Nyx put her hands on the edge of the well and looked down. The water was glassy black; she stared at her darker half, gazing up at her from the bottom of the well. There was nothing but water and her reflection and the stir of the water around the rope.
She reached out and gave a sharp tug on the rope. The rope stayed taut. There was something on the other end.
Nyx ran to the pulley on the other side of the well and took hold of the lever. She began rotating the wheel, and grunted with the effort. The best way to poison a well was to tie a body to it. She had one long stretch of time to think about who it was on the other end of the rope; Inaya, Khos, no, they would have tied the children here. Their bodies would be sodden and blue, and perhaps even a little stiff.
Prepare for the worst. Always prepare for the worst, because if you see anything less than that, it will be a prize, a relief. If she saw Khos there, perhaps, it would be better than seeing dead children.
Fuck, I’ve gotten soft, she thought, and then she heard something splashing in the water.
Nyx let the lever catch and leaned over to peer into the well again. There, at the other end of the rope, was the bucket, and two pairs of hands desperately clinging to it. Two cold, went faces peered up at her, shivering; their expressions shadowed and terrified.
“It’s Nyx!” Nyx yelled at them, stupidly, but it was dark, wasn’t it, and how could they know her in the dark? “I’m getting you up, come on now!”
She turned back to the lever. A stiff wind buffeted her from behind, and she heard a scattering of dead leaves roil along the dirt drive. She heard the wind stir the tree. She raised her head. She saw a hundred cicadas crawling along the trunk of the tree, flitting among the branches, and as she wind stirred, the cicadas stirred as well, flew outward around the tree like a cloud, and she began to brace herself, squint her eyes, prepare for a swarm.
But something else happened.
The tree began to tremble. The wind died and the tree still trembled, and the cicadas swarmed and then pulled toward the tree, pulled toward a tree that was rapidly condescending, becoming smaller. The dead leaves moved along the ground, drawn back up into the tree’s branches. They melted together like butter, merged with the cicadas. Nyx had a dizzy moment of vertigo. The world seemed to twist. Something in the air around her twisted, tore, and the tree and leaves and cicadas became a liquid thing, like mottled, melted cheese. Something screamed, something inside the tree, the cicadas, maybe, dying.
Branches flung up, a crown of leaves, branches became hands, the crown of leaves elongated, shuddered.
“Oh God,” Nyx said, and the breath left her body. She knew what it was becoming, what the tree, the leaves, the air, the bugs, were becoming. Were shifting into.
“Oh God,” she said again, because she was suddenly sick, because it was like something in the world had been distorted; something very, very wrong was happening.
And as the tree’s color paled, the melted shape took on a more human form, and the gaping hole in the face, the half-formed mouth, vomited a black cloud of flies, and with the flies came another scream; not from the bugs this time, but a true human scream; the rage and pain and terror of birth.
The figure stumbled toward Nyx, shaking and shuddering, slinging off long strings of mucus and leaf pulp, and the black eyes grew lashes and the irises formed and focused, and the cascade of hair and leaves went black, black and long as Inaya’s hair; Inaya’s face, round but still slack-eyed, and the fingers at the ends of the new arms were held in tight fists, oozing mucus and blood and something else that had the tangy smell of oak hybrid sap.
Flies and leaf pulp, dirt and the shimmering wings of cicadas, stuck to the slick mucus covering her naked body as she stumbled toward Nyx.
Her fists reached out, made open hands, and she clung to the edge of the well, and then her eyes focused, and she was something more or less human, more or less Inaya, and Nyx knew her then, really knew her, and nearly lost her stomach.
Nyx felt a deep cramping in her stomach, sudden nausea, and she backed a half step away.
Inaya screamed into the well, and as she screamed, she coughed and a handful of flies escaped from her nearly-formed lungs.
“Up!” was the word she screamed, or maybe that was just some grunt, some noise, but the next words were her children’s names, and not even Nyx could mistake those.
“Are you all right?” Inaya yelled at them, and the children cried up at her.
Inaya raised her head to Nyx, her damp, mucus-crusted head, and her eyes were so very fucking black, and the look on that face, in that face…
“Haul them up!” Inaya snarled.
And Nyx grabbed the lever and hauled them up like some other woman, someone far younger, far stronger. Sweat beaded her brow, ran between her breasts, her shoulder blades, long before she was tired or spent. She was trembling, she realized, with fear.
When the bucket was close enough, Inaya reached into the well and hauled up Isafan first, and then Tatie. The children hit the dirt and then clung to her.
Inaya patted them down, asking after hurts, looking for any they’d missed, and when she was done, she turned her face again to Nyx, opened her mouth to speak, and stopped. She turned to the blazing house.
It was like watching some kind of phantom or demon, something so Other than Nyx had no real name for her.
Inaya took in the burning house and said, “Khos,” and then, “Watch the children.”
And in a breath, an instant, she seemed to blow apart, piece by piece, and each piece disintegrated into another piece, another, smaller and smaller, until there was only a pale mist, a fog, and the mist blew across the yard and into the burning house like some contaminated wind over the desert.
The children gathered around Nyx and gazed with her, open mouthed, toward the house.
Nyx’s mouth was dry. She tried working some spit into it and, “She do that often?”
“Never,” Tatie said, breathless.
“Holy shit,” Nyx said.
“Holy shit,” Isafan said.
Nyx grabbed them each by the hand. “Let’s go, come on,” and started walking toward the blazing house and the demon.