Skai’s eyes, swollen and caked with crust, peeled open and squinted into burning light: a low, cavernous ceiling crawling with wisps. She struggled to push upright in the surrounding bed of sand, but it suctioned onto her like a wet mold. Fluid ebbed at her arms and legs, as thick and white as blood.
She rolled her head left and right to clear her mind; the creature’s shrieks had left a ringing in her ears that proved worse than the numai’s static.
Fingertips slid across her forehead, their pads rubbery but warm. Tempus. She squinted up at his towering frame, the lit ends of his hair, the rings of his irises and the light that outlined them.
“Relax. Give yourself some time.”
Skai didn’t like being told to relax, and nothing could convince her that she should. She went on pushing upright and rubbing her eyes, the sand pulling away from her in drooping threads. She turned in place, uncomfortably aware of the sharp tingles running over the surface of her body—she was naked.
Upon realizing Aija was right beside her and gaining consciousness, Skai jerked into action, scooping handfuls of sand over her most private areas and trying to disappear into the ebbing liquid. She felt the urge to scream profanities at Tempus, but Aija beat her to it.
“Skao’ji!” Aija shoved into a sitting position and whipped her hair over her shoulder before unleashing another string of foul language, first directed at Tempus, then the room, then the sand clinging to her elbows.
Skai went numb as Aija turned to her next, the rage in her amber eyes melting into something else.
“Um—” Skai stuffed a hand between her legs before Aija’s curious gaze took advantage of the opportunity.
Aija was not as protective of her nudity. As quickly as she’d fallen silent, she pushed to her feet and went to work scraping muddy layers from her arms and legs. “What happened?” she demanded, simultaneously unveiling her golden skin and heightening Skai’s nerves.
“Well,” Tempus began, his tone lighthearted in wake of the horrifying event Skai had just witnessed, “it looks like you’re back to getting poor Skai into trouble.” A mix of fury and humiliation overcame Skai at the sight of his entertained smile.
“Is something funny?” Aija shouted, flinging more sand against the wall. Skai could have shriveled up and collapsed into a lump of sand herself. She could feel Aija’s eyes on her again, as fierce as the questions that burst from her a moment later. “What were those things? Why were they screaming like that? How long have you been keeping them down there?”
“Aija.” Tempus moved to comfort her, but she struck him once in the chest before wincing and turning away. Tempus remained unfazed. “Take a deep breath. You’re losing control.”
“I’m not afraid of losing control,” Aija snapped.
Skai remained silent, her gaze fastened to the soothing fluid at her ankles. She watched Tempus’ reflection slide over its surface, a dark blur beside Aija’s vibrant form.
“Please lie back down. It’ll make you feel better.”
“I’m not hurt. I don’t need it.”
Tempus sighed. “Then I’ll get your clothes.” He sloshed into the adjacent room, leaving them alone.
After a long, stinging silence, Skai peered around her arm to glimpse Aija leaning against the wall, legs crossed at the ankles. Their eyes met for a fleeting moment before Skai pulled a muscle in her haste to pretend she wasn’t looking.
Aija chuckled. “This isn’t exactly how I imagined getting naked in front of you.”
Skai drove her face into her hands, astounded by Aija’s impulsive nature. Her tangled mess of hair proved a comforting barrier to Aija’s gaze, but it did nothing to cool her body’s leap in temperature. Tempus couldn’t return fast enough.
When he did, it was with a heap of clothing clutched to his chest and a bemused expression. “Skai, feeling all right?”
“I’m fine,” she mumbled into her hands, but she didn’t consider the waves of heat flushing her skin even comparable to fine.
“You appear flustered.” Tempus waved his hand and, particle by particle, the sand and fluid sprayed away from them as milky bands, sucking the moisture from Skai’s skin and hair.
“I said I’m fine.” She shot him a look that bled be quiet as he fluttered her coat around her shoulders and handed them each their belongings. She swore she saw the smallest glimmer of mischief in his eyes, one of those inexplicable quirks that set him apart from the other numai.
