[22:57] The first thing Javu noticed, when her senses returned, was that the sky was gone.
In its place, there was jagged stone, more than high enough for a kavkem to comfortably stand. A soft red-golden light, the color of late evening, filtered from somewhere above and behind her, though the source was occluded, sufficiently dark as not to burn her eyes.
The second, of course, was the sting of her wounds. While many of them felt as though they were starting to heal, her shoulder ached like nothing she'd felt before. As she shifted her posture tentatively, a gentle biting at her wrists informed her they were tied together — apparently, with a makeshift rope made from some kind of plant fiber. A similar rope bound her ankles, though at least her jaws were free. Her tool necklace, however, was nowhere to be found.
Third, she could smell meat. Not far away, though in her condition it wasn't clear if she'd be able to get to it.
Finally, was the sudden realization that she couldn't remember her dreams. Attempts at recalling them only found disconcerting blackness. Had the poison stolen her dreams away, or had the kiikam taken that piece of her soul? And speaking of the kiikam, where was he? There was no sign of him.
[23:11] The displacement added the jarring sense of emptiness. Usually when she slept, she could touch impressions of stories, Ateheril's narrative strands that laced through the world, faint echoes of a world of truth, ringing with her own memories.
This time, there had been nothing, as though those whorls and eddies now flowed around her, or passed through her without touching her mind at all.
Had she simply forgotten them? Had they paced through her mind and she didn't know? Or had they simply not encountered anything to dance with? Stories were important; if she were a kiikam, if she wanted to take the soul of a kavkem for herself, she would cripple its access to stories first, prevent it from healing.
It took an effort of will for her not to moan into the ground from pain and horror. Her eyes squeezed shut, the notion of eternally being cut off from her people's stories harrowing. It was like losing sight; if someone found her, they might take pity on her state and slit her throat.
But there was something stronger inside her, whispering: And what have you learnt so far? You still have your senses. Take note. If you no longer feel His stories, if they no longer Resonate with you, you're free to take a look around. You will no longer be hampered. You're free; you just need the courage to embrace it.
But it was too much for her now. She was the captive of a kiikam and the stories had stopped coming to her and her soul was, if not gone, diminishing. Silent tears crusted her feathers as she tried to desperately pick at her bindings with her teeth.
[00:14] The bindings were tough, difficult to chew through, but by no means impossible. Given enough time and dedication, she'd be able to free herself eventually. The knotwork was hard to access, at the back of her wrists, but perhaps with some contortion she could attempt to pick at it with her teeth.
But the sinister promise in his words last night continued to echo in her thoughts. You'll never leave. You'll never escape. You're mine now, now and forever. Even if she could escape these bindings, what would it buy her? She couldn't run, her foot was still too sore, but maybe she could sneak away while he was gone. If this was a cave, if the light in her peripheral vision was sunlight, it promised at least the possibility of escape.
[00:20] It wasn't a conscious decision. In the pain and lingering exhaustion – heavier than it should ever be after sleep – she simply did what came naturally. Whatever chances she had to escape were slim, but she surely had none if she didn't chew through these bindings. She was hoping for the long term – she was giving her saliva time to soak into the strands, which would make them harder to break in the short-term, but would make them weaker with time, especially if they dried again. She knew she wouldn't have the strength to break out of them without this trick. She knew it, without that she as much knew that she was thinking about it at all.
[01:04] Seconds became minutes; minutes stretched into matters. The strands gradually soaked up her saliva, becoming sticky and wet. Every now and then, her tongue pressed against the rope, trying to gauge its strength. She just had to take her time; she just had to be patient.
The light grew redder and dimmed. Her soft pants of breath were punctuated by the occasional sound of wind outside, distorted by the shape of the cave.
Just as she could feel the fibers getting mushy and giving way, a faint jangling sound alerted her that she was no longer alone. A shadow slid along the wall before her, drew closer, and a few moments later, the kiikam was right behind her, looming wordlessly over her.
[01:09] Obligingly, the feathers on the back of her neck stood on end. Rather than twist around in a wild panic, however, she simply kept her posture, as though perhaps driven by a superstition that if she were to look his way, she might make him more real.
