When one found dirt and other weird stuff caked around – and inside –one's bellybutton then one knew it was time to find some water fast and clean oneself up. Or soak in water for three days straight without even thinking about coming out until the feeling of that caked eww was washed from one's skin, mind and well, everywhere.
"I'd kill for a shower, man. Or a bath. With soap, like actual soap. The one Alineja used to make, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"Smelled so good, flowers and I don't know what else she put in it, but it always smelled fresh and made the skin clean and soft."
"She made those soaps with whatever she could find in the meadows."
It was always strange to Jensen, what kinda memories surfaced at times; sometimes he tried so hard to remember something specific and nothing came to him, while other times just a thought of taking a wash brought with it the smell of Alineja's special soaps and how her laugh sounded like as she was giving him a bath, bubbles flying everywhere.
Jensen shook his head and marched on. Alineja was dead and so were her soaps. And her laugh. And memories couldn't change the fact that right now, Jared and he both needed to wash themselves up; they stunk of three days' worth of sweat, dirt, puke and blood and Jensen was sure that there was something moving in his boxers that wasn't his junk. He was scared to look; he even took a piss with his eyes closed. There was blood behind his fingernails - blood that water from a bottle just couldn't get rid of – from a few more kills they'd made along the way; a skunk and one more rabbit.
He leaned on a thick tree trunk and pushed himself up a steep, albeit small incline. The rocks were unsteady and he needed all the support he could get, but once he was up the incline, the ground became flat again.
Good, because his legs were killing him, there was a stitch in his left side and an ache in his right, his jaw was still hurting from when Jared had hit him and he was pissed that Jared showed no signs of his jaw hurting from where Jensen'd hit him.
He placed his hand on his jaw, testing the pain. It was manageable; he'd had worse, he'd live to see another day.
They'd washed their faces and hands, but in order to do that they'd spend two hours or so – it felt like a day and a half to Jensen - poking a hole into thick ice to get to the freezing water when dawn had broken a few hours ago. Lakes were always frozen solid and full of dead, frozen fish, rivers either had too strong of a current to wash in or were too deep and too cold. And well, they couldn't exactly go and wash themselves in an ocean. Jensen was never, ever, ever, ever going to the seaside ever again. The sight of that harpoon directed at his chest still haunted his dreams.
The shrubbery was getting thicker and thicker the further they went from the mountain, but not thick enough to mask that smell.
"Ugh what the ... do you smell that? What is that?"
The smell hit Jensen like a direct hit to his chest, making his eyes water and stomach roll around.
He looked at Jared and nodded, because yeah, it was decay. Decomposition of a formerly live form.
They followed the stink, wrinkling their noses and pressing their palms against them to try and lessen the abhorrent smell, but it didn't really help. They tried pressing their shirts to their noses too, but that didn't help either. It was just … so damn strong.
They breathed through their mouths, because that was just instinct, but still ... the stench was unbelievable and Jensen was surprised that no animal had eaten or at least dragged away whatever it was, that was rotting.
They moved away some thin and leafy branches of a hazel bush and stepped through it to ...
There were ... corpses lying on the ground, around a circle of stones - fire pit - and they were all in whothefuck knows which stage of decay, but they were looking gray, bloated and covered in dried … crap. There was grayish skin hanging from their arms and faces in long patches, their eyes bulging out from where Jensen could see and the air reeked of cooked human flesh. He doubted then that human flesh really tasted like pork, because he'd eaten a pig once – sure it was a wild boar, but still - and it definitely didn't smell anything like this. The bodies must've had been cooking in the hot sun for who knew how long.
The stench wafting from the area really was incredible and Jensen gagged.
He'd caused death; killed and saw life seep away from people's eyes.
He'd seen death; had seen dead people and animals, had seen what decay could do to flesh and skin, but this ... this was everything laid bare before his eyes. He'd heard from the old folks, how in the old times they buried their dead, six feet under in a wooden box and he wondered why. Why do that, what was the point? It was easier to burn them and scatter the ashes and not soil the land with rotting corpses under their feet. The Earth was soiled enough as it was.
But this … this was cruel, brutal, ruthless almost sadistic.
He bend forward, his hands gripping his weak knees and tried not to breathe too deeply while still trying to swallow down sour bile.
He was going to puke, he couldn't do anything about it even if he sealed his lips shut and wished for it all to go away.
So he puked, all over his boots and didn't shake off the hand on the small of his back. He couldn't, because it was the only thing keeping him from falling on his damn face.
Jared's voice was raspy, like seeing this affected the Icy too. It probably did, because this was exactly what Jared had been fighting against. This, exactly this.
"Naah," he spat, "yeah."
He spat one more time and wiped the back of his hand across his spit slicked lips.
"Uggh, eww, fuck, what happened here?" He asked when he was sure that speaking would not make him gag again and didn't wait for an answer: "There must be like," he did a quick count, three, three, "six people here."
He knew it had been the Icies, he didn't need Jared to say it. He knew an Icy kill when he saw one, and this was exactly that. Ripped apart, slashed and hacked, limbs torn away, heads twisted in an unnatural way.
Almost feral, as the Icies were. Goddamned beasts; when they went in for a kill, they didn't hold back.
