The hard dirt ground had jagged pieces of twisted metal and broken glass jutting from it, giving the land the appearance of having teeth and attempting to eat them. Decrepit, abandoned houses were falling apart around them, splintered wood sticking out from the broken roofs and walls, but the runners could hardly see them. The black sky above was devoid of a light source save for the stars.
“We have to go back!”
Yutrin mindlessly tightened his grip and kept running, zipping through the earth’s teeth, praying desperately the whole way, sparing breath only to murmur frantically to his god.
“WE HAVE TO GO BACK!”
They tumbled into one of the more intact houses. Yutrin let Mijung go, slamming the door shut behind them and going still, trying to catch his breath.
“YOU COWARDLY BASTARD!”
Mijung turned and punched him squarely in the jaw.
Yutrin tried to recoil, but he was caught between her and the door.
“THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”
The woman punched his face again before beating his chest with her fists. Yutrin flinched, pressing his back up against the door, and his heart beat increased. He tried to remind himself that Mijung wouldn’t kill him. He wasn’t so convinced, though.
His arms stayed loose at his sides.
“HE’S DEAD! HE’S DEAD BECAUSE OF YOU!”
She slammed her fist against his jaw again before shoving him up against the door, turning away sharply with a furious shout and sitting down on a bed that was in the middle of the room, bending over and letting out a frustrated growl. “All because you’re a damn dishonorable coward… Kraagor, my husband's friend and comrade, is dead because you’re a dishonorable coward…”
Yutrin took a moment to catch his breath, rubbing the blood from his mouth slowly, wincing when his hand came against a growing bruise on his jaw. His throat was raw. Kraagor wasn’t with them.
Kraagor was probably killed.
Yutrin had run away and left him.
The goblin swallowed hard, looking down and shaking gently with exhaustion. Blood was pooling from his feet, and Mijung had left bloody footprints on the floor. They must have shredded themselves on the glass and metal outside without realizing it.
He went down on his knees, keeping his throbbing feet from touching the ground with a wince, and silently crawled to Mijung, timidly taking one of the feet hanging off the edge of bed in hand and delicately picking out jagged pieces of metal and glass. She winced, hissing in pain and fury, and swiped at his burnt ear.
He flinched away with flares of pain shooting through his ear and face, trying to keep his whimpers down his throat, and he lightly fingered his holy symbol before crawling back and pulling the pieces out of the woman’s foot gently. This time, Mijung didn’t strike him.
Blood stained his hands, and he wasn’t sure how much of it was Mijung’s. He ran the pad of his finger along her foot, feeling for any other foreign objects. When he was satisfied that there were none left, he swept up the sharp things in his palm, wincing when some of it cut his skin, and put them in the corner were they were unlikely to step until he could dispose of it all properly.
He made a furtive glance around the room, looking for any source of clean water or bandages in vain before biting his sleeve, using his sharp teeth to make a tear before ripping three strips from it. He used the first to clean the silent woman’s cuts as best he could, praying silently to the Dark One that none of them would be infected, before he wrapped them gently in the last two strips.
He scanned Mijung for any other wounds, avoiding looking at her face, and with a wince he saw that he had gripped her arm while running so hard that his claws had torn through her flesh.
He tentatively held her wrist, half expecting her to hit him again, and tore another strip from his sleeve, cleaning and wrapping the gouges in her arm. The fire crackled gently in the background as Yutrin finished with the claw marks, flinching away immediately, trying to avoid any other slaps and starting to pull out glass and metal lodged in his own feet.
They hadn’t put on a fire.
Mijung seemed to realize this at the same time as Yutrin as they both looked to the lit hearth in panic. Had they been followed?
The non-human woman who had healed them poked the fire gently. “It gets cold at night. You will need fire. Your hearths will burn any time you are home, so long as hope still lives.”
She looked up and smiled mildly, but her face was sunken and ashen. It looked as though illness had taken her by a storm.
Mijung stood up immediately, inflamed. “What the hell is going on?! Where are we?! Who are you?! What happened to Kraagor?! I’m sick and tired of being dragged around like a puppet without any answers!”
The non-human woman leaned tiredly against the wall, the inner radiance that made her glow diminished. “So many questions. In this world, there are few answers.”
“Then answer them!”
The non-human looked up at Mijung, ember eyes glowing softly, before she smiled sadly. “You will have a visitor tonight. Do not offend her—she has been quicker to curse mortals as of late.” She looked back at the hearth. “I am called many things, but the gods call me Hestia.”
“What’s with this talk of gods?” Mijung frowned, bristling. “Everyone has said something or other about it!”
“Because that is what we are, daughter.”
The non-human looked up at the wall, closing her eyes. “I do not think that you have ever heard of us. We worked with the original gods on the first world, this world. But we are more powerful than they. They were angry. We were betrayed.”
She opened her eyes again, looking to Mijung. “I do not ask that you believe me. I ask that you listen.”
A thin silver chain around Mijung’s neck that hadn’t been there before gleamed in the light. She seemed to become aware of it only at that moment. She quickly looked down, pulling a small amulet from inside her shirt and staring at it. It was a crossroads symbol carved into a piece of obsidian.
Yutrin frowned suspiciously at the amulet, but said nothing.
“Daughter, you are three weeks pregnant by your husband, Soon Kim.”
