Geela’s footsteps echoed through the cave as she entered. The first two steps weren’t too bad, but after a second or two, she put her foot down in an unexpectedly deep puddle, and the splash echoed like a cannon barrage being fired into an ocean at a fleeing merchant ship.
“What issss that noise?” Snake asked, alarmed.
“Snake! Shhhhh.” Bugsquito’s aghast squawk soon joined Snake’s voice in bouncing around the cavern as well. “We’re not supposed to talk!”
Geela’s muscles tensed as their voices joined the echoing splash, amplifying louder with each bounce back.
“You embarrass yourself by adding to the sound, foolish Monstersquito.” Scout’s refined croaking was far too loud for the acoustics of the tunnel and half his words were swallowed as the empty cave chambers repeated back his words.
“Hey! I’m trying to shut Snake up—”
“I only assssked why we had entered water—”
“Yes, this is a valid question. What is the water sound?”
“It was just a puddle—”
“Ssssounded too deep for a mere puddle.”
Why was everything in the god-damned void so god-damned loud? Geela pressed her hands over her ears, trying desperately to block out the noise. She wanted to tell them to shut up, she wanted to scream at and insult them, but they were doing a grand job of that themselves and it was getting louder as their lack of awareness blasted back from every hollow corner of the cave.
The only way to get the noise to stop might be to just leave the three outside. This expedition had gone so badly so fast that Geela would probably have to wait several hours before returning, since the wolves would almost certainly be on her within moments. What a ludicrously effective trap: guarding the cave with the noise of intruders. Sinistrina may have been mal-adjusted, but she wasn’t stupid apparently.
Fully aware of her defeat at the hands of her own hostages, Geela turned on her heel to find herself face to face with one of the horrifying denizens of the Wolves Den.
Horrifying, actually, might have been a bit of an overstatement. Maybe just scary. Or, no, not really scary per se. Fearsome? Maybe once, but definitely not anymore. Unsettling? But Geela wasn’t really unsettled either.
Confusing. That was the word. The occupants of the Wolves Den were confused. Geela was confused. And honestly, Sinistrina might have been too. Maybe it made sense, if Geela considered that Malevo, Nefaria, Terha, and Hari had all subconsciously crafted their monsters as young children. Mal, growing up in the jungle, a toddler surrounded by poisonous frogs and raised by a dread witch. Nefaria had walked the darkest streets of the Celestial City with her foul mother, Eve, at a young age. Even the twins, who lacked an evil family, based their creations off each other, Hari creating beautiful but cold jellyfish and Terha bringing life to a bunch of excessively excited and theatrical bugs.
But Sinistrina didn’t really meet a scion of Noire’s until she was sixteen. So she’d created her monsters at sixteen. Before then, she’d been raised by wolves.
So maybe that’s why the wolf monster that stared Geela in the face wasn’t the kind of disgusting, gross thing a child might come up with. Maybe, just maybe, the muscular, humanoid wolf man that fixed Geela with deep, dark, soulful eyes, was based off of the confused mind of a teenager raised by wolves.
Geela took it back. She was unsettled. She was deeply, deeply unsettled.
The wolf man raised a hand and the echoes died immediately. He, it was definitely a he, gave a heavy sigh.
“Why have you entered the mighty Wolves Den?”
Oh Gods, his voice was so smooth. It was so masculine and deep. It lacked the guttural croak of Scout’s and instead flowed like aged wine.
“Uh,” she said.
He gave another heavy sigh and walked further into the cave, where he sat down with a long breath on a stone bench. As he moved, more of him was exposed by the light. His fur was a greying silver. The very human pectoral and abdominal muscles visible on his torso were well defined but had lost some of their sharpness. When he looked back up at Geela, she could see a few, refined age lines on his face, between streaks of fur on his muzzle.
“I ought to tear your throat out,” he said, voice still a silky, midnight colored rumble, “but I’m afraid my strength has left me. We’re not in our prime, the mighty wolfkin.”
Geela let a pinched smile stretch across her face. The rest of her body stayed frozen. This had been a bad idea. She could handle the horrors of the void easy peasy. Okay, not easy peasy, but she could handle them. Had handled them, in fact. Her body had been scarred, sure, but her mind had really only been rattled by the frogs. And right now, she’d take a cave full of frogs over this. She would gladly walk into a cavern of hellish frogspawn then continue a conversation with Sinistrina’s puberty stricken creation.
“I’m, ah, sorry about that.” Geela’s lips barely moved as she spoke.
The wolf looked back up at her. Those deep, midnight blue eyes narrowed as he took her in more fully. “Why do I recognize you, girl? Why do you unearth a memory, deep deep within me?”
