Interlude: Chain Reaction
The first Bala knew of it was the cold. A few hints of autumn still remained, golden midday sun taking the edge off the encroaching winter. As soon as she reached the outcrop, her breath came in misty clouds, hanging in the air for a few seconds before fading away. "Here, isn't it?"
"It's hitting the point where I don't have to tell anyone." Kes pointed. "Yes, some people said they felt it here, but just down there, that's where the corpse was. Well, I never saw any corpse. Blood, yes. No corpse. Killed less than an hour ago, but no sign of it. Didn't look like anything had dragged it away, either."
"And it was definitely a blue taxrak?"
"If that's what you're calling these things."
"I am. That's what worries me." Below them, the outcrop fell away into a shallow hollow, as though someone had taken a giant scoop out of the land and lined it with fallen pine needles. Their fresh scent mingled with the cold, so that even in the warm light Bala felt as though the middle of winter was upon her. "You've not sent anyone down there yet?"
"Good." Bala had stumbled across Kes only the night before, followed by a hurried dash for the warmth of her workshop, a cup of strong tea, and an explanation that she'd just found the one person in town who wouldn't drive away a beast-hunter right now. If she was honest, she'd known all along what she'd find, as soon as Kes had told her about the cold and the missing corpse - both the true story, and the one everyone believed. She crouched down on the rocky edge and studied the ground below. "I know what it is." What she needed was an item, not something solid and immobile like the rocks and trees, but something that might not be there for long, something that might break or wear down. A stick, a group of pebbles, some footprints - ah, there it was. "See that long stick down there?" It looked as though someone had carved it down, stripping away the side branches and rough bark to create an implement, perhaps a staff or makeshift weapon. "Keep your eyes on it. And keep your eyes on me. If you see me look away from it, shout at me."
"Suppose if you don't respond I'm to run."
"I like you," said Bala. "If I were a bit younger and a lot stupider, I'd say you should have been a beast-hunter. As it is, we could use a few ordinary people with the sense to save themselves too." The world might have been a better place, if people didn't keep waiting for a hero to show up and fix everything.
But there were times when only a hero, only someone stupid enough to walk into the cold pit, would do.
She clambered down from the ledge, landing on the ground with a soft little crunch of dried needles. Time, she told herself. Don't think too hard about time. She kept her eyes on the stick, barely daring to blink. That's your anchor to the world. That's your measure of time. Use it. The temperature plummeted, icy air on her lips. When she licked them, she felt as though they'd frozen over. She stepped forward, one at a time, her movements steady as she could manage while shaking, and she never, ever took her eyes from that stick.
The forest is so beautiful.
"I know," she said.
it's all so beautiful.
"I. Know." She clenched her teeth and kept going. Colder and colder, closer and closer... and then she stood in the centre of the clearing, right where Kes had pointed, right where the creature fell. "And I knew it weren't iced over when I looked from up there." Little white crystals peppered the ground, turning each needle into a tiny, delicate sculpture - no, the stick. Look at the stick, not the ice. "Yes. Beautiful."
The stick was still there.
"Not interested?" She flexed her fingers, but the sensation had dulled. Her face felt immobile, frozen in place.
And warmth flooded back into the world, the blazing heat of late autumn. Bala backed off, eyes still on the stick, life returning to her body. "Kes? You up there?"
"I'm good." She backed away, small steps, then large ones, until her back pressed against the rock wall, and only then did she dare turn around and clamber up to safety. "How long-"
"Only a moment." Kes helped her up the last of the slope, hauling her over the edge. "Your hands-"
"Yours are burning." Bala looked over her shoulder at the scene below. No more ice, only footprints. "I could use a fire."
"Come on then, I'll get you back to-"
"No." Bala said. "Light a fire. Here. Burn it all, and if you have any sense whatsoever? Don't go back."
After all, what good was helping people to live without heroes if they lost three months of their lives?