Mijung looked back up at the non-human, pupils retracting to tiny pinpoints and teeth clenching. Yutrin let out a surprised sound from his throat, but quickly shut up again.
“I haven’t been with Soon in months!” Mijung shook her head sharply. “That’s impossible.”
“No, it is not.” The non-human straightened up, walking to the window and gesturing out at the stars. “In this world, Cronos, the lord of time, and Hades, the lord of the dead, are asleep. Time and death no longer have significance, meaning, or existence for as long as they rest. You were pregnant when you came here, and so you remain.”
“That makes no sense!”
The non-human woman looked back at Mijung. “You do not have to believe me now. If you keep the amulet on, then you shall see the truth for yourself. It will allow your pregnancy to continue through its stages at a normal rate. It will allow you and the unborn to age. If you give birth to one child, give it the amulet until it has become a young adult, in which case, take it away and wait until another person must age. If you give birth to two, snap the amulet in half and give them both a piece.”
“Artemis and Apollo hunt you for your unborn. You are under my and Hecate’s protection for as long as you stay here in the wilderness, but you will soon need to leave it.”
“This makes no sense! Start making sense! Who are Artemis and Apollo?! The people who we just ran from? Who’s Hecate?! Where are we?! Are you all insane or are you trying to drive me crazy?!”
“It will make sense soon enough.”
The hearth flared and she was gone.
Mijung scowled darkly at the wall, obviously barely tolerating it as Yutrin carefully felt her stomach. The goblin tried to ignore the fear and awkwardness running through his veins and he concentrated on whether or not he could find any swelling.
He swallowed hard when his hands found a definite firmness in the right area.
“I think she’s right, Mijung,” Yutrin said softly, pulling his hands away. “Have you had your period since you came here?”
The woman’s face went red, but luckily, she recognized the medical relevancy of the question. “No. I wasn’t paying attention to that, and I didn’t realize that I had been missing them.”
Yutrin resisted the urge to swallow again. “I can’t tell for sure without a spell, but if you keep that thing on and you still don’t have a period, then she was telling the truth.”
Mijung’s glare intensified. “She wasn’t telling the truth. None of this makes sense. I can’t be pregnant, and if I am, Soon can’t be the father. I haven’t been with him for months and I haven’t slept with anyone since we parted.”
“It’s true that none of this makes sense, but if it hasn’t made sense up until now, then it’s possible that time doesn’t flow right here.”
Mijung made a jerking motion with her hand and Yutrin flinched back, expecting a slap, but the woman didn’t strike him. Her glare bore a hole through his face, however. She hadn’t forgotten about Kraagor.
He hadn’t either.
“I…” Yutrin looked away, rubbing the back of his head. “We’ll need to find someplace to get food and water. It looks like… Hestia?… handled our fire needs. I’ll go try to find anything else.”
Mijung glared at him before looking away. He could see what she was thinking just as clearly as if she had said it.
She hoped he would die out there.
Yutrin looked away, his ears drooping, and pulled off his shirt, ripping it in two and wrapping his still-bloody feet to protect them from any more sharp objects.
“I’ll try to come back with food and water as fast as I can.”
He was gone without her saying anything.
Yutrin thought he had known true fear when he had been hunted down by humans and elves alike, all out to murder him. He thought that he had known true fear when he stayed awake at night while all his brothers and sisters slept, trying to imagine which one of them would survive to adulthood and which would be slaughtered while they were still children.
But he hadn’t known fear.
This was fear.
There was absolutely nothing around him. Just the stars in the sky and the barren ground below, and the few ghosts of lifeless houses.
This was truly aloneness. This was the graveyard of hope. This would be the death of his sanity if he didn’t have Mijung to go back to.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been hiking. He hadn’t had to stop to eat, drink, sleep, or indulge in any other need since he had started, so he supposed that he couldn’t have been gone long.
He shivered from the cold, wandering through the broken houses, reluctant to touch the wide-open barren landscape beyond the remains of the town. If a town was there, that meant that there at least used to be food and water. No one settled somewhere where people couldn’t live.
The silence was unnatural. Towns should be bustling with life, but this… it was dead. He wanted to run to Mijung and hide behind her, but somehow, he figured that that wouldn’t be taken well.
Besides, if she was pregnant, he would need to be the one to go out into this silence and find a way to provide for her. The baby wasn’t his, so he didn’t feel that goblin instinct to protect her, but he still refused to consider letting a pregnant woman, no matter the species, go out in a broken glass-filled environment to find her own food.
That didn’t make him any less uneasy.
There was the soft rustling of wind through feathers. Yutrin looked up sharply, tensing, ready to zip into the shadows.
“You don’t have to be so nervous.”
Yutrin jumped with a yelp and started to run, slipping and falling on the ground. He shouted in pain, metal and glass digging deep in his flesh, and he scrambled to stand up.
A cold pair of hands cupped his face gently and he felt himself freeze.
“Don’t be afraid.”
Icy breath blew gently against his forehead, burying itself in his bones and making him tremble.
“We only want to see you for a moment.”
Another pair of hands touched his head, their skin cooling his burns.
“So sleep. And dream.”
There wasn’t any use fighting it. Whatever these were, they were stronger than he was. And he didn’t have the will to fight anymore.
Warmth ran through his tired veins and Yutrin slowly fell asleep.