Chapter 22 - Akos
Despite that bitter, burning rage, my legs refused to move. Elpis quivered and hovered along the shore as she managed, "I need to get home. As fast as p-possible."
Urgently, I pleaded, "Let me come with you. Those are the monsters that destroyed my family."
Every instinctual thread tugged me in the other direction despite my words. Elpis gazed at me, with the same surprise as if I were a plant that suddenly acquired speech, and asked, "Come with? B-but that would be dangerous. It is dangerous. My sisters...my family...would destroy anything, anyone for Queen Akos. It wouldn't be safe. I have to be with them...to protect them...no matter what happens. T-thank you for your time and your stories and sharing in mine. I'm glad we spoke, Grete Mudwell. But the pain and suffering on the air are my obligation and mine alone to answer."
Buzzing noisily, Elpis dashed through the towering daisies. I called after her but clenched my mouthparts. Why should I follow? Surely it was the Vesperil, but I would be walking into a war zone from the smell of it.
The war had already come to me though. I did my best to follow Elpis even though the nauseating aroma burned a clear path through the oppressive, rising heat. Shadows of dew provided gross but necessary respites through the wilderness. Flies, in whirling, screaming paths dashed the other way, following the wind from danger. I wondered what the various races of insects called them.
Hints and whispers of others slipped away like the panicked retreat of random refugees. Pausing just a moment, I chewed on a soggy, decaying plant when Elpis paused to get her bearings on a bending blossom. Despite her admonition to stay away, I sensed she knew I was tagging along.
This was probably a stupid idea. If a vicious Vesperil didn't run screaming at me in a genocidal fervor then an Apislong would surely strike out of fear. But I literally had nothing else. Tula was out there with only bitterness and regret. Citrine had lost the light at her side, the same as me. My speedy sisters were only running in fear. And my frightened brothers were at a Farm I had no idea how to find. I was just one bug lost in the world, found by a friendly, neurotic bee. What did it matter what happened to me?
All the scolding voices telling me 'no' were gone. From dad's manic, shrieking declarations to mother's withering, poisonous refusals. From real-mom's nervous fear of losing another child to father's earnest, weathered protection. From Silt's smothering restraint to Sana's sharpened protection. From Riva's fretful uncertainty to Citrine's breathless doom rumors.
It was all on me to survive in this world. And I anxiously wanted to chase down the dragon to take a bite out of its tail. Yeah. But it was not as though I could imagine the next five minutes or the next five days full of instars and unknown threats. The path ahead was littered with pain. I could barely stand a blistering beam of the morning sun.
One note of relief was the absence of all signs of human influence. No trash. No cement. No metals, buildings, or rubble. That didn't mean this world was without them. I could easily be in the middle of a park deep in some pristine wilderness. I had enough to worry about anyway.
Elpis finally started to slow, and I could edge ahead of her. It didn't take me long to figure out why. The sickly scent of death, less lardy and panicked, saturated everything around. Scattered petals and fragments of wax spilled across the stony earth.
Entering into a clearing, my breath, flowing through my body, halted. It was not a war zone, it was worse. Torn, cleaved piles of Apislong torsos blanketed the ground. Some twitched and hoarsely screamed with their limbs reaching out. Whispers of "Akos", like mournful pleas for parents, echoed through the air.
Amber waves of drying fluid spilled out of what was left of an army. Crying and dragging itself forward with its guts dangling out from a torn stinger, one crossed my path with glassy eyes. Elpis dropped down beside me and urged me to take a step back as she embraced the death throes of her sister.
"Shhh...it's okay. It's okay. You saved Akos. You saved everyone. Peace be with you. Your work is complete. Just rest, sister. Just rest." With Elpis holding her, she gently stopped moving for the last time. Along the way, Elpis stopped several times for her siblings in flailing, screaming distress. She comforted them like she was far too familiar with what to do.
Before long, she found a cluster of Apislong congregating on a tree stump. Above, the shattered remains of a city-like hive were smeared over several immense branches.
"ELPIS!" A cry came out from the group. Before long, a welcoming party swarmed around Elpis and a buzzing guard flanked me. Elpis nearly stood on top of me, took a few frantic breaths so she wouldn't vomit from my smell, and declared, "You will not harm her! She is a friend!"
