Shadows in the Well
“Shadows in the well has stories to tell.
From the warm midnight gales to the stones of hail.
Few knows what tales they sell.”
–The Augur of Owls
Appetite didn’t feel like he belonged in the room with Kindle and Remy.
No matter how much he tried to adapt, tip his toes into what he couldn’t start to understand, he knew that this wasn’t his place. Old superstitions worked hard in his mind on him like a pick chiseling its way through a sheet of ice. He liked to think that he was more tolerant than some members of his family. That didn’t mean that deep root feared and respect for things they didn’t quite understand didn’t cling to him with every passing moment. He walked through the moving bridges of the Crocodile’s Walk and through the sprawling village of Willow’s Grove, hauntingly aware of the eyes that followed him with every step. They too had their superstitions about him and his. They called the monsters, animals wearing the clothes of humanity. Such was the way of people, he supposed. You can’t get to know someone if you’re too scared to speak, his mom had always told him. So, he was going to take the time to get to know the people again.
A lot has changed in fifteen years. The village had become a city in his time away. There was plenty more of those floating houses on the lake and more of the bog had been cleared away than he remembered. As he walked, he noticed small changes in how the village turned city was made up. He wandered around for a little over half an hour searching for the marketplace. His memory served to against him, where his footsteps felt familiar, his eyes knew nothing of where he was. This didn’t bother him though. He let his feet carry him from one island to another, recognizing a few things now such as the immaculate shrines, the massive mess hall, and finally, the market stalls teeming with people. A dull bolt of familiarity struck him, one that he promptly swallowed. He didn’t want to think about that right now.
The market too had gotten bigger since the last time he visited Willow’s Grove. Where before they had only simple weapons, food, and supplies, they had branched out. It began with the local spices and exotic fruit found in the nearby area. Once upon a time, he knew them all by name. No. His mind only clung to the ones he remembered the taste of, of course. The spicy golden chili peppers, the sweet hard-skinned pink fruit known as the kao, and the sour tastes of their citrus made his stomach grumble. The butcher was still here today as mean and grumpy as ever, his beard wild and straggly against his dark skin. Today, he was chopping up some massive scaled animal with a cleaver as sharp as sin. The older man glanced over, a small amount of recognition glittering in his eyes. He came down with another powerful crunch, severing the twitching head from the scaly body. “Thought you were dead,” the butcher said with a sour amusement, not even looking up.
“Same to you, heard you got sick, Elijah. Never heard anything else ‘bout that though.
“Eh, didn’t like the idea of being dead that much.”
“Fair enough. Any news around here?”
“Sit down boy, I know you’re hungry. I’ll have my boy whip you up something.”
He wasn’t wrong. Awkwardly, Appetite sat in yet another chair much too small for his massive body. He learned one thing after a time: if it can’t accommodate his size, make it sturdy enough. He slumped in the chair, arms over the counter, watching the stoutly built butcher move from behind his counter to wash his hands clean from blood. His boy, a man grown in his twenties now, stirred over a cooking fire and stoking the flame. Last time he had seen him, Benoit was five. Now, he had all the looks of his father with all the short temper and half the age. Pushing with a tad more vigor than he probably needed, Benoit stabbed a whole metal stake through the slab of meat, heaving it over the cooking flame. Elijah patted his son on the back with the pride of a father seeing his kid. “Like father, like son, eh? Ain’t nothing quite like it.”
“Ain’t nothing quite like it.”
Benoit rolled his eyes and continued spinning the spit.
Elijah finished off a few cuts of meat before sighing. “A lot has changed since you left. You know they blame you for the situation we’re in, right?”
“For the Flame?”
“Yeah and for losing their pride and joy.”
“I didn’t lose her. She left on her own.”
“Do you think that she would be gone if she had never met you?” Elijah rose an eyebrow, waiting for a response. He didn’t get one; he wouldn’t get one. “Whether you’re at fault or not, it won’t really matter. You’re the one they blame. Ina…” Elijah stumbled over her name like everyone did. Appetite hated that her name had become that small stone that tripped every sentence it was in. She wasn’t dead. At least, he didn’t think so. “Ina meant something to us. More than her title or her connection with the Flame. She kept us grounded when her dad couldn’t or rather wouldn’t’ do. Remy isn’t a people’s person. It’s the nature of his job, I suppose.”
Everyone knew that though they needed the other half of the power, the Shadow. The barj came from it. It was said that when the first Civilization came, it was this that kept them bay. There was also a price, an elusive one spoke in whispers about. I got the gist of it though. Some superstitions had a kernel of truth tucked in there somewhere. The witch doctor had his follower and served his people well. One thing Appetite had learned on the mountain with his own family was there was always someone who thought they knew better. He shook his head. “Who’s causing trouble ‘’round here then?”