The fire burned low, the only source of light in Kes' workshop now that the day had drawn to a close. Now was not a time for work, but for tea and bread, toasted over the embers and finished off with hot butter. And, for tonight at least, company. Bala sat as close as she could to the fire, and Kes recalled how, earlier in the day, they'd set light to the clearing where Koiski and his monster fell, and Bala stood drinking in the heat.
"You know about the cold?" Bala said, without provocation.
Kes didn't need to ask what she meant, even if she had no idea what they'd faced in the forest, but not in any detail. "Not in particular. But I think you're going to tell me."
"I must be getting predictable in my old age. Well, you may as well know. Can't stand ignorance myself, and I'll not see anyone hurt by it. The stories get this far? Well, stories are only so much value. But they don't come from nothing, either. Does the Hundred Year Winter mean anything to you? Kroakani's Garden? The Frozen Ruins? There's different words, but it's all the same thing in the end."
A glimmer of recognition flashed in Kes' mind, whispered stories told by children to one another, before they grew older and focused their fears on the mundane. "I see," she said. "I'll save you having to explain to me they're not just children's tales, at least, after what I saw from you." There'd been a physical transformation on Bala's part. She'd walked into the outskirts of town as though everything lay under her control, a woman who feared nothing. Now she sat hunched, her hands clasping her teacup and her eyes gazing into the fire. Though Kes had only known her for a day, she could tell this wasn't usual for her.
"Knew I had you right," Bala said. "I wouldn't tell you all this if you weren't sensible. The details change but it's the same story - someone goes into the woods one day, comes back months later. And they're not the same person any more. They talk nonsense, they don't remember their family, they end up dead or locked up in the end. When anyone does get words out of them, it's the same things. They talk about intense cold, worse than any winter you've known, and about time. They'll all swear they were gone for years. The time's the one thing that varies. I've heard a year, thirty years, a hundred years. I suppose time alone's enough to break them, when you think of it."
Kes nodded. That was what children said to one another, but when they told the stories, it was with that childlike air of mysticism and danger and an edge of I dare you to try it, I dare you. When Bala talked, she may as well have been discussing the weather, or the flavour of the tea. She realised her own cup had cooled, and set it aside. "And we saw it off," she said. Well then. A childen's tale had manifested a short walk from her home. Some day that would sink in, and she'd feel the enormity of it. Right now, she thought, I feel in half a mind to believe in any old nonsense.
"There's a way to go in there and not break, of course," Bala said. "And that's to not remember what happened to you, what you saw, anything." She leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. "So I don't need to tell you why there's four months of my life I don't remember."
"You could be lying about that."
"You don't think I am, though." She sat up straight again, leaning forward, and looked Kes right in the eye. "I can see it in you. Between you and me, of course, that's nothing special. Just the look in your eyes, the way you're sitting."
"Same way I can tell them that linger in my shop are about to start talking crap."
And that was just it. If someone were to come in and talk about unspeakable horrors from beyond the world itself with the intent of being shocking, they wouldn't do it like this, over a cup of tea by the fireplace.
"And even more between you and me," Bala went on, "it's the not knowing that bothers me the most. I've always told people to use their minds more, don't give in to the idea that there's things we weren't meant to know. That's not what Rakaros would have wanted us to do, and more to the point, it's bloody stupid. The cold took four months of my life. I want them back. And I know what getting them back would do to me, because there's things people really weren't meant to know out there. I'm telling you this because for once I do want to warn everyone not to touch." She leaned back again. "Have you any idea how annoying that is?"
"Are you sure nobody else has been there?"
"There was a girl once. She said she remembered, but it was like remembering a dream. The essence of what happened to her was there, but whenever she tried to take hold, it flew away."
"What happened to her?"
"We parted ways."
The conversation had turned personal, and Kes knew not to press the matter any further.
Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow she'd come to terms with what Bala had said. Tomorrow she'd realise the enormity of a gaping hole in the world that swallowed people and distorted time. Tomorrow, everything might make sense.
But tonight, the tea was getting cold.