Under Earth Hunt
by H. M. Snow
Des rolled onto her side, facing away from Ciar, as she choked on the mouthful of water. Several seconds passed with much coughing and spitting before she could speak. “Lord?”
The king under earth patted her between the shoulder blades. “Are you all right? You lost consciousness.”
“I had a dream,” said Des. She sat up with his assistance and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “I haven’t dreamed at all since coming here. I haven’t slept either, now that I think about it. Is it normal?”
“No. This is a realm between life and death. Apart from the one who holds dominion here, living humans aren’t supposed to be here. There is nothing ‘normal’ about your situation.”
Dismissing this bit of pessimism, Des took up the bowl of water that Ciar had set aside. She drained it in one long swallow. “It was such a strange dream. I thought it was my aunt Mattie I was talking to at first, but then I saw her dissolving around the edges. Even then, I thought maybe that’s normal for the spirits of the dead, but then she asked me how she died, as if she didn’t know. I thought, that can’t be right. As it happened, it didn’t matter because I started choking and woke up.”
Ciar bowed his head pensively. “It is possible,” he said after a time, “that you encountered a plathein. Your description fits.”
“What is it?”
“Platheins are a race of shapeshifters. They are particulate creatures, able to rearrange their particles so as to resemble other beings. The stronger among them can expand the range of their particles quite a distance. If any creature absorbs one of these particles, it becomes possible for the plathein to communicate with that creature. It may be that you picked up a stray particle. There are platheins nearby.”
Des gazed around at the mist. “How can you tell?”
“I can sense them. Moreover, there’s a hunt ranging near, and the platheins never can resist a hunt.”
“Hunt?” Des gazed around. “The gate is shut.”
Ciar stood so that he towered above her. “A precaution. It’s my responsibility to make sure the hunt doesn’t touch those under the mountain. I was readying myself when I found you. I can’t afford to delay any longer.”
“Yes, lord.” Des was at his side immediately, not helping him don his armor but donning her own.
“It would be better for you to stay here by the gate,” Ciar noted.
“But it isn’t about what’s better for me,” Des said. “If my lord is carrying out his duties, how can I stay idle here?” She took up one of the many broad-bladed daggers from the king’s stores. “Of course I’ll attend you, as I always do. I’m trained for this work too.” She took her stand before him, bright eyes turned upward to his face with relentless good cheer.
“No one is trained for this kind of hunt.” Ciar tightened the straps that bound his shield to his forearm. “But since I’ve learned it’s useless to argue with you, then come, if you wish. You’ll need a horse.” He whistled long and loud.
The ubiquitous mists gathered and swirled into a dense mass that split in two. Each half took on the figure of a horse, one a normal size and the other nearly twice as big. Ciar caught hold of the smaller one by the mane. When he led the mist-horse to Des, however, he waited a short while for her to recall herself to the task. She was staring out over the landscape revealed by the gathering of the mist: a cinder-colored vista that sloped gently downward away from the king’s camp. Giant spikes protruded from the ground, as if iron nails with the girth of redwoods had been driven from below. Nothing grew in such a landscape, neither flora nor fauna. Ciar said softly, “Are you still determined to come with me?”
Des’ instant response was to fall onto her knees at his feet. She seized his gauntlet-clad hand and kissed it. “Over all this you hold dominion, lord? You’re greater than I first thought!” Then she regained her feet. She stroked the mist-horse’s flank. “It feels real. Will it hold me?”
“If I so desire,” replied the king. “You aren’t afraid?”
“Afraid of what?”
Ciar sighed. “I don’t understand you.” He lent her his hand so that she could mount her mist-horse. Then he swung himself onto the back of the greater horse. As they rode, he spoke of what lay ahead. “The sonji are restless monsters. Now and then I must drive them back to the depths. What they want is to feed on the darkness in human souls, to cause insanity among humans and thereby cause bloodshed. If left unchecked, they would invade the city under the mountain, climb up to the domain of earth– even to the domain of air. They are entirely destructive.”
“Why do those platheins come out during the hunt?”
“I’m not sure. I can only assume it’s due to a spirit of fair play. They–” Ciar fell silent. “There’s a sonji now.” He unslung his axe.
“What is it meant to be? Apart from hideous, that is to say.” Des brandished not only the wide dagger but also a slender short sword. “Does it need quite so many arms?”
