While she slept, the Rot Thing had stolen her warmstone.
Her warmstone sustained her, let her live in the everglow of the forest. Her palms went slick and her breath came short and shallow. She should flee. Run as far and fast as skylight arcing over a cloud. She should, but she would not. She hated the Rot Thing. It had brought unwelcome change to the Continuance.
She could not allow it. She would reclaim her warmstone.
Pwela found Loper resting in a glade of white heather and woke him with a whistle.
“What is it?” he said, jaws cracking with his yawn. The bogcat stretched his long black body, first his back legs, then his front. Extended claws raked the heather, upturning black loam, and a long tail swished high in the air.
“The Rot Thing stole my warmstone.”
“You smell it, too. Tar and peat.” She scratched behind one of his long, feathered ears in the way he liked. She laid her head against his neck, his ghost-striped fur smooth against her bare scalp. “Will you take me after it?”
“Only since it’s you asking,” he said.
Such a softie. She climbed onto his back, settling between bony spines.
Loper carried her through the Forest of Always Dawn. The orange of the low-roosting sun lit the leaves in its unending glow, dappling the forest floor. Loper darted into the underbrush, then leapt out onto a fir. Long claws sank into its mossy trunk as he bounded off, clearing a sinkhole full of vine snarls. Pwela held fast to the mane of black hair around his neck, her skin blending against his fur. The harmony of their colors was music.
She laughed as they soared, eyes leaking.
Another leap took them into the heart of a familiar glen. But where baby’s breath once flourished white and pink, stains now colored flowers with yellow and brown. Wilting from the Rot Thing’s passing.
“What is it?” she asked. But she knew.
Loper bent to chew the grass, then spat with a hacking cough. He growled, a rumbly sound from deep within his chest. “Wrongness stains our forest, Pwela.”
She sat tall on Loper’s back. “The Rot Thing carries stain and wilt and canker. We must drive it out.”
“Do you know the Rot Thing?” her friend asked, voice a near-whisper.
She had never met it, but found she did know. “I have long dreamt of it.” A shiver shook her small frame.
“As have I,” Loper said.
Together, they followed a trail of wrongness in pursuit of the Rot Thing. The thick underbrush and wide trees of the Forest of Always Dawn thinned and lapsed away. Lessening was the way of borders, but swathes of ugly wrongness marred the gentle margins. It hurt her chest to see beauty so wronged.
And so they crossed into the Desert of Only Day. The sun shone savage above, its radiance afire atop the sands.
“The Rot Thing walks the desert,” said Loper. “I smell its wrongness, tar and peat.” He climbed a dune slowly, paws sinking.
“Shall I walk?”
“The sand is fire, Pwela. Your softness would not long last it.” The heat already lashed against her scalp. Oddly, though, a chill remained in her belly.
“You are kind to worry.” She let one hand free of his mane to scratch at a long, feathered ear. “But if you tire, my softness will manage.” Bogcats were not of the desert. They came from the deep Moor of Forever Night, where they hunted through chill and gloom. Loper had only come to live in the Forest of Always Dawn to be with her, though he grew to love it.
Loper plodded on, persisting against his disharmony with the desert. If he could endure such extremes, she too could reach the gateway, where surely the Rot Thing headed. Its path was no mystery to her, she realized, and that unsettled her stomach. Perhaps she would even discover what lay beyond the gate. Thoughts of what lay beyond filled her with anxiety, a shrill thing. It made her all out of tune.
An immense dune rose above the rolling sands, so tall it brushed the sun. Its sands quivered and roiled.
“What is it?” she said, gasping.
Loper paused. His back hair bristled against her skin. “Come out,” he yelled. The bogcat stepped closer to the dune, growling. His ropy muscles coiled beneath her thighs. “You who lurk beneath the sands, come topside.”
The dune rippled, and two long eyestalks burst skyward. Each eyestalk reached higher than Pwela would if she stood on Loper’s back. Black orbs swelled at their ends.
A voice like an avalanche shook beneath them. “How dare you tread upon our sands, bogcat? And with that wretched manthing clinging to your fur?”
“I tread where I wish, prawn,” said proud Loper.
The eyestalks rose higher and an immense horned shell clove the sands. Chitinous legs tipped with forked pincers lifted a carapace half out. Thick antennae whipped the sands, sending Loper back on his haunches. Fetid winds eddied around the creature.
Pwela stifled a gasp.
“We are not prawn.” The voice fell over them.
The dune devil was the largest she’d ever seen, perhaps the largest in all the Continuance.
“I am this bogcat’s friend, Old One,” Pwela said. “Forgive him, please. He can be thorny for a feline.”