Not wanting to invite more punishment than her captor considered strictly necessary, however, she stopped worrying at her restraints, instead looking at her incomplete work numbly, while crushing the curiosity that would have her investigate the source of the strange sound.
[01:34] There was a muffled clatter just behind her, a loud and sudden enough noise almost to make her jump. One hand reached down to her neck, pinning it in place, while the other grasped at her wrists, tugging them upwards in an awkward twist. His gaze was focused on the ropes — or what was left of them. They might still be useful, but hardly trustworthy now.
Slowly, his head turned down to her face, the feathers around her eyes still stained with dried tears. A cold rage burned in his eyes, his gaze digging into her. He released the grip on her wrist, letting her arms flop uselessly to the ground, and he leaned in close to her face. "What — did you think — you were doing?" The voice was quiet but tense, as if barely holding back the rage she'd experienced last night. "What — were you trying — to do?"
It had to be obvious what she was trying to do. Perhaps this was a test, to see if she would tell the truth — or perhaps he simply wanted to wring a guilty confession out of her, something to justify what would come next.
[01:40] It was against all common courtesy to speak obvious things out loud, even in a whisper. The knowledge of certain punishment mingled with her distaste for speaking such things, her expression crinkled, miserable and frightened – but not pleading.
Finally convincing the cultured part of her to do away with obsolete rules – this was a kiikam, not a fellow kavkem, and her own death was long since forfeit – she opened her mouth and whispered, her demeanour matter-of-fact where it was not one of fearful bewilderment: "I tried to escape."
As the words formed, her gaze dared to dart toward where the startling sound had come from, but the kiikam was in the way and a small corner of the afternoon glare was plenty to blind her to any subtle shapes.
[18:46] "Tried," the kiikam repeated emphatically. Obviously, the attempt had been a failure. One foot planted itself firmly on her flank, stinging against her still-healing wounds. One hand grasped at her muzzle and pinned it down while the other traced up to the back of her skull, then dragged claws slowly, punishingly along her spine.
"Foolish prey, thinking you can escape from me. Thinking damaging my ropes will get you any closer to freedom." The claws relented, moving instead to clutch around the base of her skull. "Your soul is mine; did you forget that? You think these ropes are all that keep you here?"
[19:31] Fear palpably rippled through her, a twitch running through her body to convey it as he touched her, though she admirably managed to keep herself from twisting herself into a frantic writhing motion – at least at first. His claws sank into the skin covering her spine twisted her expression into a grimace and it wound itself into an desperate S-shape, trying to flee from the negative attention by instinct.
Then he was holding her head and she looked at him with carefully restrained terror, heart beating in her throat, instincts objecting to his claws being this close to her eyes. Silently, she sucked in a breath, holding her aching body still.
A fraction of rational thought cut through the haze of it all. "...why bother with them if they are not what holds me here?" she asked, numbly, not meaning it as a challenge but noticing with horror once the words had left her that they could likely only be taken as such.
[20:59] A thread of rage snapped at her question, and his claws dragged quick, thin lines across her face. Fingers grasped for a clump of feathers near her throat and yanked, hard, pulling several loose and leaving a deep sting into her skin. "Insolent," he hissed, already grasping at another clump of feathers lower down. "Pitiful," he added with another yank, another few lost feathers. "Worthless," came another, and another, and another.
It was a few moments before the rage burned itself out, the kiikam's chest heaving, hints of exhaustion lining his eyes. "Enough. Clearly... still need... to learn your place." He stood up, looming over her, and reached for the blade hanging from his tool necklace. One foot planted itself on the side of her head, pressing it firmly to the hard stone. A hand grasped for her tied wrists. "You will obey. Hold. Still."
[21:08] Her instinctive dread at having said the wrong thing blossomed into certainty as Zyrhe snapped at her, clawing first at her face – mercifully missing her eyes in the process, whether intentionally or by accident – and then burning through her senses by tearing feathers from her already aching body.
