Element of the Abstract: Chapter Twelve
It was hardly midday, and there was no sun to speak of in the sky. Dark gray clouds drizzled down onto the travelers as they sloughed along. Leafless trees scratched against the pale colorless sky, assuring that none of them would be able to shake the deep pang of sadness that was hanging in their hearts. Even Urta was keeping his distance and acting aloof. The rain was not helping anything, but it was Mistlorn Valley–– that’s simply how it was.
“We’re coming up on the Fugoluna River,” Urta announced after hours of silent, dismal marching. Indeed, the faint rushing sounds of an active river in the rain could now be heard over the rain. The motley crew meandered along until they reached the river bank. Mount Astella, to the west, was closer than it had been thus far in their journey. It would have been possible to get to Solelio faster by scaling the mountain itself, but Urta and the Selds were not up to the undertaking, so were going around the northern side. Astella was the tallest peak in the small range, so tall in fact that Lunora’s cool, rainy microclimate was formed in its southeastern shadow, where it stayed almost year-long.
The Fugoluna river was rushing rather quickly, sweeping away wood and other debris that was being knocked from trees and the shore by the heavy winds. Over the river at this particular junction was an ancient wooden bridge, one that hardly seemed to be holding onto any structural integrity. Sebastian wandered up to the bridge and examined it, crouching down and allowing a few tiny bugs to crawl onto his hand.
“Termites,” he said. “This bridge is going down sooner rather than later.”
“Let us hope that day is not today,” Urta said, pointing across the bridge at the dirt path that began on the other side. “We need to get over there.”
“Have you done this before?” Adelaide asked, narrowing her eyes and crossing her arms. “Do you know it’s safe?”
“Just because I’ve done it before doesn’t mean I know it’s safe. Your brother’s right–– it won’t withstand the damage the termites are doing forever. It held last time I crossed it. Let’s hope it lasts today.”
Sebastian shrugged and walked out onto it, mumbling something to the termites, who stopped their nibbling. He gestured with his left hand for the others to follow him, so with a shrug, Adelaide did, stepping onto the bridge behind him and making her way across. As usual, Sebastian was the first to make a decision and the last to care to think about it. Luckily, it did seem that the bridge would hold, even if they crossed all at once.
“I wonder who built this bridge,” Adelaide mused as she walked. “It seems extremely old.”
“I believe it was the early Lunoran settlers,” Urta said, shrugging, “but I could be wrong.”
There was an odd, throaty noise from across the bridge. Everyone stopped, Osryn instinctively putting his hand out in front of Adelaide, who pushed it away. On either side of the road ahead, creatures seven feet tall and just as long were emerging from the forest. Insectera were commonplace by now, but there was something about these monsters that struck fear into Osryn’s heart. No, these were not giant beetles or bird-sized moths, but slinking, lumbering masses of unrecognizable exoskeleton and viscera. Some had compound eyes, others human eyes. Some had wings, others pincers. Many of them had one or numerous human limbs. Easily, the most trending characteristic that tied them all together was their odd patchwork exoskeletons, which varied in shade anywhere between a pale white and a chestnut brown.
Sebastian, who had been leading the party, was frozen in place, not by fear, but by absolute awe at what he saw before him. It was unthinkable that any creatures such as the ones in front of him could even exist, could even physically function, yet here they stood, crawled, or fluttered towards him slowly. It was magical. It was amazing. It was abstract.
It was terrifying.
The enemy had not yet made any moves to advance on the party, and Osryn could count about a dozen when he managed to pull his mind back to reality. It didn’t matter that these creatures were abominations known neither to science nor magic–– they were likely going to attack him and his children any minute now. One of them, apparently heading the group, with particularly wide and humanlike eyes, opened its bug mouth, which to Osryn’s horror was full of human teeth, and muttered what sounded like a word.
Everyone turned towards him, but before it could be explored further, a few of the creatures from across the bridge lurched forward, some waiting on the shore. It seemed that, whatever these things were, they were smart enough to coordinate battle strategy, and even, in some capacity, speak. The first two came after Sebastian, who whacked one away with his wand, which he held like a baseball bat, and struck the other through with a lightning bolt when he released his left hand. The one he’d knocked in the head went tumbling over to Adelaide, where it emitted a horrifying screech at her heels. She jumped, missing the staff attack she’d been aiming at another foe, but managing to pull the staff back into her hands and piercing the grounded bug through the abdomen.
Osryn, thankfully, was being assisted by Urta, whose gun was loaded and ready in his right hand, with a dagger in his left. Plasma balls and bullets flew towards the creatures on the shore, who it seemed were not prepared for a long-range attack. Several of them scattered into the woods, but a couple were felled, oozing hemolymph onto the dark silicate shore.
