I couldn’t believe our plan was actually going to be successful. Everyone was at Kipwin’s Den today, the great ceremony was about to begin. I had finally managed to reach the deep wilds, up in the north. We were now covered by the shroud of forest. I let a little sigh escape. Finally we were going to be free. I checked for any signs of the Abolishers, there were none, thankfully the ceremony was keeping everyone busy. The revelation of the Urnam.
Ingrid now sat under the huge trees, shifting Warin ever so slowly to the ground. The forest smelt dank, it was large, dark and primal. The huge trees made a thick canopy over them, the sky was hidden and the air was thick. Ingrid was finding it difficult to breathe. She checked Warin’s breath, it was warm and slow, but he was alive. She couldn’t imagine she could find solace in the same forest she found so dreadful when she had first arrived in Koana. Today the swooping branches hanging from the trees, the mishmash of yellow, blue and purple leaves brought her peace. The tumult in her mind seemed out of sync with the silence that engulfed the forest.
She woke up with a start. When did I fall asleep? How long had it been?
She glanced at Warin. He was still unconscious. She heard drum beats, mixed with howls and screams. The ceremony was about to reach its climax. She had to move fast.
Koana – Games
The day began with the ear-piercing whistles of the Agaja. The valley was echoing with the sounds again. Agaja were known as news bearers. They were spread across the length and breadth of Koana, with long beak like noses and small round mouth, their whistles were dreaded for they almost always brought along bad news, and today it was the announcement of the run. The Agaja were mostly calm, they had no legs but powerful tails and short stubby arms. Ingrid thought them to be like pets, except they were untamable. The high-pitched whistle sounded again.
“It’s time for the chalice run again,” rued Fleur disappointedly.
Run for the chalice happened often, and no one knew beforehand who the participants were going to be. Everyone had to participate, where ever they may be at that point, they had to reach the Pecilald valley. It divided Koana into two. The capital city Abngi, the center of Urnam’s throne. Abngi also housed Nurwaha the quarters of the commoners, the Wic garden where the Medics lived.
Up north were the deep wilds, the densest forest which were eerily quiet. No birds no animals just trees, huge trees with limbs that could move, grab and grow at will. These had scared Ingrid, only now did she realise how baseless her fear was. The highest point in Koana were Nailittab hills, in the valley where the chalice appeared. Deep south housed the soulless Iksu sea. As soon as the whistles were heard the Abolishers gathered everyone and brought them to the valley. Then came the Infernal Grazer, their wind wings covering the sky, they picked few people to run the race. You got three chances to win the chalice, on losing them you were thrown into the Morinliers shelter from where no one returned.
As everyone gathered, Ingrid was among those chosen and she was terrified, her closest allies had been taken to the shelter, never to return.
“Hide behind the Homage Tower,” Ingrid screamed as she tucked the end of her yellow robe into the belt to facilitate her running. Fleur was running alongside.
Ingrid looked up to see the Infernal Grazers flying overhead, their small umber eyes set deep in that thorny skull were sharp and menacing. The long-pointed tail, enormous wings and lithe body made them fast flyers.
Ingrid and Fleur rolled behind the tower, its wide base giving them some refuge in the vast rocky land. Ingrid pulled out a maple blade root.
“Don’t,” Fleur pleaded.
“I’ve lost the last two races and I can’t afford to be sent to the shelter. I’d rather endure the pain and after effects of this root.”
The Gazers looked below and turned back furiously to the tower.
“Now!” screamed Ingrid and they ran once more, but Ingrid fueled with the power of the maple blade root slammed through. Her eyes bulged and her skin felt too hot, like it would peel off, but she made it to the top of the hill before the Gazers could fathom what happened.
On top of the hill lay the chalice filled to the brim. Ingrid could smell an obnoxious mixture. Before she had time for further investigation, the Grazers lifted her and brought her to the citadel.
“Change fast,” they thundered.
Ingrid looked around confused and then her eyes fell on a blue light. It was very calming and had a human form. It was moving towards her holding red robes in its hands.
“I am Azure, the guiding spirit. Let’s get you cleaned up and ready to meet the Urnam.”
Red robes with intricate golden embroidery and a big gold belt, the satin felt strange on her skin after wearing months of rough yellow robes.
As she entered the Throne Hall, she was awestruck. Great braziers hanging from one side of each fourteen sandstone columns lit up most of the Throne Hall. The ceiling was dome shaped with clouds painted on it, the marble floor felt cold on her bare feet. The atmosphere was the opposite of the luxurious warm decorations of the hall. The Abolishers surrounded it from all sides. The most feared soldiers, standing over ten feet tall on their horse like legs and tiny heads with sharp pointed ears. Their sturdy arms never missed the target. They were the most trusted soldiers of the emperor of Koana, the Urnam.