“What are they?” Aija asked again, this time her tone level but forced. Her ability to swiftly alter her demeanor both startled and intrigued Skai; where Skai was empty, Aija was reactive, engaged—alive.
Skai stuffed her legs into her pants in the short silence that ensued, pausing to study Tempus’ lowered eyes, the slump of his shoulders, the expectant expression on Aija’s face.
Tempus drew in a breath and rose to his full height. “Finish dressing and follow me.” He directed the airborne band of milky particles into the next room with another wave of his hand. “I’ll explain what I can.”
Skai scrambled to clip her pads in place and tugged her boots on as Tempus left the room. She looked up to catch Aija pulling her meager top over her head, her pants half open and her boots unclasped.
She looked Skai up and down before offering a lopsided smile. “In trouble,” she mocked Tempus’ earlier choice of words. “You think he’d be happy you followed me.”
Aija paused at the doorway to fasten her pants. “You know, the trance thing.” She rolled her eyes, moved her hand as though it were a mouth and imitated Tempus’ low voice, “‘Follow your companion, discover where they lead you.’”
The blood drained from Skai’s face at the knowing smile that crept onto Aija’s lips. She panicked. “He told you? You’ve known?”
Aija grinned and pushed into the hall. “No,” she called, “but now I do.”
Skai squeezed a fist at her side and chased after her, her heart a pounding mess. She considered possible excuses, but was too slow to come up with anything substantial before Aija fell back to match her pace, her eyes penetrating.
“When you see me during your trance,” she began in a thoughtful tone, “do you actually see my face or something else that reminds you…?”
Skai’s cheeks blazed as she recalled the sights and smells from her vision, the blend of golden light and fire. If she said anything, it would be an admission, that whatever did exist inside her sought Aija.
She cleared her throat and focused on the floor. “I see a lot of color.”
“Color?” Aija sounded disappointed. “Must’ve been a great visual with that shy of an answer.”
Skai tripped on her own boots, managed to catch herself before her face met the floor and shot upright, her cheeks hotter than they’d ever been.
Aija bit back a sly smile. “Now I’m really curious.”
Tempus raised an eyebrow as they approached, dragged on the wall to open another doorway and gestured them inside. The three of them piled into a cramped, glass-floored lift.
“Color,” Aija repeated under her breath as the wall slid shut.
Skai tensed as the lift began to move and Aija, intentional or not, pressed against her side. Skai hoped Tempus would say something as distraction, but when she gave him a pleading look he only shrugged.
“What colors, exactly?” Aija asked.
Skai focused on the pulsating lights ahead of her, a small configuration of rotating circles that blinked into existence one at a time. “Annoying ones.”
Skai expected a smart quip or an affronted snort, but Aija remained silent. After an awkward stretch of time in which the three of them stood packed together, Skai chanced a look. The sheer burning intensity of Aija’s gaze startled her; Skai found herself unable to tear her own eyes from her gold, constricting irises until a clever wink snapped her out of her daze.
The lift came to a stop and the wall stretched back open, bestowing them with a black room flickering with wisps.
Tempus ushered Skai and Aija inside. “I apologize for the lighting.”
More wisps came to life at their approach, but the floor and walls were so dark that their light didn’t carry far. They flicked past Skai’s head, assembled in the middle of the room and constructed a long, spiraling chain. A round platform slid up from the ground before beaming its own source of light onto the domed ceiling.
Aija had already circled the room, collected a jar—Skai stared around for the source—and balanced it in the palm of her hand. “What is this place?”
“Aija, please put that down.”
Aija frowned and returned it to a shelf behind her. As Skai’s eyes adjusted to the dark, she realized numerous shelves lined the room, each of them filled with various unrelated objects: jars of fluid and crystals, pieces of dried plant life, rocks that looked no different from the ones she could find outside.
Aija peered into one of the bottles. “Is this your room?”