What exactly was she trying to say here? That she was sorry for killing Sinistrina and sapping the wolfkin of their power? She wasn’t sorry. She wasn’t even close to sorry. But somehow this conversation had taken such a sharp turn from what she expected that she had already apologized to this… this thing.
“I’m not sure why you recognize me,” Geela said, taking a few steps back towards the exit to the cave. Sinistrina had hurled an illegal amount of psychological warfare at Geela from three years beyond the grave and it had worked better than anything she’d hit. She was done. She was out.
“No, I know why your face stirs such strong feelings within me.” Please stop saying ‘within me.’ “I, along with all my brothers, share a connection, stemming from our gracious mistress and touching us deep within.” That was worse. So so much worse. “You are the woman who did our beloved wrong. You are the woman who caused her harm. Caused her death. The hatred we feel for you lives inside us, as true to our core as is the love we feel for our treasured Sinistrina.”
Geela wanted to melt into the floor as he spoke. Instead, she just kept backing up, hoping he’d keep monologuing instead of actually acting. To her dismay, however, once he said Sinistrina’s name, he slowly rose to his feet. Paws. Feet-paw hybrids.
“Well, funny story that,” Geela said, holding her hands up. “I didn’t actually kill Sinistrina. Technically Darkos did.”
The wolfkin launched himself at Geela far faster than someone his age had any right to move. He pushed her against the stone wall, gripping her throat with a claw-like hand and planting the other hand on the wall beside her head. “You dare shirk the responsibility of her murder on another, little one? I could crush you in my claws right now and barely feel it. You are like a plaything to me, how dare you—”
“It’s true,” Geela said, spitting the words at him, pulling at his hand with her fingers. “Darkos. Shoved a sandwich in her mouth. He watched as she died and did nothing.”
The wolf’s face contorted with rage, and for a moment, Geela thought he’d crush her windpipe right there. Instead, he took a deep breath, lifted his face to the ceiling, and howled. From deeper inside the cave, the mournful howl was returned a hundred fold.
Geela swallowed hard, hard enough to force her nerves past the hand on her throat. She had some lightning stored up, and it might just be time to use it. Giving up on the futile task of removing his fingers from her throat, she reached to her side, where the ball of energy was gathering force.
“What are you reaching for?” As the wolfkin asked this question, he caught Geela’s wrist in his other hand. “A weapon, perhaps? That’s very naughty of you.”
Geela’s head swam with a rush of dizziness, and for a moment, she welcomed the sweet release of her impending death. Then she shook her head, clearing it for a moment, and grabbed for the static trapper with her other hand.
The wolfkin lunged for this second hand with the claw that had been on her neck, and Geela dropped to the floor, more out of exhaustion-induced clumsiness than tactics, but it was enough to surprise the wolfkin, who stumbled as he fumbled for her wrist.
Both Bugsquito’s cage and Snake’s bag tumbled to the floor, but were still intact, so she didn’t have to worry about them right now. What she did have to worry about was the racing of footsteps emanating from the den. The rest of the wolves would be on her soon, and her stored electricity would not be enough. She needed him to call the charge off.
So she rolled to the side while the wolfkin readjusted his balance, and with barely a second to strategize, she pulled off her belt and wrapped it around his throat.
“Call off the attack,” she said, words hissing in his perked ears.
To her surprise, he didn’t struggle or put up any kind of fight. In fact, he went so limp so fast, Geela thought maybe she’d killed him.
“How do you know our secrets?” he said, panting weakly. “Did your captives tell you?”
“What?” Geela looked over her shoulder, where the noise had grown so much she expected to see a whole army of aging wolfmen running at her. “Just call it off!”
He whined, like actual dog-whined, for another second, before raising his head back and giving a short bark.
Immediately the cave went silent, and he slumped to the floor. “Our secret weakness has been revealed. We cannot harm you now, mistress.”
Geela didn’t like where this was going. She looked at where her belt was looped loosely around his neck. “Tell me your secret weakness is strangulation.”
He reached a hand to touch her belt, but cringed and pulled his fingers away. “Nothing so cruel. Our creator, in her infinite fairness, equipped us all with a weakness. Should we ever find ourselves collared, our power will be sapped and we shall find ourselves submissive to she who holds the leash.”
Geela didn’t like this at all. She wanted to ask why Sinistrina would do this, but if she was being honest with herself, she already knew. There was no point in hearing it out loud.
“I am but your slave now, mistress—”
“Stop! For all that is unholy, stop.” The void really was testing her. She yearned for the day when a Monstersquito was the most horrific thing she’d encountered. When a bug with human hands had the capacity to unnerve her. Now she had a wolfman on the end of a leash.