“Ignace mostly. You know how he is.”
Appetite grunted. Benoit stoked the flames again, its heat and its tail licking up and up towards the young man’s face. The smoky smell came next, drifting in his direction in a wisp of smoke. The constant pain in stomach stirred. “Don’t cook his steak too much, my boy,” Elijah said. “He likes his a little bloody, am I right? He likes everything like that.” Elijah sent his boy off after a few minutes to help other customers and handled the food himself. When he was done, he put the food on the plate and cut the first slice off with a sharp knife as to show his point. “You’re different. You mellowed with your age as many tend to do.” He cut another piece with the soft click against the wooden plate. The red juices flowed a little over the lip and onto the counter. The hunger throbbed hard in his stomach, the smell catching the wind on just the right angle. “It don’t mean that there’s not a little bit left in ya it seems. Enjoy yourself.”
The butcher pushed the plate along with its fork and knife and continued back to his work wordlessly.
Appetite hadn’t thought about Ignace in years. The last time he had heard from him was when almost crushed the man’s skull with his bare hands. He remembered the man’s hair rough against his large palms, his fingers digging into the skin, muscles, and bone. There was a certain fear that he gorged on that day. Ignace stopped becoming the brother of the woman he loved who hated him and he hated in return. For long minutes, the man was no different than an aluminum can–an empty one at that. He remembered the satisfying crunch, the shrill of his men and women clamoring for him stop with empty words and threats. The man’s eyes threatened to pop out of his head with each tightening finger. The smug look on his face was gone, replaced with only sheer terror. The younger man he kept inside, the silent brutal towering colossus of a man, stirred in the back of his head with a satisfied grin. That was a long time ago, but he knew that Ignace remembered just as clearly.
If they were in the same village, he might as well give the man a visit on his time.
Appetite cleaned the plate tried-and-true in his musing, leaving not even the bones and left the butcher and his cook son to their work. After buying pastries from a small bakery run by a confident old woman and a beer from rambling old beer seller to wash it all down, he strolled his way through the market. The memories came back to him with every step. In the newer parts of the village, he could ignore the feelings. Here in places that he recognized, he started to feel the threads of familiarity. Buildings he had been into, people he knew, things he had bought or tried out. It like coming home all over again with everything good and everything bad came with that. Old memories surfaced and danced in his head, finishing his beer. He almost wished that he could get drunk enough for this. At least then he could blame that for what he was going to do next.
People were things of habit. They didn’t move or change their ways unless they had to. Ignace Breaux wasn’t any different, caught in this slow loop of doing the same darn thing. The small glimmers in the faces that recognized him turned from mild amusement to fires of hate the closer he got to the totems. The tall, multi-tier painted wooden structures stared down him with pale white eyes cut from chips of bone, hidden within the long leaves of the willows. A small clearing was cut out in the middle around a simple gazebo. Men and women in long red and orange robes surrounded him, meditating over a large bonfire. In the center, a man sat with his eyes watching the fire with hard eyes. No amount of meditation could stop this man from his ambitions.
Ignace let him wait. Appetite knew he heard him come up. One thing he wasn’t was a stealthy man. When you were the size of a small truck, you tend to make a sound everywhere you went. No. The man ignored him, let him stand there like a fool. The thing was though, he learned patience a long time ago. Appetite finished his beer with slow, meaningful slurps. There wasn’t much left, of course. He had to make it last. In the end, Ignace was the one that blinked. He stood, taking in a lung full of smoke through his nose and breathing it out in a cloud of grey. He turned, smirking with those pearly white teeth peeking through those smug lips. “My, if it ain’t my sister’s towering behemoth. Didn’t recognize you without her collar around your neck.”
The young man walked over with the grin plaster on his face. The sneering confidence hadn’t changed in years. He sauntered over, looking up the length of him with those hard-red eyes. Appetite noticed a little trip in step there. He didn’t see the softer, patient man that he had become. He saw the man that gave him that worsened the ugly red spiderweb scar on his face and dented his skull so that hadn’t healed right. Memories worked the same way for everyone when seeing someone that hurt them. He pushed his kinky black hair from the good side of his face. “I vividly remember saying that you shouldn’t bring yourself around here.”
“Not even minutes in and it’s already ‘bout you, Ig.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Why are you here, bull? I thought you weren’t going to come back.”
“I thought that too. But it ain’t right to not let my daughter meet the other side of her family.” “
Ignace paced around. “Yes, your daughter,” he hissed with slow words. “I’ve heard she we here too.”
A cold, soft anger rose in Appetite’s stomach. “She ain’t in this, Ignace.”