Tempus circled the platform and hummed. “Yes.” He collected Aija by the shoulder and led her to the spiraling wisps. Skai approached and observed them without prodding. They didn’t act like the ones outside; there was something linear about their movements.
“What’s this?” Aija asked.
“My focus,” Tempus answered. “This is where they made me, on this platform here.” He slid his palm over the polished surface, his eyes dim. In the dark, Skai could see the highlights of his heart and lungs through his chest, pumping and inhaling only half as often as Skai’s.
Aija moved around the platform and brushed her fingers over its surface with the same gentleness, her eyes moving between it, the wisps, Tempus and Skai. Skai watched her in silence, once again fascinated by her change.
“The creatures below,” Tempus began, his voice low. “What do you imagine they might be?”
Skai stuffed her hands into her pockets in search of something to busy her fingers. Monsters, she thought first. The thing she’d seen was nothing short of nightmarish, like the abyss really had sprouted arms and legs and come after her.
“They’re like us,” Aija said.
Skai stiffened and studied Tempus’ reaction, inwardly begging him to correct the assumption.
“I’m impressed,” he said instead, flooding her with sinking realization. He proceeded slowly, as though just learning to speak. “They are like you, born of Aiur.”
“Born?” Aija questioned. “You said you made us.”
“I made you,” Tempus conceded, “from them.”
Skai jerked upright. “What?”
Tempus flicked his hand toward the platform and the wisps reacted, piling in around his arm and continuing their mesmerizing loop. “They are your ancestors.”
Skai stared back at him as sweat prickled her skin and a sickening feeling bloomed in the pit of her gut. Aija looked just as horrified, her mouth slightly open, her eyebrows knit in confusion. “You said they were dead.”
“I said they stopped waking up,” Tempus corrected.
“What does that mean?” Aija demanded. “They’re waking up now, aren’t they?” She seemed to abandon all composure and paced around the room, her hands pinned to the sides of her head. “What’s wrong with them? Why are they like that? Why were they screaming?”
“Breathe,” Tempus reminded her.
“I am breathing,” Aija argued, eyes fierce.
Skai understood her irritation; the constant reminders to remain calm were worthless. Like Aija, she couldn’t forget the screams that cut through the cavern. When she visualized the thing crawling over the ground, its skin loose, its mouth agape, she saw something unfinished, something unusually fetal.
Tempus sighed and extended his arm, letting the wisps resume their motions. “They stopped waking up,” he began again.
Another turn of his wrist had the wisps collecting to form a sphere. It was a replica of the ones Skai had seen at the bottom of the abyss, mirroring the flickering form within and the fleshy cords that tethered it.
“I never discovered why. The youngest generation simply died before ever pushing out of their wombs and eventually—” The wisps jerked and spread, flying apart into a shapeless mess. “—all of them were gone.”
Skai stared across the dimmed platform, drawn to the faraway look in Aija’s eyes. It had always been difficult to imagine the length of Tempus’ time alone, what isolation must have driven him to.
“I don’t know why they’re waking up again,” he admitted, “but they aren’t the same. They aren’t like you—” He flicked his eyes between them. “—or me. They’re…basic, aggressive from the womb.”
Skai recalled the spheres coming to life at her and Aija’s intrusion. The thing had clawed its way free from its womb in an attempt to reach them; Skai wasn’t sure she’d ever forget the terrible look in its empty eyes, like something ravenous lived inside, like it might tear the flesh from its back and come at her as nothing more than a shadow from the void.
“They’ve never reacted this strongly before.”
Skai jerked to life when Tempus spoke again, having almost forgotten where she was.
“We had them in stasis,” he explained. He shook his head, his eyes as unfocused as Aija’s. “They broke it when you neared them. I don’t know how.”
Stasis. Skai backpedaled into the wall and ran a shaking hand through her hair.
“Wouldn’t that almost kill them?” Aija asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Tempus nodded. “It was the only way to keep—” He jolted upright and whirled to face the door, startling them both.
A numai stood in the archway, rigid and staring. Its eyes flicked once and its static hummed.