She wasn’t keeping him. That much was clear and obvious. She was not keeping him.
That said, she wasn’t going to unleash him until she’d sorted her thoughts out.
“Okay, so I’ve got a few goals here,” she said, popping open her map. “The main objective is to get to Noire’s nest. Now, according to this—” she zoomed in on the pulsing blackness in the center “—there might be some obstacles around it.” It hadn’t been entirely clear what some of the blurs that surrounded the nest were, but Geela had the impression they weren’t going to be good.
“Those traps will kill you dead!” Bugsquito said, voice squeaking from its cage several feet away. “Then you’ll really be in for it.”
“You foooool.” Snake’s voice slithered from its bag in outrage. “She would have walked into it blind had it not been for your loosssse lips.”
Geela sighed. Traps and obstacles. Just like her old fortress had. But with no Darkos, she needed a different edge.
“Would taking out the regions weaken the traps?” she asked. The monsters had no reason to help her, but that hadn’t stopped them before.
Bugsquito let out a peel of malevolent laughter. “Hahaha! Never in a million years! The traps are eternal. They can only be paused by us and we will never ever ever let you in.” It began running around its cage, howling with laughter, and even Snake and Scout joined in with sinister snickers and deep croaks.
Geela tried hard to keep her shoulders squared. It made sense, now, why they hadn’t tried very hard to hide information, give up her position to her enemies, stop her. She’d have been dead the moment she reached Noire’s nest. There had only ever really been two options, get into Noire’s nest or grab Hari before he got there. The former looked impossible. The latter had already failed.
“Listen here, you pathetic worms of shadow,” she said, voice quivering with anger. The monsters quieted at her words. “Hari is taking Darkos to Noire’s nest, and I am going to get him back. I don’t care what I have to do to you. I don’t care if I have to make you regret ever being conceived. I will do things to you that will horrify you just to hear, but I will do them all until you open those obstacles and let me in.”
“They will not heed to you.” Scout’s smug voice made Geela want to scream. “None of us will. We do not fear pain and we, above all, serve our masters. We will never—”
“Darkos?” The wolfkin’s satiny voice drowned out Scout’s croak, and Geela looked to find his stroking his chin. “Why does that name tickle my memory?”
“Look. Wolf. Wolfkin. Wolfman.”
He looked up at Geela. “My name is Lunas Selen. Our lovely mistress named us all. It is all we have left of her after—” He stopped short. “Darkos. Darkos is the man who killed our adored mistress.” His eyes burned with a fiery passion, and Geela braced herself, waiting for him to rip the belt from his neck. But the weakness held through, and though he jumped to his feet, he didn’t touch his collar. “Our primal rage has known nothing but an unsatisfied craving for revenge. While the other void dwellers have remained content to mine away their regions, we have prowled, hungry and unsated.” His chest rose and fell as he got more and more agitated.
Geela’s brain lit up, a new plan unfolding before her. “Of course he did, the bastard,” she said. “He’s my rival in the void. Responsible for so much… dastardlyness.”
Lunas looked at her, a solemn respect in his eye. “Then we share an enemy. Nothing but revenge fires my veins, and it seems it is your personal goal to prove your dominance over him.” He held out a furry hand to Geela. “You say he is being brought to the nest. If I let you in through the traps, will you allow me the pleasure of ripping open his throat?”
Geela tilted her head, as if contemplating this. “Beat my rival? Beat him by feeding him to the natural consequence of his actions? That’s almost poetic.” She nodded and grasped Lunas’s hand tightly. “We have a deal.”
The other monsters immediately began wailing in dismay as Geela began gathering up their bags and putting them back on her pole. She then took the belt and strapped it to her waist, so that Lunas would be forced to follow her. They might be allies, or as close as they could be, but she didn’t trust him for a moment. Not to mention, when they did get to Darkos, she’d have to kill Lunas before he tried to cash in his half of the bargain. But with a physically very powerful ally now, one actively on her side, Geela had an edge here for the first time. It might be the only edge she’d ever get.
She fired off a soul search then, to get a tag on Hari and Darkos. The two were closer than she expected, perhaps just on the other side of the core of the void.
Her heart picked up and her hands grew damp as she clutched the map. Was it time now? They’d been in the void nearly a month at this point, could it actually be time to pay Noire a visit? The potential had been just that, a potential, for so long that Geela had almost forgotten she’d actually have to face down Noire at the end of this.
But it was time. It was finally time.
“Alright,” she said, snapping the map shut. “Gird your loins. We’re about to go in.”