. I turn back to Rashak.
"Does it have to be children?"
He regards me for what feels like an eternity before answering.
"It doesn't matter who it is. It only needs to be a living being. Human to be specific."
"So Armada was choosing to send you children?"
"Who else did you have in mind?"
I grapple for anyone or anything that could be better than children, and the crumbling building that houses the village's wrongdoers comes to mind. It's so bad, we only bother to lock up the worst offenders. There weren't many in there but still enough to get us through a couple of years. By then, I would have come up with something else for Rashak.
"Criminals. Every village has them. What if we send them to you, every ... how often do you need a tribute?"
"If the requests are reasonable, every three months or so will be fine."
I glare pointedly at Ocusa, who responds hurriedly.
"The requests will be reasonable, my lord."
Rashak claps and the Armada creature hops a little to the side in fright. Again, a splinter of guilt pricks my conscience. I ignore it.
"Can we go now?"
I take Rekai's hand and have turned to leave when Rashak's voice stops me.
"Don't you have to debt to waste on a very talkative house before you go?"
I stop in my tracks and Rekai squeezes my hand.
"What's he talking about, Mama?"
I keep my back to Rashak as I leave and I trust that Ocusa is right behind me. I don't slow down until we're back in the woods that brought us to the temple. Only then do I look back at the temple and realize the bluish tint I saw coming from Armada is now stippled through its ridges.
"Did he – did he just turn Armada into parts of his temple?"
"For now. If he needs the parts to become something else, they do."
We start walking again at a more leisurely pace. With my goal accomplished, there is no real hurry to get back to the village.
"So all the parts of you are back now?"
They pat their chest and legs as if feeling for something and the smile returns.
"As far as I can tell."
"Can you tell where they were?"
Ocusa takes a deep breath before shaking their head.
"Not exactly. There's a feeling that they have memories that I don't. It feels like being made up of parts that are trying to remember what it was like to work together. I'm not sure we're supposed to remember anything anyway; people aren't usually reconstituted."
"I remember where my parts were," Rekai interrupts.
I drop to my knees so I can look in his eyes. I'm ashamed that I didn't think about how traumatic the whole thing might have been for him. Did Rashak seriously tear my son apart and deposit his parts all over the valley or was he adorning the temple, waiting for instructions?
"I'm so sorry honey. I'm sorry that he hurt you."
"It didn't hurt. It just felt like floating away into a deep sleep and then having strange dreams. I was all over the temple and in the woods. I saw you," he turns to look at Ocusa, "and you."
He doesn't say anything else but I recognize his expression. Fear. Suspicion.
"Uh, Ocusa? Can you give us a little privacy, please? I think he might need to make use of the trees if you know what I mean?"
Ocusa nods and walks away. I take Rekai further away behind some trees and we sit, our backs against the firm but rough wood.
"What's the matter, Rekai?"
"You shouldn't trust Ocusa. They didn't just find you, they were looking for you."
"How do you know that?"
"They met with Rashak while I was there. Rashak asked them to keep an eye on you and get you to him. Mama, I'm not sure he ever meant to keep me."
I grind my teeth in deep thought. What did all this even mean? Was Rashak using me for something and what about Ocusa – did they know something they weren't telling me? I sigh and push against the tree to stand. I offer my hand to Rekai so he can join me.
"I don't know what any of that means, but I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. Your crazy mother trekked into the unknown to confront a god for you, so we'll just have to deal with whatever else comes our way, right?"
He smiles and takes my hand. I pull him up, and it must be my imagination but he feels ... lighter. Is there a part of him that Rashak still has? I scan my son's face but see only his hazel eyes sparkling with mischief and intellect and the easy smile I love. If the ordeal has changed him, I can't see it.
We spot Ocusa hanging out by the edge of the clearing that leads back to the town.
"Everything okay now?"
"Yeah, just one of those things, you know?"
They nod and we make our way to the yellow building that seems to almost glow in anticipation. In confirmation, I see an eye hanging from the doorpost and it winks when I knock. The door swings open, and now that I know my destination, I trail behind the eye, which is floating towards the old door.
"You made it! And I see congratulations are in order. That good looking fellow must be your son. I ..."
The flattery trails off when Ocusa steps into view.
"Well, that's new."
I wait for more but the house says nothing. The silence stretches on, so I decide to move on to the business at hand.
"So how do we do this? Is it going to hurt?"
"What's going on, Mama?"