He looked at Jared – couldn't not - trying to imagine Jared do this. Jared ripping people apart, breaking necks, tearing arms and legs away from torsos, listening to people scream, getting blood all over himself … he tried to imagine it, but couldn't. He couldn't see Jared do that, not without a reason. Self-defense yes, because who was Jensen to judge that, but without a reason? No, he couldn't see that. He just couldn't.
"I'd never … I don't … I … I have mercy."
"I know …"
"Yeah, yeah I do."
He did. He knew. He really knew.
"I don't wanna kill people, I don't wanna kill my family, I don't … I … I only do it when I have to, when I really, really have to. But I always show mercy. Always, I … I don't make anyone suffer. Not like this."
"I know, but Noah…"
"Noleih is … bloodthirsty."
They both looked straight ahead at the bodies, both letting those three words hang in the fetid air.
There were flies buzzing around the whole campsite, piles of maggots already crawling all over the bodies and even with the people all being dead, there was still a lot of life going on around them. And in them.
He didn't ask Jared why, why the Icies would've killed these people. He didn't wanna know and he was sure Jared didn't really have an answer. Icies just killed, period.
"Maybe," he coughed, "maybe we should check if they have any food, weapons, other stuff we can use."
It wasn't stealing when you took something off a dead person. It wasn't.
They found two knives and a gun, sans bullets, so that sucked. The people had no chance, none at all, whether they were ambushed or simply approached by the Icies, giving them enough time to try and fight. No chance, because Icies wouldn't go down with a slice of a knife. Jensen knew that now and it made him angry to know that whenever he took an Icy down, he didn't take it down for good and was probably mocked afterwards in the Icies bar. Or wherever Noah's assholes gathered. Damn it.
One of the victims was a kid, a boy, small, no more than ten, eleven years old. Jensen kneeled before him, impressed by the too large knife - more like a machete - the kid was still holding in his little hands and tried to pry the handle from the tight grip. He had to break the kid's fingers, the crack of bones making him clench his teeth and when he finally got the machete, he looked into the kid's wide open milky white eyes and murmured: "Sorry kid."
He was sorry about a lot of things, but the kid was as dead as possible and sorry wouldn't bring him back.
He cleared his throat: "Got a machete."
"Got a warm sweater and a blanket. No food though, they must've been hunting."
He looked back down at the child, imagining the kid being introduced to the fine art of hunting game.
Well then …
… he got back up on his feet and left the boy to the white, wriggly maggots that were crawling out of the kid's torn open throat.
"Good, let's go."
"Do you wanna bury them?"
"No, animals and stuff will take care of 'em."
After he got used to the smell and the loud buzz of insects, it was like a wall had been drawn over his mind and eyes, a wall of clarity. Clarity over what needed to be done and how and taking weapons and clothes was a necessity, while burying the corpses wasn't.
Nature would take care of that. Nature always took care of everything.
He stumbled away from the camp site, through the shrubs on the other side, noting how trampled they were. Icies; they made their approach loud and clear. Fuckers.
He walked further into the forest, away from the fragrance of death. He never wanted to end like that and if he ever did, he wouldn't go down without a fight, especially not now when he knew how to kill those bitches.
"What?" he snapped.
"What do you think?"
"Honestly? 'm hoping you ain't."
"'m hoping you aren't, because no one should be."
"Well if it makes you feel any better, I ain't, but me sobbing and mourning after people I didn't know won't bring 'em back."
"But you do feel something?"
"Yeah, 'm pissed at the Icies who did that."
Jared nodded and pulled at the strap of the rucksack, hefting the heavy bag further onto his back.
"Fuckin right it's okay, although there's this one thing … where was all the blood?"
"Blood? I mean they were ripped apart, it should've been bloody as all hell, but … there was no blood anywhere."
"Maybe it seeped into the ground."
They were exhausted and the sun kept on beating down on them as they walked around a large lake. It was a big lake too, who knew how many miles in diameter, but they had to hike around it, because apparently Odie lived on the other side.
Or so Jared had said.
They could've walked across it, on the white, shiny ice, but damn it, Jensen didn't want to risk it. He'd learned his lesson a few months ago when he'd tried to walk across a lake but slipped and dislocated his shoulder. The damn shoulder was still giving him problems, especially on rainy Fridays, but all in all, he though he set it okay. But he didn't want to go through that ever again; lesson learned, moving on.
And besides, if they had hiked for this long, walked day and night, then walking around the lake wouldn't kill him.
They'd been real lucky until now, hadn't met anyone; not humans – minus the dead ones - or Icies, which was a blessing and a curse because Jensen needed to fight something. Needed to kill something – something other than a few rabbits and well, Jared.
But nothing. There was nothing and no one and maybe, maybe that had been a good thing.
He looked to his left and saw the ice on the lake glisten from the sun. It was beautiful; bright and sparkly and enticing, luring him closer and closer and he wanted to step on the ice, walk on it, slide on it, get to this Odie guy faster, because he wanted answers, he wanted all of this damn mysteries solved.
"Jensen, where're you goin'?"
He flinched at the sound of Jared's voice and shuddered: "What?"
"Where are you going?"
Where was he going? He was … oh. He looked down and saw that his right foot was on the ice and when did that happen?
"I'm … uh, nothing."