She could smell him even before he entered.
“Head down!” commanded one the Abolisher soldier standing right behind her.
As she bent she was hit by a nauseating stink, like ammonia filled her lungs, yet she knew better than to grimace or look up for the soldier was pressing her neck down with the base of his crystal spear.
Urnam held the ultimate power. He set rules in Koana, rules that could never be broken. You either followed them or be killed with the crystal spear pushed right through your heart. All deceivers, runaways, and escapers were hung on the west wall of the Throne Hall. No one knew how Urnam looked like, someone said he was humongous, some believed him to be a snake others thought he was a dragon. Ingrid knew today why these rumours went about.
She could see the lower portion of his limbs as she raised the chalice to him. A wheezing breath escaped his mouth and made her go limp with fear. She wanted this to be over fast. She heard sharp gurgling noises as the Urnam drank from the chalice. He was now sliding away.
“Mastered Perfection,” his loud hoarse voice came through. The Abolishers began banging their spears on ground and shouted in unison, “Mastered Perfection!” and in that slight moment the spear lifted from her nape, she braved a look at Urnam.
Three amber eyes were daring in all directions, a flat nose and a big mouth revealed two pointed canines, thin warped ears sat on each side of his pointy head which was covered with tattoo like markings. Something protruded from his collar bones. Ingrid noticed that his body was thin, and then she was shocked.
He wasn’t a he. He was a she! It was a woman.
Her arms were crooked with exceptionally huge hands and fingers that seemed more than ten. Her legs were weirdly glued together, covered in scales, but the feet had muscular hooves. Her body looked slimy and a small tail swayed back and forth.
Ingrid was swiftly pulled out of the hall and thrown out. She was not sure if had to change back for she did not see anyone around. On instinct she began to run away from the hall to Wic Garden.
Lefwine Yerde, the medic looked at her sternly, “you ate the maple blade root didn’t you?”
“What are all these plants in your garden? They look familiar yet different. Isn’t this supposed to be chrysanthemum? How is it so big and why is it black?” she was trying to dismiss the question asked to her. Medics were the only people in Koana who treated them with some respect.
“You know the root can be addictive. Do you plan to stay in Koana forever?”
Ingrid felt cold sweat break near her temple. Her entire body went numb.
“You have to escape from here and get help for all of us,” Lefwine whispered, “and if that numbness has subsided you are free to go.”
“Is the venom out?” Ingrid was confused by what she had heard.
“The cold sweat would suggest so. And the flowers in the garden are genetically modified.” He turned to look if there were any Abolishers around. Like all medics he was wearing a long blue robe, but his silver belt suggested he was far above in rank. From inside his long dangling sleeves he took out what looked like a pill, came very close and slipped I into Ingrid’s hand.
She recoiled at the wetness and weird coldness of his touch and her eyes darted to his face. T was ashen with round blue eyes and his neck seemed to have scales. He was still holding her hand.
“If they are ever to capture you swallow this pill immediately. I will work on getting you out of here,” he whispered quickly and disappeared into his garden.
Ingrid shuddered. Why would I be captured? She treaded slowly to Nurwaha. It had been a long day and it was almost time for dinner. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything the entire day. Nurwaha, however was a picture of gloom. She hated going back to the dirt, squalor and squabble of Nurwaha.
Lefwine had kept his promise. We were in the basement and a van, with keys dangling waited outside. She wasn’t sure how he had arranged for it. She hurriedly laid Warin in the back seat and covered him sheets that had been placed there. Lefwine had thought of everything. I wish I get a chance to fulfil his wish. She drove as fast as she could. She knew the road very well and wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. Once on the road to Detroit tears began to flow involuntarily thinking of how all these unfortunate events began. All the memories seem like a distant past.
Even though Warin had never been very strong or athletic I had been attracted to him from the day they had met. He was opposite of his parents who were strong. They had moved to Detroit during the great migration and had suffered many discriminations based on their colour and race. This led them to protect their son excessively. They wouldn’t let him out and kept him indoors to protect him from any harm. He excelled in his studies but wasn’t very active and often fell sick.
I saw him sitting and watching me from the stands as I ran on the tracks. He even came to see my practices. I was instantly attracted to this tall shy boy with big unruly hair. I was the one to approach him and laughed hysterically when he said I intimidated him, for I was only five feet tall. Maybe me being white was what was stopping him. I had always been strong, opiniated and independent and laughed away his concerns.
