1.

Southeast of the noise, clutter and clash of K’Ton, the dense redwood forest muted even the loudest of thoughts. Spots of sunlight lit up parts of trees, looking like ripe tangerines ready to pick and eat. But with a blink and step forward, was gone.

For three days, the newer members ached for the light tangerines every morning. However, today, the fourth day, there were no tangerines. Weatherproof boots trudged through inches of mud but their souls still felt soaked. The rain came from nowhere, the group woken up by a tremendous loud roar of thunder followed by a flash of light so bright, the shadows that whispered to the group in their sleep saw their own shadows for once. The inky black shadows dripped their last whisper into the ears of the sleeping before slinking behind the trees as the group shot up and stared at each other in the blinding light.

They had been walking since then, since the wee hours of the morning, the mud a somewhat welcomed yet annoying distraction from the hunger they faced. As they continued on to their destination, the grey sky kept getting darker and darker that by the time high noon rolled around, it felt like midnight once more. By high noon, the winds had picked up to nearly hurtful speeds, sending broken sticks and rogue debris flying into their arms and legs. By high noon, the rain came down in nearly solid sheets of sleet and hail, their cloaks starting to soak through to their second layer of clothing.

WE ARE CLOSE,” a voice boomed from the front of the line.

Another five miles through the woods had passed. Another five miles through calf-high patches of mud. Another five miles of walls of frozen water falling from the sky.

A beacon of hope flashed between the trees in front of them. They tried to sprint but the mud held them back. So close, they could feel the warmth of a dimly light torch that teased them on. Delirious with hunger and nearly freezing to death, they could nearly touch it, nearly eat it, it was so close. The person in front made it to the torch, greeted by an elder standing under a natural awning at the mouth of a dark cave, whose only greeting was a smile and bow as they stood aside, letting the group of fifteen walk past them.

They stood there in the dim light, shaking and covered in mud, their hair matted against the taut, hungry skin of their faces and foreheads. They watched the elder, who just stood there as they all piled into the cave before turning back to face the outside. The leader cleared their throat, nodded and continued on deeper into the cave, the light from the elder getting smaller and smaller, just like the walls of the cave. One of the followers started to panic, wheezing and whining as the walls started to close in. The follower in front and behind them speed up and lagged behind as to give them more space, which eased some panic.

A smell. A smell that caused saliva to form in their dry mouths. Some could picture what lay cooked on a pit; some sort of meat, seared with its own juices, with crispy skin so crunchy it shook the earth’s core. A heavy ale that frothed over mugs and spiced with lemons, honey and cinnamon. Fresh fruit as bright and colorful as the first month of spring, juice so tart it could bring a smile to a crone’s face.

How wrong they were when the rock hallway turned into a rock sanctuary. Two people moved around this large area, one adding ingredients to a big pot over a roaring fire, the other putting wool blankets over makeshift beds. They looked at the group walking in and swarmed them, pulling off their cloaks and clothes with ease, as if they weren’t soaked through. As one took their clothes, the other handed them dry, warm clothes before ushering past a long, crooked table, past many beds and in front of a steaming pool of water.

The cold aches of the groups bodies melted away as soon as they stepped in the water. They stayed quiet for a while, ignoring their hunger once more as they started to nod off. The soft splash of someone starting the process to clean themselves got the rest of them following suit. After drying off, they wandered back to the middle of the cave, sitting at the table, watching steam come up off the bowls of stew in front of them. They ate quietly, trying to fend off sleep as they did so. When the bowls were damn near spotless, they were ushered to bed, where slept greeted them with open arms.

The call of the cock was replaced by one of the fifteen screaming at the top of the lungs. Yesterday, they were fine, today, their stomach had swollen as if they were just moments away from giving birth. The group started moving furniture around, circling the pregnant person as they started to chant.

The screaming started to be overtaken by the chanting, the loud and booming voices causing the pregnant person distress. With a whimper, the pregnant person passed on as their stomach started to wiggle and stretch beyond normal. The shadows that had slipped drops of evil into the pregnant one started to collect in the middle of the air, hovering above the rapidly decaying body. A hand made up of darkness and stars reached through the spinning shadow, a fingernail sharper than glass touched the still squirming stomach of the dead body, black blood oozing from the brown and green skin. As the skin pulled away from itself, another swirl of energy entered the cave. The chanting stopped as the swirls of energy opened up, a figure made up of red and orange light stepping through.

NATH Y’RAL RO GATHO!

Smoke filled the cave immediately, causing the chanters to pass out. The hand reaching out from the shadows retreated before several arms pushed through.

You will not take my prize!” Echoed throughout the cave.

The red and orange figure rushed toward the crying infant that laid in the guts of its former host. The figure snatched it up, replacing it with a nearly identical infant before sprinting back to their portal and diving in.

One of the many hands had managed to get through but was sliced off as the portal closed.

The red and orange figure reach up and touched their temple, shutting off the lights that adorned their body.

“Here you are, your majesty. An infant bred to eat worlds,” they said, holding the baby upside down by an ankle.

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