He retreated his foot and set it down on the pine needles covered ground.
What the hell?
"You all right?"
There was real concern in Jared's voice, eyebrows raised and question marks written all over his face.
"I'm," he scratched the back of his neck when he walked back into the forest, putting space between him and the lake. Putting Jared to the lake's side, because what the fuck was that, "'m fine. Yeah, uh, you know what? Tell me about the lake."
"Yeah, the one you said I … uh, you know when I was a kid."
"The lake you almost drowned in?"
The question marks on Jared's face became more a 'why' than a 'what'.
"Uh, well okay. You sure?"
"I'm fucking sure, I wouldn't have asked otherwise, God just gimme a straight answer to a straight questions for once, wouldja?"
"Okay, all right, just … calm down."
He sighed and tried to calm down, because getting a stroke wouldn't accomplish anything: "Please, just tell me."
"You … you were about five, I think. Alineja was preparing lunch, we caught an elk. An elk you wanted to pet and ride on and it took me a long time to explain to you that it was dead and dangerous when alive. And that we'd eat it for dinner."
Jensen snorted: "I bet that went well."
"Yeah … you, you cried, stroked the elk between its eyes, wanting for it to wake up. But when it didn't you just kinda got tired of it, I think. Went to play in the dirt."
Jensen smiled: "Yeah?"
"Yeah … and then we had to get your hands washed. You were," Jared chuckled, "you were always playing in the dirt then. I don't know, looking for worms and beetles and things. I remember one time, you brought a fistful of squirming worms and dumped them on Alineja's lap. She screamed so loud."
Jensen smiled, not remembering any of that, but sort of … still remembering. It was odd; memories so faded they looked pale and translucent in his mind, but still so tangible that he could see shapes and sizes, colors sometimes.
Worms. Yeah, he could see that.
"Well, we went to a lake, I dug a hole, took me less than the two hours today and when I turned around to get some cloth to wipe your hands, you … you were gone."
Jensen bit his lip and looked down at the pine needles; how soft they were under his feet, how green and brown and the smell, so intoxicating, purifying his nostrils of the aroma of death.
"Fell in the lake?"
"Right through the hole. You were … really small then, no matter how much we fed you, you were bones and skin. So you just … slipped right through the hole."
He was walking, but Jared's voice was coming from farther and farther away so he stopped and turned around, seeing Jared stand by the lake's shore, hands in the pockets of his jeans, staring out at the vast frozen water. Ice that would never melt, water that would never again see the light of the sun.
They were a few feet apart, but Jensen could clearly hear Jared's whispered: "You fell in the lake right here."
He was tired, his legs hurt, his right side ached and his feet felt sore, and he really didn't want to go back to where Jared was standing, but that sentence grabbed him by his shirt like an invisible fist and pulled him right towards the man.
"Right there," Jared pointed to the lake, "and I jumped after you."
"We were staying at Odie's, but we had to deal with the elk outside so … and you wanted to go look for beetles," Jared shook his head, "so yeah, right here."
Jensen looked at the lake, at the white ice gleaming in the sunlight and the pale, bright memory of it crystalized into a clear picture of him between his uncle's legs, holding to his uncle's thighs for support with his dirty little fingers and when his uncle had turned around, the sparkly water in the hole called for him and he'd had to go. He'd had to go.
"But you got me out." he whispered, remembering flashes of water, freezing, burning water suffocating him.
"I got you out."
Jensen bit his lower lip and nodded. His uncle, Jared, he got him out. Saved him, when he could've just left him in the water to drown and freeze. But he hadn't.
He hadn't. An Icy hadn't left a human to die, but dived after him, saved him. He could never see Jared kill people out of no reason at all. Jared wasn't like Noah. He wasn't like his brother. He never would be like his sick, sick brother.
"You saved me."
"I … yeah, I did."
Jensen didn't know what to think; his head was hurting from everything, just everything. This whole, what, five days? that he'd spent with Jared had been one hell of a mindfuck. Hell, his whole life had been a mindfuck. And the fact that Jared had saved him, had taken care of him, hadn't hurt him, not once, didn't make him hate the man any less.
He looked at Jared, at the faraway look the Icy had in his eyes, while watching the frozen lake and the tall mountain peaks on the other side …
… maybe the hate had lessened a bit. A fraction of a particle, because maybe he wasn't hating Jared at all, but what he was. An Icy. Who he represented. The Ice People.
"I … Alineja and I, all we wanted to do was keep you safe. Raise you up, teach you all that we knew and keep you safe."
Jared whispered and Jensen shuddered, because all in all, they did raise him up. They taught him things, they kept him safe.
"I know you did." He whispered back and was just about to place his hand on Jared's shoulder, maybe erase the hurt he could see on Jared's face; the man clearly still hurting for the past, for his little sister's death, when a noise behind him made him pull an arrow out of the quiver, place it in the bow and point the sharp tip of the arrow at a man's forehead. It all happened so fast, in the draw of one breath, that neither Jared nor the newcomer had any time to react before Jensen let go of the bow's string.
Jared's palm was dry and warm on his forearm and he didn't twitch when his hand was pulled down slowly. He was still gripping his bow tight, but his eyes widened when he saw that the arrow hadn't embedded itself in the new guy's brain as he'd wanted to, but was instead being held by Jared.