“Why does the manthing make words at us?”
Loper growled, prowling the sands.
“I am Pwela. I would be your friend as well.”
The dune devil’s antennae ceased their lashing.
Pwela unslung herself from Loper’s back. Her breath hissed at the burning of the desert. The softness of her feet indeed hated the fiery sand. She trudged toward the dune devil, palms raised. “We only seek to cross your dunes and enter the meadow. We chase the Rot Thing.”
“Rot Thing?” the old devil demanded. “You are with the Rot Thing?” An enormous claw rose from the sands around Pwela and clamped over her chest. The dune devil drove out her wind. She gasped, fighting for air.
Loper snarled. “Release her, you crusty shrimp.”
The dune devil lifted her toward its maw. Hot, dry breath reeking of spoiled fish blasted her from the furnace of the devil’s gullet. Arm-like mandibles grasped for her.
“We are not with the Rot Thing,” she screamed. “Enemies, enemies!”
The dune devil stopped just shy of biting into her. “We hate the Rot Thing,” it said, voice all clacks and clicking. “Look what it did to us.” The dune devil rolled onto one side and moved her toward its underbelly. Black stains of ichor marred its orange carapace. The pools spread inky tendrils, even as she watched.
“It’s horrible,” she said, eyes welling. Dull ache filled her own belly, chilled from within.
The dune devil released her. Before the sands burned her softness, Loper was at her side, head dipped so she could clamber on to his back.
“How do we beat the Rot Thing, old one?” she asked. “How can I save you from its wrongness and destroy it?”
“You cannot,” said the dune devil. It quivered, slowly descending back into the sands. “The Rot Thing has always been, though it shifts form.”
“I must try,” she said, lip thrust out. “I will reclaim my warmstone and not allow wrongness to desolate my Continuance.”
“The Continuance is not yours, manthing,” said the dune devil. Soon, only its eyestalks remained above the sands. “It is not for belonging. Shared by all and none.”
“Once I cast out the Rot Thing, will you heal?” she asked.
“Look to yourself,” the dune devil said. Its eyestalks dipped beneath the sands, which stilled as if nothing had ever lurked beneath its shifting layers.
“We must go, Pwela,” said Loper. “Even I cannot long withstand the fire.” And go they did, across the Desert of Only Day’s long reaches, until tufts of sawgrass dotted sand that lapsed into soil. The sun dipped in the crossing, turned purple.
They entered the gentle meadow of the Everdusk.
Though Pwela was most comfortable in the Forest of Always Dawn, she adored the Everdusk. She and Loper had come once before, played on beds of lilac, rolled together beneath the tranquil light. The autumn wind blew songs of sleepiness and slow. The meadow was a place for resting.
But wrongness had come to the Everdusk, too. The lilac sea had wilted, petal clusters browned and decayed. A sign of the Rot Thing’s passing.
The path wound down into the moor and out of sight. Her feet tried to follow, but she forced them to halt. She felt the end in her belly, and rested her palm over the chill. The path led, eventually, to the gate.
“What ails you?” Loper asked.
“A chill,” Pwela said, peering at her stomach. She gasped. Wrongness marred her as well, spread from her belly in tendrils of sick.
Loper could not see her belly, since she still rode astride his back. “What is it?” he asked.
“I need my warmstone,” she said. “The chill runs deep now, and I cannot shake it.” She would spare him the truth.
“We should turn back,” said Loper. His black paws sank into the wilted sea. “Please, Pwela. No joy or beauty lies ahead.”
“I must face it,” she whispered. “It has my warmstone, and without it I cannot stay here. You can go back. Return to the Forest of Always Dawn and run among the elm and fir.”
“No.” Loper flattened his long ears. “I shall carry you all the way.”
She scratched those ears while they walked the lilac sea, which shimmered with light and wind, but soon, far too soon, the meadow, too, began to lapse. The purple glow darkened, deepened, until only black remained. A crescent moon hung alone in the sky at the edge of the Moor of Forever Night, shining pale like milk, white like bone. The dying lilacs turned to weeds and snarls and damp.
She had never been so far.
The blackness of Forever Night had haunted her dreams as long as she could remember, beckoning her. It had been the Rot Thing all along, she realized, summoning her to the gate.
Loper sloshed through puddles as dark as his fur, between the shadows of cypress trees like grasping ghouls. The moor was his home, she reminded herself. Bogcats lived in harmony with the darkness at the heart of the Continuance, prowled the paths surrounding the gateway. Loper would protect her.
The swamp stank of tar and peat. Loper raised his head to sniff the air, then bounded forward through the gloom. Eyes glinted back through shadow, reflecting moonlight. Loper did not slow, for his eyes glinted too, and the unseen things did not assail them.