It was a bright day and Warin came home complaining of stomach ache. Before long his health deteriorated and he began to vomit. I took him to the hospital where he remained admitted for stomach infection. Even after he got discharged bouts of vomiting kept returning. He didn’t seem well and this time was taken to ICU. I had to move to the countryside soon for there was no other way out.
I was informed that Warin, my husband was very ill and the doctor insisted that we must give up living in the town. It was essential for him to breathe the purer air of the country if he was to get strong again. So I was feverishly house hunting. Of course I had seen had seen innumerable houses, but there was something foreboding with all of them. I finally settled for a house in Carleton, a small village with only about two thousand residents, though I was still skeptical about the house, I had to shift Warin quickly.
Carleton felt like an entirely new world. It had a rural charm, scenic drives and laid-back atmosphere. I was sure Warin would recover soon. Everything was peaceful except the house. It made me uncomfortable. Warin’s health was improving slowly. His appetite seemed to be back and he could take small walks.
The moment night fell, the house seemed to develop a character of its own. It seemed to wail and moan. I even heard sounds, like horse’s hooves on the roof. From my room at the top of the stairs, I could peer at the darkness below. I felt someone was watching us. The noises seem to get worse every day. I discussed it with Warin he had heard them too, but dismissed them as a misconception and the fact that we were in a village
We heard strange stories about the house of people who were lost inside forever, shrines and ceremonies. I decided to lock my bedroom door thinking it was just a matter of few more days.
That dread day we were having dinner. It had been a nice, warm, and bright day. For the first time I was feeling happy in the house and then we heard a tapping. A constant tapping began near on of the rooms. “Did you leave any tap open?” We got up to check. Room after room were empty. The noise led us to the basement door. “Let’s not go there,” I pleaded with Warin. “Don’t be silly, I’m sure it’s just a leaking pipe. We can fix it.”
The hinges creaked as Warin pushed the door open. As I flicked the light switch a dull orange hue filled the room. There were mouse droppings everywhere and a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. The tapping had increased. I wish I had brought a baseball or a kitchen knife. We kept moving in the direction of the sound. “See, I told you just a leaking pipe,” Warin pointed to the source of the sound.
With the corner of my eye I noticed a sudden movement in the darkness come to us like the wind. Before he could react Warin watched in sheer horror as a horse like man hunched over him. I turned and saw a dozen more surrounding us. They pulled out spears and kept them under our chins. I wanted to yell and scream but I was glued to the ground.
Where did they enter from, I was wondering. With unearthly speed a powerful being with iris
-less eyes stood in front of us. It held a chalice whose contents reeked a horrible stench and this liquid was shoved down our throats and everything went dark.
We woke up in a dense forest. There were other couples with us, all as confused as us. Weird looking trees, horse like men and eerie silence surrounded us. I had never though this was the beginning of a long ordeal, all because we moved into the house. Despite the foreboding I had chosen to live there. I will never forgive myself. Silent tears kept flowing.
After the Games
No one really cared what happened in Nurwaha. It was a place for the Unformed, the ones regularly brought from outside. They were made to various kinds of tasks based on their physical attributes. The weaker ones were sent North to gather flowers, leaves and herbs from the forest. Some to the South, right before the Iksu sea where they dug deep holes in the black sand. The most agile ones worked across Pecliald valley, around the hills, and the rocky plains of east Steappint and west Scrollitt.
The broken bright red rocks brought from the plains were carried by them till the valley where other built huge towers. Some rocks were brought to Nurwaha for repair or for addition to living quarters for incoming members kept increasing.
Abolishers usually supervised the entire working process. The Unformed were brought from several places and given yellow robes. Men women all wore similar robes. Other than that not much was provided. They slept on ground and cooked weird looking vegetables and animals left in the granary. Water had to be carried from the valley.
There was constant despair in Nurwaha. The new ones cried and screamed for they did not know why or how they were there. Some tried to run, were caught and shut-in caves till they were tamed. The older ones always found a comrade missing for these games were held often.
Ingrid dreaded going back to all the wailing post the games. Warin’s health hadn’t been well and he was mostly working in the forest. It had been many days since she had seen him.
“He’s gone,” screamed Fleur.
“Who’s gone?” Ingrid was too tired to listen to another missing story.
“I’m scared. You know how Atwell never came back. What are we going to do? We will die in this place.” Fleur was hysterical now. Ingrid had developed soft corner for her ever since she lost her husband. They were constantly together since then.
Ingrid shook her, “who is gone?”
Ingrid went numb. “How? He was not selected for the run. He wasn’t even there?”