"Jensen, it's Odie."
"Well, well, well, yes, yess, 's me, me, me. All me, just me. Just Odie, Odie, Odie, Odie, Odie."
Jensen raised his eyebrows, because well, he was expecting a lot of things, but this was … not one of them.
He placed his bow back where it belonged, growled: "Gimme back my arrow," to Jared and put it back into the quiver. Damn it, how couldn't he have seen that Jared had been holding the arrow all along? He needed to brush up on his observation skills.
He didn't know how to … what to say to the tall, lean and wrinkly looking man standing so close to him their noses were practically touching.
"Hi, hi, hi, 'm Odie, just Odie. Just Odie, had been for a looooong time, just Odie. Jensen."
The man knew him, knew his name, which okay, was probably because he'd been here as a child and maybe Jared had told the guy that they were coming. No need to freak out, although every cell in his body was screaming at him to freak out, because this was an Icy, and Icies were to be killed.
But no, no. Jared was an Icy too and he was … one of the good ones.
"Come, come, you must be tired. Tired's no good, must sit, sit and, and, and then we'll chat. Talk, we'll talk yes Jared my King?"
"Yes Odie," Jared placed his hand on Odie's body shoulder and squeezed, "then we'll talk. Jensen, he needs to hear what you know."
"Oh, but, but, but you my King, know more. Much more than me, me, I, I know strings to tie, but, but, but you have pieces. Pieces to put on a string, yes, my King?"
"Yes, Odie. We'll put my words on a string for Jensen."
"Good, yes, yes, yes, good. Jensen must have a string, must know. Yes. Yes, come on, come on. Have soup on the fire. Hope you like snake soup, 's good, gooooooood."
Jensen's head was spinning. King? Words? String? What?
And on top of all that, not all the soldiers were marching in line with that guy.
But he adjusted his bow, tapped the knife against his thigh and followed Jared and Odie deeper into the woods, farther and farther away from the lake in which he'd almost drowned when he'd been a kid. He looked back once more, squinting his eyes, when a sunbeam reflected from the ice and hit him directly into his right eye.
Something in his side pinched and he placed his hand over the spot, pressing down, but felt nothing. No pain, no soreness, no pinching.
Odie lived in a … cave. A real cave with a small entrance, but still tall enough so that neither of them had to bend down to get through.
"Got fire, got fire, no worries, none at all, my King. Odie has fire. Here and here."
Odie grabbed two sticks that were lying on a rock and ignited them with two rocks rubbing together. The whoooosh of the fire coming alive on the torches, send a shiver down Jensen's spine. He knew that sound, knew of the darkness caves hid. Knew of the dangers, knew of the dampness. Knew of the oppressing feeling he always got when being in one; all that solid rock just waiting to crash on him and bury him alive, or flatten him into a pulp.
"You and you. Hold it Jensen, kiddo, hold it … you need light, Jensen, light for the way. Yes? Light."
"Uh, yeah …" he grabbed the wooden, slightly damp handle and tried not to burn anything, especially not Odie's dry, brittle looking white hair.
There were rocks scattered before the mouth of the cave and some even further on, but they were sharper looking then the ones outside. They were dripping with water, some covered with moss, some looking wet without any apparent reason.
As Odie was taking them further into the guts of the cave, following a narrow trail that was wavering around small puddles of clear water, or ponds of rocks and very little water, Jensen got flashes of how he used to live in a cave too and when the man took them deeper and deeper into it, around corners and down some ladders made of rotten wood, Jensen remembered this. This … cave and tunnels and yeah, this wide open chamber.
"I remember this." He whispered, but the chamber was so large that his voice echoed through it as if he had screamed the words. There were torches on the walls burning orange-red, flames dancing in the slight draft coming from who knew here. It was all casting a nice, warm, orange light all around the stone-walled chamber, making everything visible; every stalactite and stalagmite, crystals shining brightly.
"'course, 'course you remember it Jensen, 'course. You played right over there," Odie's twig like finger pointed at the far away corner of the chamber, "played in the muck and the, the, the little puddle there. The ceiling leaks, it leaks bad, sometimes really bad, just drip, drip, drip all the time, dunno why, dunno, I don't, but, but you played there, got all wet and Alineja…"
Then the man stopped his rambling and wiped a tear of his cheek. Jensen was taken aback at the display of emotion, raw like that, but it was only logical. Alineja was Odie's sister too.
A sister he had lost.
Odie wiped another tear of his face; the skin there looked leather dry and brown as if it had been cooked on the sun for too long.
"Odie, it's okay brother."
"I know, my King, I know, she, she, she is all right. Safe now. Up there," he pointed up to the ceiling, "yes, my King?"
"Odie, call me Jared, please."
"Jared, Jared, Jared, no. You're my King, our King. You, you, you, your Father, he gave his all to you, his all my King, my Older, so, so, so …"
"Odie, shhh, hey stop. Just call me Jared, please. I beg of you."
"I," the man chewed on his dried, chapped lips, "I will, I promise. Jared. Jared."
Jared smiled and started walking towards a table of some sorts; everything was made of stone in this ginormous chamber, with the ceiling way up high, so high, Jensen couldn't even see it clearly.