Tempus shoved away from the platform, bolted down the hall alongside the numai and shouted over his shoulder, “Go with them!”
Skai stared after him, as rigid as the numai had been. Them?
“What—” Aija jogged around the room’s center and peered down the hall. “What happened?”
Two more numai piled into the room to lead them out, their eyes a blinding white in the darkness. “Come,” one spoke. “You’ll be safe with us.”
Skai squinted past them as they collected her by the crook of her arm, her heart bursting out of control. She thought of Tempus and told herself to breathe, but it only served to terrify her more.
“Safe from what? The ancestors?” Aija yanked her own arm free. “You don’t need to grab!” She glanced back at Skai and offered her hand, her eyes bright and pleading.
Skai stared at her outstretched fingers, dizzied by the thud in her chest, the overpowering static, the cold sweat on the back of her neck. She recalled the swirling sands from her trance, the hand that had stretched out to her in a flurry of color and light—
Skai shook her head, accepted Aija’s hand and traipsed after her. She was blind to the numai that accompanied them, drawn only by the warmth of Aija’s hold, like there existed an otherworldly thread in the space between them, tethering them.
Skai hardly registered Aija’s shout, the clack of the numai’s steps, the tunnel that whirled open ahead of them as though a fabric. Her limbs felt numb and unreal.
“Where’re you taking us?” Aija asked.
The numai remained silent.
Skai swallowed back the lump in her throat as they ushered her and Aija along, her gaze trained on the radiant color that bloomed to life around Aija’s form. Aberration, Skai reminded herself. Aberration of the mind. She scrubbed at each of her eyes with her free hand, but the colors would not waver. It was as though they existed on some other plane, clear even through the backs of her eyelids.
Skai flashed her eyes back open and collided with Aija. Aija had jerked away from the numai and backed herself against the tunnel’s wall with a dangerous look in her eyes.
“Why won’t you say anything?”
“Please. You will be safe,” one repeated.
When she struggled further, the numai pushed her and Skai into the nearest doorway and slid the wall shut behind them.
“Hey!” Aija shouted through it.
Skai slipped free, staggered away and squeezed the back of her neck. Aberration, she repeated as she stared around, trying to blink away the hallucination. All in my head. She recognized the room’s layout: a circular enclosure, low ceiling, and an isolation dome that hovered above them, unused.
“This is fau’ji!” Aija slammed against the wall. “You can’t keep us in here!”
Skai sat at the room’s center, elbows on her knees, hands over her eyes. It took a moment for the pounding in her head to ebb, for the strange mix of color and light to fade from the backs of her eyelids.
Aija went on attacking the wall.
“They won’t let us out until you relax,” Skai said, her voice barely audible even to her own ears. She peeked at Aija, still light-headed from her episode.
Aija let out an agitated puff of air and turned from the door, her eyes softening upon meeting Skai’s. “How do you know? You been here before?”
Skai shook her head. “Somewhere like it.”
“They kept you locked up like this?” Aija crossed the room and settled herself at Skai’s side. “Why?”
Again, Skai shook her head. Detailing what the numai called her ‘aberration’ was the last thing she wanted to do; her mind was too busy slamming her with visuals of Aija’s trance-form, the floating spheres from the abyss, their screaming, Tempus’ focus, the flash of the numai’s too-bright eyes—
“Can’t—” Skai squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her knuckles to her head. “Can’t think with all this. Can’t.”
Aija fell silent.
Skai inhaled a deep breath, unintentionally filling up on Aija’s scent, and focused on the point between her eyes. It had been the only thing to ever work in the past: a technique, Tempus told her, passed down from their ancestors.
They’re gone now, Skai told herself. Nothing more than monsters now.
She opened her eyes. Aija had pushed onto one knee and leaned in, her hand hovering just over Skai’s jaw.
“You look really sick. Are you okay?”