Adelaide’s accuracy and power with her attacks was greatly increased due to the rain, as every particle of water in the sky gave her more control over what she was doing. She locked eyes with Sebastian from across the bridge and nodded, casting her staff to the left, which barreled into an enemy and sent it tumbling towards her brother, who bashed it in the skull with his obsidian wand and kicked it over the side into the river. Sebastian laughed raucously, pushing his hair out of his face with bloodied hands and readying himself for the next one. Said creature body-slammed him between its horns, but he was hardly fazed, wriggling his way out and getting up quickly to strike it down with a bolt. The creatures that had retreated on the shore were emerging now, and Urta and Osryn were only able to take down one more before they made their way to close proximity, where Adelaide took down two at once, one with her staff and the other with her bare hands. Her expression was more serious and focused than Sebastian’s, but a slight smirk hinted that she was proud of how strong and self-sufficient she had become.
Urta was fighting some behemoth that could be approximated as a grasshopper’s love child with a half-human worm. His expression while he fought was stern but casual, as though he were experienced with fighting and unfazed by the monstrosity of the creature he grappled with currently. Osryn narrowed his eyes, still suspicious of the fact that the creature’s leader seemed to have said his name. He couldn’t hear over the sounds of the battle, but he saw Urta’s lips move, then the creature’s small insect mouth opened. Were they communicating? From behind Urta, a dozen-legged creature scuttled towards him, aimed to attack.
“Urta, look out!” Osryn gasped, and Urta whirled around, but it was too late. The creature slammed into him with its pincers and grazed the side of Urta’s rib, knocking him off the bridge and taking a chunk of disintegrated wood with him. Infuriated, Osryn launched white hot plasma through both creatures’ neck joints, severing their heads and knocking them to the ground.
Having finished them, he leapt down into the water, where he was immediately shocked by the ice cold temperatures. He’d forgotten, in the heat of the moment, that it was mid-November. His teeth chattered and his bones felt as though they might freeze, but his frozen synapses still fired, and he saw Urta’s head bobbing in the water. Then, the head of one of the monster’s in the same spot. Osryn blinked. Had one of the heads he’d lopped off fallen into the water? Urta surfaced again and Osryn was making his way closer and closer. Then, the creature. Osryn swore reality and his recent memories were confused by the cold. He grabbed Urta and dragged him to the shore. It was a miracle either of them had survived.
Urta choked and sputtered for a moment, clutching at the left side of his chest. “That... was the dumbest thing… I have ever seen.”
“Well, I wasn’t just going to let you die!”
“You… could have died too…” Urta mumbled, head lolling to the side, but Osryn propped it up.
“Yeah, but, I didn’t…” Osryn coughed and shuddered as he unzipped Urta’s backpack, which he was still leaning on. “Where’s the first aid kit?”
“Take that, scumbags!” Sebastian was yelling now, having knocked a live creature into the water and electrified the current. Osryn was so frazzled trying to help the man he wasn’t even sure he trusted, that he didn’t quite grasp that had his son tried that move only moments earlier, he and Urta would have been fried.
“Good job, brother,” Adelaide put her hand on his shoulder, ruffling his hair with another. “But my stars, what were those things?”
Osryn overheard this and said, “I think our friend here might know.”
It was then that Adelaide and Sebastian realized that Urta was hurt and raced from the bridge to the side of the river with the road, where Osryn had pulled Urta to safety. Adelaide glanced around the woods nervously for any stray creatures, then fell to her knees next to Urta.
“Oh no! Dad, is he going to be okay?!”
Urta chuckled. “I’m going to be fine, kid. Just a little stab wound. No big deal.”
“Don’t play friendly, Urta,” Osryn grumbled, pouring alcohol on the wound and causing Urta to wince. “If that’s even your real name.”
“You’re being so rude and presumptive!” Adelaide insisted. “He’s injured! Can’t you at least interrogate him later?”
“I dunno. I think dad’s right.” Sebastian weighed in. “You heard it, right? That thing at the beginning. It said ‘Urta.’”
“Yes, but…” Adelaide trailed off, unsure how to counter that oddly specific point.
“Save it, Adelaide.” Urta sighed, looking up at her. “There’s… some stuff I haven’t told you. I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”
Adelaide seemed hurt, but she blinked and nodded, taking on a somewhat-commanding tone when she addressed her father. “Okay… Well, then. Heal him. Then, we shall talk…”
Soon enough Urta’s wound was cleaned and bandaged, and he was being stared down by ten pairs of scrutinizing eyes. Nervously, he glanced amongst them, closing his own eyes and inhaling before he found the words to say.
“I haven't been completely honest with any of you…” Urta started, turning to Osryn. “I know you had your doubts from the start. You weren’t crazy for thinking something was off about me. There’s something unique about my… situation.”
Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Spit it out. We don’t have all day.”
Urta gulped and tried to rise to his feet, but winced when he moved his abdomen. “May I have some assistance getting up?”
Adelaide helped him to his feet where he staggered slightly before gaining his footing. He looked around, scanning the area for any witnesses before he took a deep breath and pulled a small plumbob shaped object out of his jacket’s buttoned breast pocket. It was a pale, sickly green with a grey metallic shift, and it was radiating an energy that, when perceived by an arcane-attuned mind, could only be described as “fuzzy.”
“I’d stand back a little, if I were you... “ The Selds retreated towards the woods and watched as Urta held the little stone in his hands and it began to glow, spreading its strange green shine to every inch of Urta’s skin. Then, his skin melted, some of it turning into new flesh, and some of it dissolving into thin air, which puffed away like a mist. Moments later, where Urta formerly stood was a huge, long-antennaed creature with a thick segmented exoskeleton and six fuzzy jointed legs. It made a friendly clicking sound at them, sensing their fear immediately, and then spoke. “It’s… me… Urta…”
The voice was not his own, or so the Selds immediately believed. It was slow, warbling, and raspy, as though created through non-human means of sound production, but it was indeed speech. The words were comprehensible.
“Oh my sun and moon…” Osryn took off his glasses, unable to believe his eyes. “Am I going mad, children?”
Sebastian was entranced by the scene unfolding before him, and he was unable to tear his eyes away or formulate any words. Adelaide shook her head a few times.
“No…” She said. “I think this is real.”
“This… is real…” Urta confirmed, holding out one of his legs towards her. She jumped back, but quickly reconciled that the creature in front of her, though it looked like her enemy, was her friend. She took his fuzzy foot in her hand and its hairs prickled at her skin. She shuddered and pulled it away. Urta’s antennae twitched. “I’m… sorry…”
“Sorry?” Osryn gasped, scratching his forehead. “Hell, we don’t even know what’s going on!”
“So… Urta you’re… Insectera.” Adelaide inferred, and Urta nodded his head. Its eyes–– no, his eyes ––were on either side of a mantis-like head, large and compound, devoid of emotion. Yet, Adelaide and Sebastian could feel what he felt–– it was an unnerving feeling, unlike anything they had ever felt from a creature or simply a bug. It felt like fear, nervousness, uncertainty. Urta was afraid of how they would perceive him.
“I’m going… to change… back…” Urta told them.
Osyrn nodded. “That sounds like a great idea, yes.”
Urta’s insect flesh disappeared as his human flesh had, and again, bits and pieces re-formed as his human form and others scattered as carboniferous gas to the wind. The man that stood before them looked the same as the one who had been guiding them on this journey, but this wasn’t him. Not really.
Sebastian spoke up. “That… was... awesome.”
“You’d better start explaining!” Osryn growled, lunging towards Urta and grabbing him by the jacket collar. The man’s eyes grew wide and he cringed, clutching his wound. “What the hell else have you been lying about, huh? Tell us! Spill it!”
“Calm down, father.” Adelaide insisted, frowning. “He can’t explain if you’re yelling at him.”
Reluctantly, Osryn released Urta, who inhaled shakily a few times before gulping and beginning his story.
“My name, as you know, is Urta.” He gestured towards his chest, then towards the bridge, where numerous insect corpses lay. “However… their name is Urta too. It is the name we have been given. The only name we have ever known. I’ve been… Well, all of us have been Insectera as long as we can remember.”
“You know them, and you just let us slaughter them all?” Adelaide gasped, clenching her fists. “What if they would have been willing to work out a truce?”
Urta sighed. “They are loyal to their master…. All they’ve been told is to attack anyone they come across.”
Osryn narrowed his eyes. “Who is this master? I thought we were dealing with a ‘den of mutants.’ You’re not particularly good at keeping track of your stories.”
Clasping his hands together, Urta inhaled through his nose. “Okay… I confess. That much was a lie.”
“I knew it, you piece of––” Osryn lurched at him again, but was unable to pull against Adelaide, who held him back.
“So, all of you…” Adelaide pieced it together again, as Urta clearly was suffering from Osryn’s hostility. “You ‘Urtas’... you have some kind of leader?”
Urta nodded sheepishly. “Yes… I’ve been sent on a special mission, actually… To find you, and to bring you to our master. Master has… a question for you.”
“So, you lied to us… why?” Sebastian asked. “Why did you make up this story in the first place?”
“I was hoping we could avoid this conversation, but the jig is up…” Urta said, looking to Osryn. “He saw me. In the water.”
Osryn recalled the flashes of Insectera he saw in Urta’s place, which he now recognized as glimpses of Urta’s true form.