"Oh yes, yes, sit," Odie sniffled, "sit, please, sit. I'll get the soup. Stew. Soup. It's snake, very good. You'll see. It's good."
Jensen doubted that, because a snake? But he was hungry, so damn hungry, his stomach growling for the past few hours and he needed food or else he'd start chewing on his clothes.
He sighed when he sat down on a round rock covered with some kinda animal's skin; he couldn't say what had worn the brown fur, but it was nice, soft and warm, even if the stone beneath it was hard as a, well, stone. He placed his bow and quiver on the ground next to him, stretching his arms and back, popping bones back into place.
He grimaced when Odie placed a wooden bowl filled with brown, smoking water and meat - the snake probably - floating in big chunks in it, because the smell was something to get used to, for sure. But he was hungry. He was beyond hungry.
He watched as Odie placed another bowl in front of Jared and then sat down himself but without a bowl of his own.
"You're not gonna eat?"
"No, no, no, water snakes are too chewy for me, too hard to bite them. My teeth, ah, not as good as they were."
Water snakes. Dear God, but Jensen still dipped a spoon into the soup and moaned when the taste spread throughout his mouth. Delicious.
He didn't care if there was venom in the soup, didn't care if he'd die after eating it, didn't care about anything, because he was hungry, he was so hungry and the soup tasted … familiar. He smacked his lips together, spreading the taste around his mouth … familiar.
He looked at Odie and Jared who were smiling at him: "What?"
"This soup was your favorite when you were a kid. You always had Odie make it. We had to eat it all the time, lunch, dinner, breakfast."
So, he'd been a water snake soup obsessed worm searcher, when he'd been a kid.
He sighed and ate the damn soup in silence. He didn't want more memories to invade his head, because they were making him feel things, things he had lost when he'd watched Alineja being killed. Things like how his uncle's and Alineja's love felt on his skin and in his mind. He just wanted food and then … then he'd see.
"I knew your daddy, Jensen."
The piece of – really tough - snake meat went the wrong way and he pushed himself away from the table, standing up, coughing and hacking and choking.
He placed his hand on his neck, as if that would help dislodge the piece of meat and hunched forward.
His eyes were starting to tear up and he couldn't breathe, coughing, pieces of soup and spit flying out of his mouth to the muddy ground.
He could feel a hand hitting his back, hitting hard, he'd probably have bruises all over his back come tomorrow, but it was helping.
He fell down to his knees, his fingers getting sucked into the soft mud, but he didn't care, because one hard clap on his back and he spat out the tiny piece of meat.
And then he threw up the rest of the soup.
Through his heaves, he could hear Odie's soft voice say: "Still a puker, the kiddo, eh, always was a puker, always, nothing stayed in that kid for long, nothing, nothing, nothing. Had to clean around the cave all the time, alllll the time."
Jared's chuckle came from somewhere very, very close to his left ear. He'd find it funny too, probably, if his brain wouldn't be too occupied with chocking, puking, dad and snake meat.
"Jensen, you okay? You all right?"
He was seeing red; lines and dots of red were dancing before his eyes, the chamber's gray-black walls were spinning around and around and he gripped the mud, let it slide between his fingers and breathed in.
He was up from the ground in a flash, seeing Odie stand by his quiver and his bow and he all but jumped to the man, slid an arrow out of the quiver on his way and grabbed him by the lapels of his shirt.
"My dad?" his voice was a growl, the taste of puke still strong in his mouth and he knew his breath must've smelled awful, but he didn't care. He let spittle fly all over the Icy, when he hissed: "You knew my dad?"
"No hit me, no hit me, don't," Odie's eyes went to his right, "… my King," then back to him, "please."
Jensen ignored Odie's babble and Jared's sharp call of his name and shook the Icy harder, wanting, needing to get some answers from the man.
"Fuckin' put the words on the string and fuckin' tell me about my dad or I swear I'll ram this arrow into your fuckin' throat. Wouldn't kill ya, I know, but it will hurt like hell!" He yelled at the crying Icy, his voice hoarse and his throat raw and aching.
"Jensen, let him go!"
"Don't hit me, don't hit me, don't hit me, knew you daddy, knew him, please, no hit me, my King, my King, Jared!"
The Icy was covering his ears and mumbling with his eyes closed, twitching away from Jensen's words and the arrow's point that Jensen was pushing into the dip of the guy's neck.
Strong hands pulled him back and held him away from Odie with a solid pressure in the middle of his heaving chest.
He stood back from Odie, letting the Icy fall down to the ground and lean his right side to the stone Jensen had been sitting on.
"Don't hit, don't hit, don't hit, don't hit …"
"You stay here, don't move, you hear me?!"
Jensen nodded; he'd stay.
"Hey Odie, hey brother, hey. It's okay. Jensen, just … you sprung that out on the guy with no warning and Jensen needs a bit of warning, his fuse is really short, you get me?"
He let the arrow fall to the muddy ground … his fuse was short, he almost … he threatened … and the Icy didn't do anything to him. He was just taking whatever Jensen dished out and who of the Ice People did that? No one. Except Alineja, Jared and Odie.
"I get you, brother, I get you, I do, I do. Short fuse, very short. What happened, what? When?"
"I don't know Odie, I don't know. He's scared, you know?"