“I ain’t gonna hurt your whelp. Why would I… unless…” he stalked around, brushing against Appetite’s side with every bump. “Oh, unless it hurts you.”
“Are we really doing this?”
“Oh stop, Woodrow. You act like I’m the monster here. I’m not but I won’t let you tell me what’s best for my people.”
“Ignace,” Appetite shouted, his voice rippling through the willow leaves. The sudden anger startled Ignace to the point of jumping back a few inches. The men, his posse, leaped into action with their spears pointed at Appetite’s back. Don’t wanna do that, gentlemen. Don’t let the nice clothes fool ya. “I’m here for a warning. I’ve always known what you’ve wanted, and you thought that you were going to get it. He didn’t, did’ya? You were always second place to Ina. Always. Her not being here hasn’t changed anything. The Flame isn’t yours nor will it ever be yours. You will never be a leader. So, whatever you have planned, keep that between you and your pa. Got it? As long as my little girl’s here, you don’t lift a muscle. Got it? I don’t care whatever you got planned, leave Cassie out of it.”
Ignace cocked his head back. He had experienced his rage before. In his anger, these spears, guns, or whatever they had in their disposal meant nothing to him. Appetite waited for the man to respond with the blankest expression he could manage. That smirk on his face progressed across the dark man’s face again. “You really don’t know, do you? You have no clue,” he said in the softest of whispers. “I guess it doesn’t matter at this very moment.” He gave a low, hot glower underneath his heavy brows. The smile didn’t regress. If anything, as the seconds stretched into long minutes, it had gotten worse. A thick orange pulse rose from his shoulder, heat pressing thick against the air. “Welcome back down from that precious mountain. Perhaps you will find that more things have changed in our fifteen years apart.”
The odd heat disappeared in an instance. Ignace folded his arm within his robes, his men resting their weapons all around them. Appetite eyed him unimpressed, despite his shirt now soaked with sweat from the heat. This wasn’t something he hadn’t seen before. Living out in the Dusk Orbit planets and traveling with Ina gave him all types of experiences. Flexing ain’t helping much. You know what I can do. “You won’t have to worry about me. Besides, I think in a few days or so, you’re going to have your pretty full. Have a good evening, Mr. Caldwell. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”
The robed orange men left with little words. Appetite watched them go, heart thumping in his chest and leaving his mind what in the blue blazes what Ignace had to be so confident about.
Appetite returned to the manor in the dead of night to find Remy well over his head.
He hadn’t seen the man with anything other than a calm expression on his face. Tonight, he stood with his back against the door, purple eyes weathered like rust on an old car and shivering as though the now evening air was cold. Appetite tried to ignore what he felt clearly on the air the moment he stepped foot in the manor. A thick layer of warmth and muck clung to the air around, choking them with arms of humidity. A lance of panic rose through Appetite’s chest. Fear for a second, fear of his child’s life followed hand in hand by an immeasurable amount of rage. “What happened,” he began, feeling the arms of his shirt rip from the bulging of his muscles. Small rips became larger ones as he grew, feeling the hot surge of power from a full stomach. Words became difficult to string together in his mind, replaced only by savage grunts. “What happened to my little girl,” he managed to mutter through broken words. “What. Happened?”
Silence for too long.
The anger took over. One second he was at the door, the next he was leaping across the hallway. His thunderous footsteps broke the wooden planks, the mass of his body ripping through the decor as though it was nothing. He was on him in seconds, long before any of the maids, butlers or guards could hope to react. He slammed his fist into the wall a hair’s breadth away from the man’s head, punching a hole clean on the other side. Remy didn’t flinch, only raised his head as though seeing him for the first time.
“She’s alright, she’s alright,”’ Remy said, looking up into his now painful red, glowing eyes. “I promise. I would’ve told you right away if something bad happened. Just unexpected. I didn’t factor in whatever mutations your family has– that’s not important and you’re not listening anyway. She’s resting in the spare bedroom resting.”
Appetite pulled his fist from the wall, splinters of wood stabbing into his fist. The anger remained. You promised to be safe. I should’ve have come here. I shouldn’t have come. A roar escaped his lungs the sound of death in the manor, even to the sound of his own ears. Remy looked over for a second at the beast heaving down his neck in puffs of heavy smoke, tongue lolling from his unhinged mouth. Appetite backed up with a few steady steps, reeling himself back. He heaved thick breaths to try to get his mind back. He let the rigidness in his body leave with every second. The feeling didn’t leave on the man’s words. I need to see her. He pushed Remy aside, no longer hearing to the clumsy apologies at his back.