"Uh, don't worry about it, sweetheart. I made a promise and I need to keep it."
I look at Ocusa and raise an eyebrow, which signals them to place a light hand on Rekai's shoulder and lead him away. I step closer to the waiting door.
"To answer your most pressing question, it will not hurt. Just place your hand on the door."
I touch the door with my right palm and wait for my eye to be wrenched out. I imagine brain-numbing pain that will last for weeks. Instead, there is a pull on my fingertips that rushes up my arm and into my right eye socket. I notice my dulling vision more than what is happening with my eye.
There is a tingling, a ... discomfort, but mostly the vision in my right eye just fizzles and disappears completely.
"There, that wasn't so bad."
Another eye forms in the door and slithers beside the other. The voice whispers words I don't recognize and all its pieces come together in the door. Nothing happens. I'm wondering if there's more to the ritual when a litany of words I do recognize fill the room. I want to cover Rekai's ears from the onslaught of curses, but it's hard to find him with my large blind spot.
"Why didn't it work? The spell should work!"
"Transformation magic only happens for us with the permission of the gods, and you don't have that."
Ocusa is back at my side, and when I turn to look them, Rekai grabs my hands.
"Mama, your eye!"
Before I can reply, Ocusa speaks.
"Don't worry about that."
They touch my face and my vision returns. I run my hands over my face and feel an eye. A new eye, because I could still see my taken eye in the door.
"Where? How? Who is this from?"
The urge to tear at the suspicious eye pounds in my head, but Ocusa grabs my hand before I can act on it.
"Stop, it's from your son. Rashak knew you'd react this way, so he kept a few pieces back to rebuild your eye."
So there had been a bit of Rekai missing.
My introspection is interrupted by a deep rumbling coming from under the floors and crawling up shaking walls. Ocusa takes my hands.
"I think it's time we leave."
We run from the house just before the building collapses, still screaming obscenities. The dust barely settles before the pieces come back together as if nothing happened. The cursing simmers into muffled sobs that tug at my heart.
"The gods don't want him to be anything other than this, do they?"
"Not yet," Ocusa replies. "They feel he's more useful here."
I want to say how unfair that is but I hold my tongue. I'm still in their territory after all.
"So how do we go back up the hole we jumped through?"
A warm smile spreads across their face.
"The way back is less death-defying. Besides, I no longer have a tail for you to maim."
I smile in return, but the warmth is tempered by the cold dread still in the pit of my stomach from what Rekai said.
"Well, let's go then."
They take my hand and I hope I don't start sweating against their cool touch. I take Rekai's hand and our walk takes us back to the centre of the town, which is now thankfully empty. Ocusa takes a few steps in a large circle until we're positioned in the way they like and they flick the air with a finger. The air shimmers and a door appears before us.
I hesitate because it's my door. My front door. I barely register that Ocusa opens it and pulls us inside. The moment my feet hit the ground, I spin around and look out the window to confirm that I'm back in the village. Everything is the same as I remember it, and somehow that makes me feel worse.
Did anyone else in the village know what Armada was doing? Would they care what happened to her and demand answers from me? Ocusa's hand on my shoulder stills my thoughts.
"Are you okay?"
I slip away from the touch and meet their concerned gaze.
"How did you know where I live?"
Unknown emotions flitter across their face before they can no longer meet my gaze.
"Our meeting wasn't an accident I take it?"
"No, Rashak wanted to meet you."
"But I was already on my way to him, wasn't I? He had my son."
"No, you don't understand. He requested your son so you'd have to come for him."
I land heavily on an old chair in my living room, and the thin cushions barely protect my backside from the impact.
"Why would he do that?"
"He needed you. You were the only person brave enough to go into the valley. He wanted you to bring him back with you."
I stare at them, too afraid to ask what the last part means.
They continue without any prodding.
"The gods aren't in the valley because they want to be. They're stuck unless a human brings them – or in your case, a part of them--out."
"You lied to me about the eye!"
They reach over my shoulder and pull a few strands of hair around so I can see them. The orange ones are a stark contrast to my dark brown curls.
"Now he doesn't need an emissary. He can take whatever he wants."
Before I can reply, I notice my living room is darker. Through the window, I can see the fog rolling into the village from the forest. Ocusa turns my face back to them.
"He won't hurt you or Rekai. We're safe."
I hold their gaze even as Rashak's deep chuckle echoes through the trees.