She turned and ran back. Lefwine, he’s the only one who can help me. Have they taken him to the shelter? Will I be able to rescue him? Will he even help me?
She felt a sharp blow on her back and fell face down. As she turned around the Abolisher’s spear was at her neck.
“You go back to your quarter.”
“I have to return these robes,” she stammered.
“Back to your quarter,” it hissed.
Ingrid knew better than to argue. She returned and sat dejected on the floor.
“Wake up.” She felt cold air covering her. It was still dark. She tried to focus.
She signaled her to be quiet and handed her black robes. Ingrid soon changed and realised these had a hood. She instructed her to pull it down to cover much of her face and follow her. Once they were out Azure changed her shape into a tiny ball of light rolling near the ground, guiding Ingrid where to go. It was pitch dark and my heart pounded like waves on tsunami hitting the coast.
After what seemed like ages Azure stopped, a door opened. I had never seen doors like these. It seemed like the entire stone wall had parted. She went in and I followed her.
Inside it was still dark but Ingrid could hear sounds of pulleys, levers and other mechanical devices being operated. Another wall parted and now they were in a room lit by a neon bulb. They have electricity here?
The room had one stone bench, a bed like in operation theaters, no windows, thick hot air hung like a shroud. The top seemed to be endless and the ceiling could not be seen. Two blue robed medics entered and stood there in silence. Then came Agaja and finally Lefwine.
“Ingrid,” he began gravely, “Warin has been taken to one of the towers. Thankfully he was not taken to the shelter so it might be possible to rescue him. You have to listen very carefully.”
“What is going on? Even if I do rescue him the Abolishers are going to kill us. There is no escape from Koana. I have tried to find routes through forest, rocks and valley. It is of no use. I even tried the holes in the black beach. Nothing seems to work.” Ingrid realised she was crying. “What even is this place?”
“Now is not the time to explain. I called you to carry out an escape plan for Warin and you. We have been planning for long. You are brave and strong enough to carry it through. Once you are out you have to put an end to this monstrosity.” Lefwine was shaking with emotion.
“In two days the ceremony will begin at the Kipwin’s den. Urnam will reveal herself to everyone for she believes now she has reached perfection, but that will also herald the increase of her efforts.”
“The black robe you are wearing is worn by medics in the shelter. The Abolishers will not suspect you. Just don’t lose sight of Azure,” saying this he opened the door.
Agaja went out, then the medics in blue robe followed by Ingrid and Azure. She saw they had come out of one of the towers in the valley. Its stillness betrayed the happenings inside of it. The sunrise had coloured everything ochre.
Agaja moved ahead as the others stopped. As they began whistling Abolishers and Grazers moved in their direction. Azure began to roll in the opposite direction, everyone following her. She stopped in front of the Homage Tower, the biggest in the valley. She entered it and opened the wall door from inside. I couldn’t believe that we were not caught. The poor Agaja must have been killed.
“Take this,” one of the medics was addressing Ingrid. “This is the essence of the Maple blade root. It will help you run. When you see Warin put these pills in his mouth. It is absolutely essential, and lastly take this whistle,” he handed her a horn made of bone, “we will wait here at the door for you. As soon as you get Warin blow this whistle.”
Ingrid moved ahead still unsure of what she was doing. As the corridor ended she saw a hall. It was a lab full of modern-day equipment. It seemed she was walking into a sci-fi movie.
She looked around and saw big test tube like cylinders holding grotesque looking creatures with infinite number of tubes and pipes fitted to them. Not humans but humanoids, mutants. Was this true? A mutant lab. Of course! Horse like Abolishers, Eagle like Grazers, Agaja that looked like lizards, the flowers, the trees, vegetables everything. Similar yet better. How will I recognize Warin?
Fear made her spine go cold. She was struggling to walk. Medics in black robes monitored everything. Machines were beeping and they were keeping track of everything. One could hear a pin drop. She kept moving from one test tube to the next, none looked like Warin. Her anxiety was turning to fear. She reached the end of the hall. Beyond that was another room, smaller.
She stepped inside. It looked like a big operating room with men women tied to the beds. They looked less fearful than the ones she saw outside. All of them were unconscious or in some deep sleep. Their limbs were beginning to change, even though their faces were still human. She began to move fast. Warin has to be here. Her heart was racing, for she recognized so many of them from Nurwaha.
Warin finally. His face and arms looked alright, but his legs seemed to be fused together. She felt endless pain. She looked around to see how she could release him. The pills! She took out the pills and put them in his mouth. I will have to lift him and run. It seemed an impossible task to her. I need to release him first. She began pressing at random buttons at his bed side hoping something would do the trick. The beeping increased and so did Warin’s breath. Suddenly the attachments opened. She drank the essence and lifted Warin over her shoulders whistling alongside.