He stomped through the house, feeling ragged and broken. He knew the way. This much hadn’t changed. Around him, he heard the stirring of the house guards. They were too slow to stop him from almost eating a man alive out of trust. Now, they were weary and ready for him in case what he found wasn’t satisfactory. Nothing in heaven or earth would stop him if there was a single thing wrong on his daughter’s head. He stomped up the twisting stairs, the flameless torches throwing his monstrous shadow up and across the windows and the underbelly of the second floor. He slowed himself, becoming mildly aware of his weight creaking against the wood, at least until he got to the solid ground. By that time, the lava of his anger cooled into a hollowed rock in his chest.
He reached the spare bedroom’s, the thick, black wooden door shut closed. Another one of those ominous red masks hung from a small knob on the face of the door. This one looked down from its post with a scowl on him with those painted yellow eyes. In his normal mind, he wouldn’t have gotten close to this supernatural totem. He began to hear things, soft whispers and chuckles on the wind the moment his touch the doorknob. He had heard them before with Ina. The Ember Gods, she had called them. Superstition ran thick in his subconscious mind, threatening moments of hesitation. His conscious mind willed it away. His daughter was behind that door. Nothing was going to stop him. He shouldered the door open.
A blast of pure heat him from the other side.
He stood in the frame of the door, staring into the lightless room. The familiar smells barraged him. Where he expected the smell of sickness or rot, he got a peppery aroma touched with nutmeg and sugar. What looked like fireflies or wisps bounced and danced around the room. On the other side, the barj accumulated in the corner as though it was a remorseful child in timeout. Appetite walked in, eyes flickering back and forth. Nothing looked off, only felt it. The room barely had any furniture and a single window. On the far side of the room, Kindle was sitting up in a bed much too big for her with. She looked a little pale, her hair was a mess, and the odd openings in her skin were open. Other than that, she looked fine… aside from one detail, she was holding a fire in her hand.
Kindle caressed the flame with her fingers, lacing its embers through her fingers. She stared up, eyes pale but smile bright. “I didn’t know I could do this,” she said after a time.
Appetite deflated. Any residual anger he had rushed out of his body. He ran to her side, sitting on the bed and held her free hand. He took in a sharp breath. “What happened?”
The door shut behind them and he heard Remy about to speak. Kindle shook her head at him.
“I got it,” she said. She extinguished the flame. “I got a little overconfident, I reckon.”
“Looks like more than a little.”
“What did I tell you ‘bout that, knucklehead?” Appetite gave her a light tap on the head. “Wanna talk about it?”
“Not right now,” she gave a smile. “I… saw her.”
“You saw who?”
“Through the Flame.” Kindle went to grab water from the table. Her father met her halfway, putting the cup of water (or at least he thought it was water) in her hand. “She’s far away.”
“Far.” She drank some of the water as though that was a good enough answer. Maybe it was. “I saw ships too.”
“What kinda ships?”
“Fighters and cruisers, I think. Bluecoats mostly.”
“That’s enough, Cassie,” Remy said stepping in. Appetite gave him a hard stare at the interruption. Alas, he had regained his nonplussed attitude towards him or potentially being eaten alive earlier. “Drinking too much of the Spark might cause you to see some things. It’s nothing to worry about. You need to go back to bed. There’s much you need to train on before I let you head your way back to the mountain. They’re going to need you. So, rest.”
Kindle finished her water, resting her head on the large back pillow. She muttered something under her breath for a while before nodding off. Remy approached from the other side, though a little caution and respect this time. Grandfather and father watched her drift off to sleep. Appetite held her hand the entire time. When she was sound asleep, he rose from the bed to let his champion sleep of whatever crap she had experienced. Appetite rose with a soft gentleness, beckoning Remy to the same. The lean witch doctor dipped his head followed him to a small corner. Neither seemed remotely impressed by the other. They waited for a little longer to let her sleep to settle in.
“The Flame is the life of the planet,” Remy said in a whisper. “Have you ever wondered C’dar was different after the first Civilizations fell? Why even despite their apocalypse at their own hands, this planet survived? That’s why. The Flame allows us to eat, breath, to live on this planet. It allows us to grow. To have a Handler of Flames or a Shaman is needed on the planet, at least for a year or so. Fifteen years without one has put a strain on the planet. People blame you and your family for it.”
Appetite knew that he wasn’t wrong. He chose to say nothing.
“For the sake of the Willows, I’m going to ask you to leave. The tension is too great.”
“Nothing like that is going to happen again,” Appetite said in a soft voice. “Get the importance in all this. I really do. But I’ll rather watch this planet die than my daughter. There are thousands of these. She’s the only one of her.”
“You care for her.” Remy sighed. “You have my word. Nothing like that is going to happen again. You, however, need to get that tank off our lawn and head back to the mountain. I got some news that you want to hear. Word on the streets that your father has started a war.”