For a brief moment of alarm, as the plucking began, the softest sound of pleading protest leapt from her throat, unable to be bridled by the ingrained habits born of the kavkem culture of silence, before she caught her voice and reeled it back in.
By the time his rage petered out, her head throbbed in terror and pain, her muscles aching from the tension of holding herself still, and every mark he had put on her thus far hurt with the fresh fire of sympathy for the new wounds. She panted softly, acutely aware that if this ever happened again, she might not survive it in any meaningful sense.
It had its intended effect, of course – when he instructed her to hold still, she did so in perfect silence, not daring to as much as twitch.
[21:24] The kiikam paused only a few moments, watching her to see if she was finally going to obey. Without another word, he lifted her arms up, nestling the blade between them. Then he dragged it towards the rope, beginning to cut through it, aiming for the parts she'd already soaked through. After a bit of effort, the bonds broke and fell away; she was — at least in theory — free to move.
He glared at the rope for a moment, the sign of her recent disobedience, before turning his attention back to her face. He leaned down close enough to whisper, the knife held close by. "Let me make something — perfectly — clear," he said, the tone gravely serious, still holding echoes of his recent rage. "I hear you say one more thing that isn't the words, 'Yes, Master' — and I will cut out your tongue. Do you understand?"
[22:14] At least that was entirely straightforward, although the notion of calling him 'master' certainly made her twisted gut turn just a little further. "Yes, master," she said, mindful of her tone, guided into obedience by dread and pain and the vivid mental image of her tongue being carved out of her throat.
The partial freedom was a relief – the pressure on her wrists had relented – but she knew better than to try her luck. He was alert now and she was in pain and her foot would absolutely refuse her a run – and even if she did, she knew how far she wouldn't get. She continued to hold still.
[22:41] That, at least, seemed to take some of the edge off of his lingering rage, a cruel smile spreading across his features. "Good." He stood again, slipping the knife back into its scabbard. The foot on her head eased up slowly, his gaze locked onto her, ready to reassert his dominance the moment she looked ready to try something. Hold still, stay silent. It wouldn't have to last for too long.
Finally, he was off of her, stepping back, and fiddling with the object he'd dropped earlier. Without moving her head, she could barely make out what looked like a bundle of something wrapped in some kind of cloth. Then she heard the sound of metal against metal and stone. A chain. He stood over her again a moment later, a terrifying smile on his features, holding what could only be a Nayabaru contraption, a set of manacles sized for a kavkem, attached to a chain that vanished out of sight. Let's see you try and chew through these, his expression taunted, as he reached for her arm to slip the shackles around it.
[22:52] The sinking feeling in Javu's stomach deepened as he withdrew, only to fall into a bottomless pit as the metal restraints became apparent to her. She imagined their scent before they were anywhere near her – smelling of fear, of pain, of Nayabaru, of death forfeit.
She very nearly pleaded with him before the threat from a moment prior seared through her mind. I hear you say one more thing that isn't the words 'yes, master' and I will cut out your tongue. Her tongue, feeling acutely addressed by her thoughts, pressed silently up against the roof of her mouth.
She let the plea subvocalise in the privacy of her mind, no less plaintive for it: Please don't use those.
There were many things she wanted to ask. How had he gotten them? Why was he willing to use them? Did it mean they would stay here for a long time? Even that last potential implication terrified her deeply – she knew this kiikam held territory and must have successfully done so for a while, but her instincts were still to wander and leave no traces.
But she didn't try to fight him off. Even here, a kernel of hope remained – she hoped that he might perhaps feel less inclined to punish her if she was effectively unable to do anything worth punishing her for.
[23:17] With a soft 'click', the restraints were sealed, first around one wrist, then, moments later, the other. The steel was cold and matted her feathers. If he appreciated her cooperation, it was invisible — except insofar as he didn't try to harm her. It felt as though he were sealing her fate in a manner far more permanent than anything he'd done so far. She was his; there wasn't any escaping it now.