“Stay here and don’t let any that escape me get past you. Don’t let any touch you,” Ciar warned. Then he swept forward on his great warhorse and, with one swing of the axe, split the foremost monster in half.
The cloven halves continued squirming until the bubbling froth that spilled from its guts dissolved the remains. Even the hard cinders underneath warped from the acid. Des paused alongside the mess, watching with inquisitive calm until the fizzing stopped. By that point, Ciar had plunged into the next knot of sonji. Des followed him with her eyes until she noticed a line of onlookers beyond him. There was something of a genteel picnic gaiety about them, although their shapes blurred when she looked too long at any one of them. Ladies wearing frothy pale gowns and gentlemen in long cream-white tail coats, all gathered at a distance on higher ground to watch the action below. Occasionally an incongruous shape would appear among them: a sparkling catherine’s-wheel firework, a leaping rabbit five feet high at the ears, once even an empty coat tree, to name a few. These forms lasted only a few seconds before reverting to humanoid. Watching the fluctuations in shape was like listening to half a conversation, trying to guess what had caused each response.
A smattering of applause from the platheins brought Des back around to face the hunt in time to see half a sonji fly through the air, its raw end a fountain of acid. Ciar plunged boldly into the midst of the monsters. His axe flew back and forth, around and down, over and over again in mesmerizing dance of slaughter.
Being thus distracted by the hunt, Des never noticed when one of the platheins separated from its group. Her first intimation that she was not alone came in the figure of a woman, tall and curiously thin, that loomed at her left hand. This woman’s burning black eyes ensnared Des and held her in place. “You did not finish answering my question earlier.” Then the woman broke apart into a multicolored cloud of specks that swept Des skyward in a tight cyclone.
Ciar wheeled around in the midst of the hunt. He charged his great mist-horse toward the spinning cloud, but at the very moment he reached the cyclone, Des shot high through the air with a trailing cry of alarm. The king under earth slewed his mount around to chase after Des. With apparent leisure, the cyclone reformed into the lady and the lady made no hurried movement. She reached out to slip her arms around Ciar’s neck from behind, and that was all. He was forced to stop moving, though the difference in physical strength between them should have been all in his favor. “Watch,” said the lady in his ear.
“Only watch,” the lady reiterated.
All Ciar could do was gesture for the smaller mist-horse to leap high beneath Des and catch her on her descent. The horse’s hooves hadn’t touched ground when Des vaulted from its back to a safe landing, a weapon gripped in each hand. Her fierce, “Ha!” rang through the deadened air as she drove her short sword through the head of a sonji, pinning it to the hard ground so that she could fillet its sides with her dagger. Acid flew in two thin streams from the tips of her blades as she turned to behead another of the monsters. Acid splashed her clothes, but the euphoria of battle raised her above pain for the moment. She slashed her way through sonji after sonji, deaf to the cheers and applause of the plathein audience.
The last sonji was the wiliest. It had enough wit to use its many limbs to scuttle away from Des no matter from which direction she launched her attack. After a few failed attempts, Des remembered to summon the mist-horse. She proved a deft rider, cutting off the sonji’s every escape. When she had the monster confused, Des hooked an arm around the mist-horse’s neck and leaned down to deliver the death-blow with her short sword. She left the frothing, dissolving carcass behind without a glance, choosing to ride at once to where Ciar waited. “That’s the last of them, lord. No need to worry about them until the next hunt. How long is it, I should ask, between one hunt and the next?”
Ciar stared at her. “I don’t understand you. Was it not you who struggled so deeply over serving as swordbearer that you shattered the sword of the air rather than commit an act of violence?”
“What– that?” Des waved her hand as if waving the question away. “That was a different matter. If it’s just hunting a monstrous pestilence like those beasts to spare you the trouble of doing it, lord, then it’s no trouble at all to me. It gives me opportunity to make good use of my training.”
The plathein lady, now fully solidified as riding side-saddle behind Ciar, laughed aloud as she watched Des from over Ciar’s shoulder. “She is a rare child. I’ve searched for one like her since your father laid aside all dominion. She has told me all I needed to know.” The lady slid off the horse’s back; her feet solidified on the ground, then her ankles, and so forth, until she stood looking up at Ciar. “Go back to the gate and prepare a feast. Summon your brothers to dine with you.” Then she dissolved into a multihued cloud of specks and swept away like a breeze.
In her wake, Des asked, “Is the lady a close friend of yours, lord?”
“Friend?” Ciar sighed. “Worse than that. She’s my mother.”