“The Illusion Crystal isn’t perfect. It's finicky, and it can only transform up to a certain mass threshold. I was injured and getting knocked around by the current… its matter-altering field was malfunctioning.”
Osryn nodded–– so that was why.
“If you’re an Urta,” Sebastian said, “and they’re Urtas… then why are they attacking us?”
“Yeah, what makes you different?” Adelaide added.
“To be honest, our master has a particular… fondness, for me. She chose me to be the ambassador of this mission, but did not trust any of the others with the knowledge.”
“She?” Osryn raised his eyebrows.
“Shit…” Urta cursed. “Um, yes… Anyway, as far as the other Urta’s know, you are just as unimportant as anyone wandering around. Their orders are to attack–– mine are to bring you to her. There are traitors in our midst, and our master is not willing to disclose anything more than necessary to those she does not trust.”
“So, what you’re telling us is that you’re a bootlicker, and we’re your hostages,” Osryn growled, clenching his fists, but he wasn’t going to try and fight Urta this time. Not again. Frankly, the man was giving off an air of weakness and it almost felt pathetic to come at him. “You’re taking us to your leader, and you lied.”
“You are free to leave if you desire,” Urta assured them. “I’m simply doing what I’m told.”
“What does your master want from us?” Sebastian asked, crossing his arms. “You’re being awfully vague, Urta.”
Urta bit his lip. “I’m not permitted to know.”
“So you admit it!” Osryn exclaimed. “This is a trap!”
Sebastian scoffed. “No, he’s only admitted that it could be a trap.”
Osryn kicked the ground with a worn, dirty boot and a low growl rose up from his chest. “Oh, sure. And why should we trust him?”
“Well, for starters,” Adelaide started softly, trying not to step on her father’s toes, “he’s done nothing to harm us, and in fact only fought to protect our lives. He fought his own kind for us.”
“Why did you lie in the first place?” Sebastian asked. “What purpose did deceiving us serve but to foster our distrust?”
Urta sighed. “I thought you wouldn’t come with me if I told the truth… I’m just a lowly servant, and like you said, it could be a trap. Why would you follow me?”
“That’s absolute nonsense,” Osryn said. “I was suspicious of you from the beginning either way.”
“No offense, dad, but you’re not exactly his target demographic,” Sebastian said, turning to Urta. “I think your true form is absolutely awesome. I wish I could look like that.”
Urta laughed uncomfortably, scratching his neck. “If I’m being honest, I much prefer this human form. It’s new to me. Only recently was I introduced to this technology, and it's far from perfect, but I never knew it was possible for me to look in the mirror and feel like I was… me. Not a monster.”
Adelaide nodded and Osryn kept his seething rage bottled down, for the children’s sake. How were they buying this nonsense? Hadn’t he raised them better? He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was frustrating that they could not see the blatant inconsistencies in Urta’s story and feel the weight of his lies, but he couldn’t blame them for latching onto this connection to the Insectera world–– a world Osryn simply would never be a part of. The three were talking now, but Osryn had tuned them out. If they could have their own little world, then he could too, in his head. Alone. His thoughts swirled, but Adelaide’s voice knocked him back to reality before he could fall into his depressive vortex.
“Dad, are you okay?”
Osryn blinked. “Hm? Sure, I’m fine. We’re traveling to unknown destinations with a traitorous stranger, but I’m fine.”
“I am sorry you do not trust me...” Urta sighed. “I’m simply following orders.”
“I think we should keep going, dad,” Sebastian told Osryn. “If you want to turn back, you can, but Laidie and I want to meet this master of his. She could be our only chance at finding out where we came from, you know?”
Osryn wondered hopelessly why it mattered to them so much.
“If it’s a trap, dad, we’ll handle it,” Adelaide spun her staff confidently. “You trained us to be strong, after all.”
“I am not leaving you alone with him,” Osryn grumbled. “Whatever. Let us go.”
They had made it to the other side of the river after the fight, so Urta nodded towards the road and shifted his pack on his back. “We’re going to follow this road for a while, okay? There may be humans around, so if there are, you will need to hide your… abnormalities, somehow?”
“Well, can we use your crystal?” Sebastian asked, eyes glinting with childlike hope.
Urta shook his head. “Unfortunately, it is only capable of altering the material form of one living organism at a time… However, I think we can disguise you easily enough.”
“It’ll be nice to feel like a human for once…” Adelaide muttered, but Sebastian rolled his eyes.
“It’s a shame that we have to hide our true forms. Urta especially.” Sebastian countered. “We all should be proud of our heritage. Insectera are people too.”
Osryn glanced at the decrepit bridge, littered with corpses of the Insectera they had slaughtered to get across. “You are naive, son. Trust me. Some things are better left hidden…”
Insectera Book Two: Matters of the Heart, coming... eventually.
© 2022 Rychard Collins