He tugged at the chain, testing the security of the shackles, making sure she couldn't slip her fingers through the narrow metal cuffs. Then he pulled her arms over her head, walking a few paces and letting the chain slide through his hands, clattering lightly against the floor. Her gaze could follow him; he stopped near a sizable rock, pinned the chain to the floor — pulling it taut — and, with some effort, rolled the rock onto the chain, wedging it in place. There. He took a couple breaths, his attention returning to his captive, a satisfied look on his face.
[00:31] She already felt sore and some degree of sick from her beatings; the situation only underlined them. Maybe she could, with supreme effort, wiggle the chain out from under the rock – but she had watched Zyrhe carefully and it had been tough even for him to budge the rock.
Granted, wiggling out something stuck under it was not the same as lifting it, but she assumed her chances were pretty slim. Her body language spoke of anxiety and misery, but she said nothing, still finding Zyrhe's threat from earlier credible and entirely too fond of her tongue.
And yet, again, past the mild nausea, past the physical assault of her senses, past the helpless resignation, a part of her queried at her thoughts incessantly: What does this tell you, Javu? It was awful and almost surely not worth her misery, but perhaps it would still eventually yield to her scrutiny and give her a measly scrap of insight.
[17:50] The kiikam took a few moments to rest against the rock, soaking in the satisfying certainty that his captive wasn't going anywhere for a long time. Still, there was more to do; she was still fairly mobile in theory, even if her wounds would make that difficult. She could still get ideas.
He pushed himself back into a stand, returning to the bundle of cloth and metal. Wordlessly, he pulled a second chain from the bundle of cloth, running it through his fingers until he found the set of manacles at the end; these slightly wider and sturdier. He stepped over her, straddling her backwards, maneuvering her onto her back, and fastened the cuffs to her ankles, taking a few moments to fiddle with the ropes already binding them. After perhaps a minute of silent work, her rope bindings were replaced by steel; he pushed her legs down towards her tail, wrapping the chain a few times around it, before tossing the end of the chain against the stone floor in a clatter.
[18:20] It would have been easy even for Javu to stab him in the eye with how close he was to her legs and how almost careless he manipulated them, sure of her compliance, sure of his own capability to react if she chose to move her legs in unison and aim for his face.
But he was right that she daren't risk it. If even her speech was offensive to him, outright assault might mean that he would relish tearing her feet from her body. She would certainly rather they were bound, with no means for her to escape, than if she lost them altogether.
The posture he was tying her into would get uncomfortable quickly, though. The urge to ask him for the small mercy of tying her in a way that would put less strain on her hips was strong – but did not make it past her stubborn compliance to the mandate of silence but for acknowledgement.
Not yet, at least.
But all her restraint did not prevent a very soft, pleading sound to escape, only just barely audible, but unmistakable in meaning – please don't do this; please set me free.
[22:13] The pleading whimper was music to his ears, spreading a sinister smile across his features. "Are you finally beginning to understand?" he whspered, looming over her, tracing a claw along her sternum. "It doesn't matter how much you struggle. It doesn't matter how much you beg. It doesn't matter how many ropes of mine you ruin" — the word was punctuated by a claw dragging punishingly through her skin. "You will never escape from me."
He studied her expression for a long moment in silence, his eyes drilling into her soul. "...You're still hoping you can, though, aren't you?" Of course she was. His fingers traced along her scalp, claws tracing gentle lines; his snout dipped to nuzzle briefly against the patch of bare skin on her neck. "...Don't worry," he whispered, impossibly softly. "I know how to fix that."
[22:36] Some part of her instinctively retorted with 'You can't have my soul' as he challenged her ability to escape, as though that were the measure of things, and as though she had any chance of stopping him. The brief flare of instinctive defiance was crushed with a practised mental motion, none of it surfacing but for a brief, understated puff of her feathers.
As his claws whispered along her skull, it made way for a flash of fear; her eyes squeezed shut as she briefly imagined him crushing her skull just enough to doom her to stupor for the rest of her life. It likely wasn't at all what he was thinking, but given his talk about taking her soul, it was what instantly came to mind.