They emerged, at last, onto the bank of a still lake lit only by the crescent moon which dipped low over the water, as if reaching for its own reflection. At the middle of the lake rose an island of pale sand. At its center lay the freestanding gateway, plain and brown, locked and bolted.
As it should be.
But beside it stood a figure dark beyond mere black. It stung her eyes like an inverse sun. The Rot Thing. On the island, the Rot Thing extended white hands holding a shape red and luminous, light stark against its depth of black.
The Rot Thing lifted the red rock high and brought it down upon the gateway with a crack that thundered over the still lake, raising low ripples. The gate shook and shuddered.
Loper whimpered. “Turn back, Pwela. I cannot swim.”
She climbed off his back. “I know. But you have carried me far. And I can swim. Stay here, my friend. I will face it alone. Someone must.” Her heart told her so. “Let it be me.”
“I… understand.” Loper said, dipping his wide head. “Our moments in the forest live eternal, though we’ve passed them by. I am with you, whether you sense me or not. And if you return, I will find you again on the shore.”
Pwela hugged his neck, eyes leaking, then dove into the still waters, breaking them, casting waves across the lake. Cold beyond ice bit her everywhere, though not as cold as the wrongness in her belly, but soon the pain of the chill lapsed too. She swam, arm over arm, legs pumping. She laughed as she sped toward the island, laughed despite it all. The song of the water played in her heart, filling her. When she reached the island, she climbed out, cold and dripping, but full of harmony.
“Let the gateway be,” she commanded. “It must remain shut.”
The Rot Thing stood with its back to her, hood drawn, looming over the gateway, its huge umbral mass shifting and fluid. It smashed the warmstone against the gateway again with a thunder that forced Pwela to cover her ears. Her red rock broke. The gateway’s frame cracked, and the Rot Thing turned, then dropped the shining shards of her warmstone to the pale sand. It returned its long hands to its sides.
“No!” she cried. She dropped to her knees and cupped the fragments. Their light faded and was gone.
She dropped the broken bits and glared at the Rot Thing. Her eyes stung from gazing upon shadow so deep, but they soon adjusted too, even to blinding oblivion. She did not look away.
“You do not belong,” she said. “Leave this place and never return.”
“None belong. All belong,” it said, throwing back its hood. “Look within and know you brought me here.” The Rot Thing’s voice came as a hollow echo of her own, rebounding from an endless cavern. The head of the Rot Thing was her own bald head, but distorted and immense. Chill radiated from it, sapping her strength. She wanted to scream, to run as far and fast as skylight. She should flee, but she did not.
“You cannot trick me, bastard,” she said, rising from the sand. “I did not bring you. You are not welcome here. Leave this place!” She set her feet wide and lifted her fists.
“There is only one way.” It laid a thin hand against the gateway. “Join me.” The Rot Thing’s immense face was like her own, but wrongness filled empty eyes above lips blue and frigid.
The gateway opened, and nothing lay beyond. An abyss with no color at all.
She should have never come. The Forest of Always Dawn waited still. Stained though it was, at least it held warmth and sun.
A place for beginnings, not ends.
But no, the wrongness had spread through the heather, through the fir and lilac. To herself.
The Rot Thing held out its hand to her, fingers like white worms.
She searched the far bank for Loper, but the bogcat had gone. It did not anger her. Such things were not easy to witness.
The Rot Thing waited, hand extended.
“I will not go with you,” she said, but did not shrink away from the awful hand.
“You will,” it said, voice still a hollow echo of her own. “I will not tell you to be unafraid. I will not barter or beg. But you will come.”
She stared at the nothing beyond the gate. “What is it? Is there something farther in I cannot see?”
The Rot Thing stood silent, spindle fingers swaying before her. The only way to know was to step through.
She thought of the wilted heather, the browning lilac, the wheezing old dune devil. Loper, so worried for her softness, who had carried her over fire.
“Will you leave the Continuance if I go with you?” she said.
It paused, silent for a time before responding. “I came for you.”
Then it was right. “I’m sorry, Loper,” she whispered.
She took its hand. Her tiny fingers stuck to the Rot Thing’s pallid skin as if it were tar. Near translucent skin. She gasped as black eels wriggled beneath the thin membrane of its being. They coiled beneath her hand, drawn to her warmth.
The crescent moon rent and tumbled from the black. The still lake spilled skyward, rising in a geyser around her.
With one long hand, the Rot Thing pushed through the absence of the gateway and pulled her through with the other, away from the Continuance. She could not stay, only go. And go, she did. Through and beyond into nowhere.