"I know, I see, I can see. He's terrified. He's a little child, he always was a little child. Hid behind your legs, just two green eyes poking 'round them. Always such a little child. Grew up big, though. Put on lots and lots and lots of muscles."
"Stop talking about me, like 'm not here." It came out sounding as if he was ten and pouting.
Jared turned around and growled: "Shut up!"
"Hey Odie, why don't we sit down and talk, hmm, come on, just sit down and we'll talk, right Jensen?"
"Right." He gritted through his teeth, watching as Jared helped Odie up on his feet. The Icy was old and his knees popped when he stood up and popped again when Jared helped him sit down on the animal pelt's that were decorating the stone chair.
"Okay Odie, you all right?"
"I'm okay, I'm okay, okay, okay. I'm okay."
"Okay, now Jensen's gonna sit down too and you'll put words on the string, won't you, Odie?"
"I will, string, I'll string them up. You need the string my King, Jared, to, to put your words on, yes? Yes?"
"Yes, Odie. I need the string."
He never took good to orders and snappy, harsh tone, but if he wanted answers, he'd need to sit, otherwise he was sure that Jared would take Odie away to … protect him. Odie was Jared's brother, older probably, although who knew how the Ice People's family order worked, and Jared would do anything to protect his brother. Jensen knew that now. Could see it.
"Fine." He grumbled and took Odie's seat while Jared took the one next to Odie.
"Okay now, Odie put my words on a string, okay?"
"Yes, yes, yes, I'll put them on a nice string, my King, Jared. I promise, I do, I swear."
"I know you will."
Odie smiled reminding Jensen of a dog with its tail wagging in happiness. He couldn't tell what made him a lost ball in high weeds, but the man was just that … not totally right in the head. But Jared seemed to trust his brother to … put words on a string?
Jensen sighed. An Icy and a nuts Icy. Hell.
"I'll start Odie, okay?"
"You start and I'll string."
"Okay. So, Jensen," and when Jared turned to look at him, his eyes were soft and if Jensen didn't know better, full of sadness, "your mom's name was Jamie, her real name, others called her Jelly."
"She, she, she was pregnant, with a boy, I knew it was a boy, I could feel it, a boy, yes, a boy."
"When I found her I placed my hand on her belly and it felt like a boy. Felt a bit weak and little, like a boy.
"Your daddy's name was Lemmy, Looky we all called him. Looky, Looky, Looky who's here," Odie giggled at that, as if it was really that funny, Jensen didn't think it was, "but he loved your mommy, loved her so much, loved her to the darkness and back, loved her, loved your mommy, Jensen. Looky and Jelly, Looky and Jelly. I heard them at night sometimes, whispering, always whispering and giggling. Your mommy giggled a lot. Made me giggle back, but silently, didn't want anyone to hear. No, no, no, shhhh, shhhh."
Jensen was starting to feel nauseated, the bits of the water snake he'd managed to keep down swimming dangerously in his belly.
"They were happy, kiddo, so happy. In love, rainbows and puppies. And they made you. Made a boy. Made you, with gasps and moans, I heard. I heard everything. Not that I wanted to, but … my ears, they … are sharp."
Jensen wanted to hurl, but he swallowed it all down: "Okay."
"Looky died, he died. Killed. Was killed. Killed by humans. Killed ummm five weeks before you were born. Five? Four? Five? Weeks. Some weeks. Jelly mourned. She cried. She cried silently, she, she, she cried into my shirt," Odie looked down at the dark blue button down he wore and rubbed a hand down the front, as if smoothing down the wrinkles, "made it all wet and snotty, but she cried. She lost, she, she loved. And she rubbed her belly, said my Jensen. My Jensen. Said it out loud, into my shirt, right into my shirt. She cried. Cried Jensen and cried Looky. But there was no more Looky," the Icy shook his head, "no more Looky."
Jensen nodded and tried to ignore the lump that had formed in his throat. He looked at Jared and he was looking at him, not at Odie, but at him, with softness in his eyes.
He wasn't fine and he knew that Jared knew, but Odie didn't seem to care, he just continued with his story.
"Humans killed him, they killed him. They knew how to kill him. They knew."
"Knew? I don't … I don't understand."
"Jensen, your dad, he was an Icy."
The words might as well have been a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water down his back, a shot to his heart and a spear through his brain.
"I … no! What?! No! No fuckin' way!"
"Jensen, listen, just listen to us. I didn't know, I didn't know. I suspected, but I didn't know. Not for sure."
"When you were born, Jensen …" Jared closed his eyes and shook his head, "your eyes were so green. They were so, so green."
"My … m-my e-eyes?"
"And," Jared bit his lip," how you go to the stars for comfort when you're lonely and scared and how you're strong, how you can punch me and not break your arm and how you survived Ashil's crystal touching your appendix," Jared took a deep breath, "I didn't really, uh, everything was happening so fast, Jamie was pushing and you just … you just slipped out and I didn't think about it, but years after, I … when she pushed and your hand came out, your finger … was a crystal. It was a moment, a second, a flash really, because when you … came, your finger started growing skin."
The chamber's walls were starting to narrow, started to come closer and closer to him and Odie and Jared were looking like misshapen mushrooms.