It was enough for her to forget the rule never to say anything but 'yes, master'. "How?" A strangled three syllables, only just barely voiced. She wasn't even sure she wanted to know the answer – but all that came to mind was too horrible and she fervently hoped it was none of those, nor anything worse that she had yet to dream of.
[23:02] A low growl spilled from his throat, and his fingers slipped to her throat, claws pressed firmly against the underside of her jaw. "Now that didn't sound like a 'yes master' to me." One hand grasped at her upper jaw, holding it steady, while the other casually meandered towards her chin, gently tugging at it. "Perhaps I simply misheard you, though. Let's try that again. Shall I show you how I plan to fix that, theresh?"
[23:08] His disapproval jolted through her as a fresh spike of fear, eclipsing rational thought for a moment of blank terror, crushing the breath out of her chest. Yet as he began to toy with her words, a deep relief lapped at the worst of her fear – he was clearly not upset at her curiosity, he was only interested in forcing her into the framework he had provided.
She could do that. It was vile, it violated all basic decency, but it was doable. Perhaps she could navigate the maze of his outrage after all; he was clearly insane, as one would expect of a kiikam, but there was method to the madness. He was willing to play by his own rules. That was as much as she could hope for, given the circumstances.
Consciously swallowing the lump in her throat, she whispered: "Yes, master."
[23:30] The kiikam grinned, a warm pleasure seeping through him at her response. "That's better," he replied, his tone a mockery of praise. After a few moments, he gradually released his grip, straightening up into a proper stand. "Just a moment." He took a few steps away, then turned, padding towards the dimming glare of sunlight, leaving her briefly alone with her terror and discomfort.
Perhaps a minute later, he returned, holding a small, quartz-like crystal attached to a length of twine, roughly a finger's width but somewhat shorter. He dangled it in front of her face, letting it sway slightly. "Get a good look," he remarked, tone almost gentle. "Because soon, this is going to be holding onto your soul for me."
[00:08] Any relief she'd previously felt abruptly fell away. Her stomach seemed to disappear into a bottomless pit; her chains chimed as she first jolted in surprise, then squirmed against them in a panicked silence, trying to wind herself away. No, no, no, don't deny me my death, bounced through her skull in a frantic rhythm, her eyes wide.
It didn't occur to her that he could be bluffing. He'd already proven he was strong; he'd proven he was shrewd enough to steal chains from the Nayabaru; he was clearly capable enough to hold territory – why not also know how to craft a qidravem?
[02:15] The kiikam laughed, watching his captive's fruitless, frantic struggles. "Now you see." A foot planted itself firmly near the base of her tail, pinning it awkwardly in place. "There's no use in struggling. Your soul is mine; your death is mine." He wrestled a knee between her legs, holding them apart, while knuckles of his free hand traced along her inner thigh. "Now, hold still."
[02:20] The pleasant touch jolted through Javu, registering to her like a set of impossibly sharp blades being thrust through her skin – painless but no less deadly. She would not hold still. Nothing could make her hold still – any amount of pain and damage was better than having a qidravem claiming her soul. Her hands tried to push him away, her neck twisted, her teeth trying to bite at his fingers – none of it was a conscious decision, her fight returned to her unbidden, driven by a motor of raw self-preservation that made sense only to one who had grown up in the framework of kavkem mythology.
[18:00] The constant flailing made it difficult to proceed with his plan. As she started trying to bite at him, a fresh rage flowered in his gut. He pulled back for a moment, then lunged forward, hands grasping the sides of her jaw and shoving her head to the ground. A foot planted itself on her chest, his weight making it hard to breathe. His eyes bored into her soul, filled with rage. Aside from a low growl, he was silent.
[18:34] He was easily strong enough to pin her down, though for long moments it did nothing to extinguish her will to fight. Her spine squirmed, twisting her torso from left to right and back as much as the pressure of his weight allowed. Only slowly did her oxygen run low, draining the energy out of her, slowing her struggles down to fitful spurts, then to a laboured sipping of air, dizzy from her own exertion.