“No,” Skai admitted faster than she gave herself time to think. Her eyes were still swollen, even painful from her incessant rubbing. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten real rest. “My ears are still ringing, I can’t get those things out of my head, I feel like—” She sucked in a shaking breath, both startled and relieved by the words that tumbled out of her mouth. “I feel like my skull is gonna burst, and—” She looked Aija up and down, convinced she’d crept even nearer. “And you keep looming over me.”
Aija squinted at Skai’s forehead as though studying it for signs of bursting. “I wouldn’t call this looming.”
“I would,” Skai argued, inwardly measuring the small gap between their knees.
A smile tugged at the corner of Aija’s mouth and her eyes, darker than usual, moved over Skai in a slow, unabashed way. “Does it make you uncomfortable?”
A tingle flew up Skai’s back. There was something more in Aija’s eyes, like remnants of swirling fire. It coaxed Skai nearer, threatening to engulf her. “Yes,” she stammered. “Uncomfortable.”
Aija raised an eyebrow. “Uncomfortable, or unusual?”
“Uncomfortable, unusual, un—” Skai blinked a few times, unable to fathom how Aija had leaned even further in. Skai stared at her lips and inhaled another breath to steady her heart, but it did nothing to help. “Un—un—”
“Unraveled—” Skai blurted out, realizing her mistake too late. Aija’s grin spread over her face, flooding Skai with more than embarrassment; she was feverish, shaking, her breaths erratic.
“I unravel you?” Aija asked, lowering her voice to a matured volume. Skai slid back on the rock in an attempt to distance herself, but Aija was quick to pursue. “I make you nervous, don’t I?”
Skai felt inclined to shout the obvious, but managed to clamp her mouth shut. She chewed at the inside of her lip, her eyes darting everywhere but Aija’s burning gaze: the curve of her exposed waist, her hand, braced at Skai’s side, the muscle that twitched at the inside of her arm.
“Just say it,” Aija whispered. Skai crushed her eyes shut at the tickle of Aija’s hair, at the warm breath that swept over her own hair and ear, signaling another shock to bolt up her spine. “Tell me I make you nervous.”
Skai’s eyes flew wide as the wall whirled back open. Another numai peeked in at them, hesitant, like it expected Aija to lunge at it. Aija looked like she might.
“Now you come back?” she half-laughed, shoving to her feet. Skai scrambled into a more acceptable position. “You gonna let us out?”
The numai shrugged, still refraining from entering the room. “Perhaps.”
“Perhaps?” Aija threw her hands up. “Perhaps? You’re just gonna leave us here? Are you gonna stand there staring, or are you gonna feed us or what?” She settled her hands on her hips as the numai’s eyes moved between them, accompanied by small flashes and clicks.
“I believe you’ve mistaken me for someone else,” it said.
Skai squinted back at it, intrigued by the shrug of its shoulders, the natural way it held itself. She’d never seen another numai paint itself the way Tempus did; this one’s face had been decorated with long strips of black and white and, Skai realized when it spoke again, its lips moved.
“Tempus requested I apologize on his behalf,” the numai said. “He meant to enlighten you on the origin of your kind long ago.” It tilted its head as though gauging their reactions. When neither of them said anything, it stepped into the room, unveiling its towering height and the fabric dressing its legs. A floor-length braid of translucent hair swayed back and forth with each of its steps.
Skai pushed to her feet. “Who are you?”
Its eyes snapped onto her with another click and flash. “Sep,” it answered, sounding almost amused. “Your actions suggest intrigue. Thank you.”
Skai stared back at it. “Why are you thanking me?”
“For requesting my name—” It clicked its head in Aija’s direction. “—instead of snacks.”
Aija cleared her throat and kicked at the floor. “Sorry.”
“I accept your half-hearted apology.” It turned from them, braid swinging, and gestured toward the door. “And I will be showing you to your new home, so long as you refrain from kicking and screaming.”
“New home?” Aija let out an exasperated sigh.
“Yes, one that is safe from your…” It glanced back at Skai, gave her a quick once over and led them into the hall. “…progenitors. Please, follow me.”