She saw there was commotion all around. The medics were confused but no one tried to stop her. In fact they let her pass. Even though the essence made her super-fast, almost like a wind she noticed a relief on their faces. Maybe they were working under force.
As she reached the end the door was ajar and they dashed out. Azure took a quick turn to the hills and disappeared in the ground. How are we going there after her?
A tunnel was there and they disappeared from view quickly. It led them to Lefwine’s quarters.
He took them deep inside his house to a room where there was a similar bed. With his help Warin was strapped to the bed again.
“Can you tell me now?” Ingrid asked exhausted.
“Let’s just say Urnam is an overambitious scientist who is misusing her knowledge even though she knows the consequences fully well.” He said while administering the drug to take out the venom of the essence Ingrid had consumed. “We were all her students. She treats humans as unformed and is on a mission to create perfection which she thinks she has mastered. All of us will be converted if we do not obey,” he rued touching the scales on his neck slowly.
“Once you leave from here meet Dr Dynham Estney,” he said giving Ingrid a piece of paper. “Let him see Warin and he will understand everything. He knows what has to be done.”
“How will I bring him here?”
“Remember the house you were picked up from, blow the whistle once you reach the basement.”
Ingrid shuddered. she never wanted to return to that house again.
Lefwine came many times during the course of next day to check on Warin.
“Keep giving him these pills every three hours even after you reach home till you meet Dr Estney.
“Will these pills cure him?”
“I cannot say for sure, but they will stop any further mutation. Maybe they cure him too,” he said as he was moving out. Then turned back to look at Ingrid, “do remember to come back I have risked a lot.”
Ingrid spent the day looking after Warin unaware of the happenings outside. She knew the repercussions must have been strong.
“Lefwine has been killed,” Azure informed her late into the night. “We need to leave right now. We will hide in the forest and then you leave tomorrow. We will protect you. Lefwine’s death will not go in vain.”
Lefwine’s antidote was working even though it was painfully slow. Warin was able to open his eyes and his breathing was stable. Even though Ingrid explained everything to him she was not sure he understood. It had been three months and she hadn’t gathered the courage to go to Dr Estney. She wasn’t able to sleep well at night thinking the Abolishers might come. She knew no one believe her even if she spoke to anyone about it.
Looking at Warin each day reminded her of her promise to Lefwine, of his sacrifice. She finally decided to meet him.
It was dark, well past midnight. It took all of her courage to step into the darkness. She put Warin in the back of her car and covered him well. As she drove everything she suffered in Koana crossed her mind again. She could not believe she had made this decision.
It was almost dawn when she arrived outside his home. She contemplated once more and turned to look at Warin. He was safe only because of Lefwine. She owed this to him.
She got down from the car and walked gingerly towards the door. She rang the door bell and a waited. A young man in his twenties opened the door.
“Are you Dr Estney?”
“Yes?” said the young man with a look of bewilderment. It was too early for patients he thought.
“Lefwine Yerde has sent me,” she said, almost stammering. “I need to show you something.”
He followed her without asking any questions.
Ingrid had parked her car under a tree. She opened the door and lifted the sheets off Warin’s legs.
His eyes widened. He could not believe what he was seeing.
“Urnam is alive! He exclaimed after the reality struck him. “Let’s not keep him here for long. People will begin waking up soon. He made it look like one of his patients had come to see him. Wheel chaired Warin to his basement quickly.
He lived alone. “My work entails long hours and I do not like many people around me,” he spoke softly with a slight smile on his lips. His basement was no less than the lab she had seen in Koana, only there were no mutants. “Warin is the first live sample that has ever come to this lab,” he said casually without thinking what it would mean to Ingrid.
He put Warin on the table and began examining him and taking notes. “Show me the pills Lefwine gave you.”
Ingrid explained in detail what she had seen in the lab and how things functioned in Koana. He spoke very little except when he was asking questions and making notes. Ingrid could see he was very meticulous.
“Was Lefwine a good friend?” she asked one day. It had been weeks since they had moved into their basement. He had requested her to stay and she was relieved there was someone with whom she could share her pain. She felt safe here for she was not alone.
“He was my teacher and my foster father too. He admired Urnam’s work, but she was overambitious. He tried to convince her but to no avail.”
After few weeks he declared, “we can go back to save the others. I have prepared everything. Now you need to take me there.”
Ingrid couldn’t believe she was standing in the basement again.
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