[20:31] There were echoes of exhaustion in his body language, a slow and deliberate breathing. Nonetheless, he still held her down, waiting for the fight to bleed out of her, confident that it wouldn't take long. Go ahead. Burn up the last of your hope. Then I'll take what's mine.
Once her struggles had died down, he leaned down to brush his muzzle against the side of her face, tracing his tongue across the bare patch of skin on her neck. Softly whispered: "How many times will I have to put you in your place?" Keeping a foot firmly planted on her chest, he slowly rose, gradually removing his hands from her face, watching in readiness to strike again if she tried to put up a struggle.
Not that she'd be able to struggle much if she could hardly breathe.
His gaze turned to the qidravem, then briefly back to her. Wasted enough time already. He ran his tongue along the crystal several times, as if tasting the last bits of whatever soul had last resided inside of it — then placed his fingers between her legs, parting the sensitive skin, and slowly pushed the crystal inside of her.
[20:57] Javu was so steeped in fear that the tongue run along her raw skin ran through her senses like a wire of revulsion, wrenching a pathetic, high-pitched whine from her throat, strangled by her subdued breath. There was not enough breath in her lungs to answer, even if she had wanted to.
As he lapped at the crystal, her mind's eye readily supplied the mythological narrative and she soundlessly wept in horror at the notion that he had consumed someone's soul. She had no idea what that meant – in theory it might be the same as dying, but she doubted it, assuming instead that it meant that whoever this kiikam's last victim had been was by now threaded through his body, granting him his alien energy, perhaps still caught in a semblance of consciousness to bear witness to the things that he did.
The squeal that his next motion wrenched from her was so soft as to be barely audible, but her tense body language betrayed what her tone did not. Her joints ached and her energy had left her, leaving her with no means to squirms away from the invasion, but the residue of a fight rippled through her like fate's reluctant afterthought, trying to disappear her into the ground and away from the crystal.
The unyielding surface felt strange, at once harmlessly static and dangerously final. It pressed uncomfortably against the dry skin, descending in disregard for whether her body accepted it, too smooth to feel like sandpaper, pulling the skin taut to strike strange, partial shadows of pleasure through her, disconcerting for their incomplete nature.
Her mind reeled, trying to process what was happening, what the kiikam was doing and why. Was that the best way to access a soul, or was he simply taunting her? She knew she couldn't tell the difference, panting in distress at her ignorance – surely if one was going to lose one's soul, one should at least know when one was losing it.
She squeezed her eyes shut, still trying to guide her meagre strength into resistence.
[23:28] The crystal paused partway through the motion, her body resisting the foreign influence if only by friction. Then it receded, only to push in again, deeper, carrying a thread of half-pleasure into her gut. This continued, each slow thrust taking the qidravem deeper inside of her, until its entirety was within her — only the two strands of rough twine leading out.
Then the foot on her chest pressed down once more, the kiikam leaning forwards, rummaging through the half-forgotten bundle of cloth at her side. A moment later, the pressure relented, as he withdrew a thin, wiry branch — the tip of a young sapling, stripped bare of its bark and needles, perhaps a bit longer than his arm. For a moment, he examined it, adjusting his grip, then with a swift motion thwacked the tip against the stone. A low, satisfied purr rumbled from the kiikam, as he returned his attention to his victim; the tip of the makeshift whip tracing a gentle promise across her belly.
[00:07] For the crystal to descend that far, the twine had to sink in deep as well. Where the stone had come with an ambiguous sensation suspended halfway between discomfort and pleasure, the twine simply bit at her skin, like a collection of tiny claws forcing their way into her.
Whatever the ritual meant, however he was hoping to bind her soul, a certainty gripped her – she was poisoned. While she had never desired to bring children into this world, she would actively fight it now; the chance that they would be corrupted by the eerie gem was simply too great, her responsibility to her fellow kavkema weighing too heavily.
It was almost a relief when he drew his makeshift whip. Pain she could understand, loathsome as it was. Pain was a known constant. Still, her belly was bared and an alien force had sunk into her slit, leaving her feeling deeply vulnerable, raking an unbidden chill down her spine, her eyes wide in silent anticipation.