"What was in that soup?"
He stood up from the rock as if someone lit a fire under his ass and took a few steps backwards, raising up his hand in a 'get the hell away from me' gesture that he hoped beyond hope Jared would understand. But it really was a hope beyond hope, because Jared was walking towards him, disregarding the gesture and just plowing on.
"Did you poison the, the soup? This where you kill me?"
"Jensen, calm down."
"Don't … don't use the mojo, don't you dare. Just … don't … my dad was not an Icy, I wasn't … I don't have crystals in my finger," he looked down at his trembling fingers, still with some blood stuck behind his fingernails, "I don't … just back off."
"Jensen, Jensen, kiddo, Looky was my brother, was Jared's brother. Looky, Looky, Looky who's here, was our brother. Noleih killed him, he killed our brother, killed your daddy."
"No, you, you said it was humans."
"Jensen, who do you think gave the humans information on how to kill an Icy?"
"No, no, no! No!"
He couldn't breathe, the walls were shattering, shaking, breaking all around him.
"Wait, wait, just stop. Just stop, stop."
He needed everything to just stop; the walls, his breathing, his heartbeat, this day, Jared walking towards him, pressing onto him with all that calmness. He didn't want to be calm. He was enraged. He wanted to feel being angry, he wanted … all of this to stop, allow him to take a breath, easy, easy does it and then move on.
Jared stopped walking: "Okay, 'm stopping. I stopped."
That was all Jensen needed. Just for everything to stop and allow him to think … think and breathe and get the walls to stop crumbling down around him.
"You said," he licked his lips, moistening them up "my mom, she … she bled … did I … did I," he lowered his voice, sucking in any tears that wanted to appear unbidden, "kill her?"
"Did I … my finger, the crystal, did it …" he looked down at his fingers. They were fingers, skin, bone, freckles, a few scars, but no crystals.
"No, no, Jensen, no you didn't kill your mom."
"'s that true? Can you be sure of that?"
"Some crystals are sharp, pointed, serrated, sharp. Our fingers are pointed, are …"
"Stop talking, Odie!"
Jensen couldn't really tell if it was him who yelled that or if it was Jared, but Odie snapped his mouth shut so quickly that the snap could be heard in the echoing chamber.
"I need … I … I c-can't …"
The walls were crashing down all around him, he would be buried under a pile of rocks, he couldn't breathe …
"Jensen, can you focus?"
"Nhhh, no, I need …"
He was getting closer and closer to the exit, to the tunnel that would lead him outside, out of here, out of this madness. He wasn't even conscious of what he was doing, if he was walking or crawling or running. All of a sudden he was feeling like his chest might explode and the next he was inches from the exit, but so far away from the sun, the air, the lush forest outside this oppressive cave.
"Jensen, there's more."
"What? What more?"
He couldn't handle more. What more? His head hurt like his brain was four sizes too big to fit in his skull, his right side throbbed, his mouth was dry of all saliva, his stomach was rolling around as if the snake reattached all of its parts and was now swimming in his stomach acid. He was going to combust.
"Noleih he has to stop, stop, stop, stooooop. We, we, we need to make him stop. You need to make him stop. Make him stop, Jensen, kiddo, please, make our brother stop killing, stop killing us, killing humans. Make him stop being evil, so evil, so afraid. Like you, he's afraid, he's scared, scared of humans like you're scared of us. Make him stop. Gotta make him stop. Kiddo, please, stop."
"Okay, Odie, okay, calm down, brother. You made a beautiful string with words, it's okay. You did good, you did really good Odie."
"Jensen's sad, he's angry, he can't breathe, he's hurting. He's not all right. Jared, Jensen's not all right."
"Odie, I know, he's gonna be okay, trust me. I'll make it all okay."
"I trust you Jared. My King, I trust you. You're so much like your Father, so much like him, trusted him too. He'd been wise, my brother, very wise."
"He was Odie, he was. Uh, Odie, why don't you clean the bowls and get some pelts for sleep, huh? Jensen's gonna need some sleep, hmmm?"
"Oh yes, yes, sure, sure, of course, yes, right away."
Jensen watched the interaction between the two Icies but couldn't really do anything or say anything because his brain was overflowing with information, his synapses were overheating, his lungs and heart were working too fast, too much … too much.
"Jensen, hey buddy, hey, hey…"
"I can't …"
"I don't …"
"I … I'm not …"
"Okay, you need some air? We can go outside, get some air."
"It's too much …"
"I know, I know, come on, gonna get some air. Odie, we're gonna go get some air, we'll be back!"
"Yes, yes, yes, Jared."
"Come on Jensen, let's go, come on."
He was being pushed towards the tunnel; one hand on his bicep and one on his back, pushed up the three wooden ladders and down another tunnel until finally he saw trees in the distance and how dusk had fallen on the land.
He felt numb, floating somewhere between what had been and what was and holy crap, what was, was horrible. Was stuff his nightmares were made of; Icies and half-breeds, and struggles for dominance, and hunger, starvation for family, the what if I killed my mom, who was my dad.
Who was Jensen? Who was he?
The things Jared and Odie had told him shifted his personality for a degree or three thousand, shifted it off kilter and … who was he? Who had he always been?
"Sit down, Jensen, sit, come on."