I knew I should've fled. Elpis was no match for the lingering army of her sisters. But they withdrew. Confusingly, I soon learned that 'Elpis' was the name for every child of Akos. I clung to the notion of "my Elpis".
The Elpis that seemed to take the lead for the group ceded communication to another, like Flax and Tula continuing each other's sentences but spread across a sea of twins.
Soon after my Elpis had started scouting flowers, the "horrors" had struck. They ripped the wax to pieces and spread so many sisters and even brothers across the land.
"We all fought valiantly for our Akos. Sweet Queen Akos. So many gave their one strike, but they were so many and so horrifying. They said they wanted one thing. Not death, food, or land. Only fear."
That didn't make sense. These Vesperil were animals, creatures. The ones that hit Mudwell came for my family and used them. They took something from us. Here, they only wanted to destroy? Several Elpis elaborated that a single Vesperil spoke for the rest and gave its name as "Bellona". This was the one who professed fear and destruction.
As I had little time to comprehend the reign of terror this one insect had brought, another Elpis stated bluntly, "The Queen is gone."
My Elpis had shielded me under a swarm of words and notions from her sisters all buzzing at once. But the shade of the tree fell silent with that. By will, my Elpis begged, "Gone? No...please. Please please. It can't be. Any of us before her. Show me... I need to see. I need to know."
Like a funeral procession, the others backed away from me and led my Elpis over to an area fiercely-guarded. Stretching as much as possible, I could see a larger bee with her limbs bitten off and her abdomen horribly sprayed open.
I could've stretched for a better view or maneuvered around what seemed to be the royal guard watching me with wary, tired eyes and expressions eager to seize upon any reason to join their dead and dying sisters. Some of the group looked like shellshocked, trembling handmaidens with their faces bent towards the muddy earth. It was the same pain in fragments from Mudwell but throughout the largest family I could imagine.
It took several minutes before my Elpis crawled back to my side, as though she no longer had the will to raise her glassy wings. I knew my embrace would only disgust and hurt her, so I remained nearby and downwind.
Before long, one of the elder-looking Elpis announced they would be preparing a new queen, "We must survive together. We will journey a thousand plantanes south of here to brighter, blooming fields. Queen Akos will always live with us. We will do our best to remember the dead, but we must move on."
The cluster of them rippled and swarmed but ultimately fell in order. Tasks were assigned to pick apart the hive and prepare the right food for the chosen successor queen. Through all the commands and duty, my Elpis remained listless and forlorn.
I got as close as I dared out of respect and said, "I'm so sorry. This Bellona took my family away too."
My Elpis gazed at me and noted, "It's the same one? Bellona...killed your family?"
I nodded. Tension wrapped around her body. Her antenna tightened and she darted over to the main body of Elpis. I couldn't hear what they said but my Elpis soon returned to announce, "I...would like to go with you. To kill her. If...umm...if I even can."
I sat up and asked, "What about the new queen and the hive?"
Elpis shook her body. "That's for those to be born and those to teach them. Akos was my mother. She was everything. All I have left is my final duty in service to her life. I have one strike and I would...very much want to use it to end that monster which....has broken our lives. I refuse to let it spread more fear. That's what I choose to do with the life I have left....if you will have me. I umm...don't want to presume because we've just met but..."
I stopped her. "I would be deeply honored to go with you. Can you manage going with me?"
Elpis shifted around and noted, "I can....hold my breath...for like five twillies. Ummm...I'll be fine. Promise." A glimmer of the happy, silly little bug I met peeked out from beneath the gloom. Curiously, I tried to parse how long that was. Her example matched up close to a few seconds.
I impressed her by showing how long I could hold my breath. She nearly passed out from observation.
Working our way further from the group, Elpis held a pensive gaze at the torn and lifeless shape of her mother. No matter how frail, the uncertainty about what happened to my Shashelm mother, my real mother in this brutal place, meant so much. Deep inside, I knew she was gone but not seeing her remains both burned through me worse than the sun at its height and soothed me like the end of an instar.
Still that broken, lost little intern lady of royalty, Elpis took her best breath and resolved, "I've decided to change my name...just a little because it's you and me and I need something. Your little word of 'bee' is a fascinating one. I think, I want to call myself Elbee. Elbee Akos. Me carrying the heart of my mother to drive through the evil of that vile monster."
Together, she fluttered protectively nearby, and I scurried along. Though vastly different creatures, we had one goal in mind and one enemy to stop.