"'m not gonna flip my shit," he gasped for breath, "'m not gonna hurt Odie or you," another gasp, drawing in sharp breaths to fill up his starving lungs, "'m not gonna kill you or myself," the air was sharp, pure, just the sweet, sweet familiar odor of nature, "'m not gonna do anything."
"'m not who I was anymore. 'm not … human," he looked down at his hands, his shaking hands, scars and calluses and bitten fingernails, freckles and bruised knuckles, "'m not human, uncle Sammy. Never was."
"Jensen, buddy, you okay?"
He looked at Jared who was crouched before him; concern and fear in those slanted eyes and nodded. Of course he was okay, what a dumbass question. He was just fine.
"Yeah, 'm 'kay," he pulled his bottom lip between his lips and chewed on it, "'m fine, Uncle Sammy."
He felt Jared place his hand on his shoulder, the touch familiar and grounding, trying to bring him back from wherever he'd floated to. Jared gave him a shake that rattled his teeth and made him hiss when the bruise on his jaw made itself known. He looked directly into Jared's eyes, not shying away from the look, not shying away from being looked at. Or after.
"Hey, Jensen, can you just breathe for me, hmmm?"
"I can't …" he bit his lip, blood spilling out of the small cut his incisors made in the soft flesh, "'m scared."
The first sob wasn't a surprise, because he had been on the verge of tears ever since Odie told him his dad's name, his real name, but the second sob was a surprise, because he never let himself cry more than two tears.
"Shit…" he cursed while trying to suck tears back into where they came from and not cry. He didn't want to cry any more than a tear or two and there wouldn't be a dam big enough to stop the river.
"I killed my mom, Uncle Sammy and, and 'm not human. 'm not anyone. 'm in between."
Tears felt hot on his cold cheek, hot and wet down his neck and Jared's face was blurry, but the softness in his uncle's eyes was just that, softness, not pity or fear, just softness.
"You are Jensen, you hear me? Always have been, always will be, you hear me? Nothing's ever gonna change that."
"I killed my mom."
"You didn't. She was bleeding, it still happens, it had always happened. I've seen it, heard of it, trust me. It happens, it will always happen. You didn't kill her. If anyone, blame me. I should've done something more, I don't know, I should've stopped the bleeding …"
"But you didn't," he looked down at his shaking hands, that were lying on his thighs, "make her bleed."
"Neither did you."
"'m not all right."
"I know you're not."
"I'm so sorry…"
"Nothing to be sorry about."
"I'm so sorry, Uncle Sammy."
"Kid, come on, don't … don't bail on me now, come on."
"I can't …"
He couldn't. He couldn't stop crying. He wanted to, he really, really did, but he couldn't. Everything he ever did, everything he had been … it was because he was a half breed. Half human, half Icy. All those humans he had killed, all those lives he had taken …
"Sammy …" he wailed, he fucking wailed, help him God, but he couldn't stop. The weight on his chest was mountain big and he couldn't stop.
"'m here and 'm not leaving you again."
He gripped Jared by the front of the shirt and hid his face into Jared's chest, just like all those times when he had been a kid; tired and cranky and sleepy and weepy.
All those times when his uncle allowed him to leave spit and snot and tears all over his shirt, all those times when he climbed into the man's lap and hid himself into the man's heartbeat.
He tried to cry silently, tried not to make too much noise, tried to stop crying, but couldn't.
There was no breeze, no noises, all quiet and still.
"'s gonna be okay, kiddo, 's gonna be okay."
He nodded – not really believing, but this was his uncle and his uncle never lied to him - sniffed in the tears – no more crying, for fuck's sake, no more crying - and patted Jared on the chest while raising up his head and looking directly into Jared's eyes: "Noleih. We need to end him. I need him dead."
"I know he's your brother, but I need him dead. I need him dead."
"I can't kill my brother."
"I know you can't, but I can. And I will, I swear I will."
"Don't. Please, please don't. I have to."
"Would killing him really make you feel better? Make it all better? It won't bring you back your parents."
"No it won't, but it will make me feel better. It'll make me … ache … less."
"Jensen, it doesn't work that way."
"You don't know that. You don't."
"I do. Believe me, I know."
"Well, you ain't me."
"No, I ain't, but I know pain. I know how it is."
Jensen shook his head: "I'll kill him."
"I know you will try, but you don't have to, 's all 'm saying."
"You won't stop me?"
"I don't know."
Jensen nodded, because he understood. No one just kills a brother, family was to be protected. Alineja and Jared had taught him that; always protect your family … until that lesson got blown in the wind when Jared left and Jensen left Alineja to be killed.
"I know you will."
He wiped the tears off his face and got up from the tree stump Jared had seated him on.
"Wanna go back inside?"
"I'm guessing I have no other choice."
"No, no you don't."
"Okay, but tomorrow morning, we're going to find Noah."
"No, no, we need to end this. Make you all go back to sleep and leave the planet to us."
Us? Who was us, anymore? Jensen wasn't an 'us' anymore, he was an abomination, not belonging to the humans nor the Icies. Not belonging on the earth or beneath the ice.
Jared nodded and started walking towards the cave's entrance, watching Jensen's tense back.
Jensen was ready. Now he just needed to be prepared.