Chapter 1

1.

Aphiwe had, as her mother would say, just dipped a toe into the last day of her life…

"Not like that!" Aphiwe yelled.

Lesanda threw down her arms letting out an exaggerated groan.

"I don't even want to do this!"

"No! I let you go first, so now I get to go!"

"I don't want to play anymore."

"If you stop without me getting a turn; I'm going home."

"That's not- You can't- You promised!"

"So did you!"

Both girls stared, caught in an impasse. Aphiwe sighed and walked away.

Lesanda sighed, her jaw quivering. "Okay! But do it from-"

Aphiwe parted her feet, shoulder width, digging toe to root and soil, hands apart, spine straight, the bow the length of her body pulled taunt, top and bottom giving, she loosed and her arrow flew straight and true.

Thud!

Crash!

Lesanda was flipped, blowing through a young Barudabi tree snapping it in half. Aphiwe froze. Time as she knew it expanded infinitely, swallowing space and matter.

Then a gravely still Lesanda cried out, squirming and clutching her chest. Aphiwe blinked a tear away, laughing as she dropped her bow, sprinting up to Lesanda who was still hugging her heart.

"Ow! Ow! Ow!"

Kicking out of Aphiwe's line of sight, Lesanda's foot carved into the soil, sweeping Aphiwe's leg before she could think. Lesanda's onyx and dull silver legs wrapped around Aphiwe's neck, rolling and them both.

Layers of rotted leaves, soil kicked up as they gained speed spinning on and on.

"Stop!"

"No! You hit me harder than I hit you!"

"I'm sorry!"

"Liar, you laughed!"

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"I don't know."

They sped up.

"I'm choking."

"Good!"

"No really."

"You wouldn't be able to talk if you were choking."

It shut Aphiwe up, she let go of Lesanda's smothering thighs, suddenly kicking up. Lesanda's momentum mixed with Aphiwe's, launched them skywards.

"Wait! Stop! We're right next to the-"

It was too late. The wooded earth hit a sudden end. Aphiwe stood, taking Lesanda with, momentum launched them over the edge.

Both girls parted, screaming their lungs out as they fell. The drop wasn't their own, dozens of vines, branches and webbing met them along the way, bouncing and flipping them until they slammed into the floor with a crash that caused birds to shoot up into the air.

From multiple vines sap dripped, pooling before pouring over to another slow accumulating pool. Bugs started to pour out the woodwork, attached to them crystalized versions of the same syrup with green and purple roots popping out like veins. The bugs converged, and the veins feeding too, slowly glowing.

Out the bark, needle like spikes burst out and stabbing the bugs, pulling them in. A sheet of thick meat closed, crushing and dissolving them in their hundreds, jagged claws like pins formed a shape, like teeth on a carpet.

Said 'carpet' fell. Clicking and clacking on root and compost, a far larger one fell. Both moved in on each other but the second bunched, doubling in size, it was enough to shrink the other. There was a heaving roar, the creatures shuddered retreating for a second before, rushing forwards, feelers reaching out, then, suddenly Aphiwe sneezed, another roar, her pointed ears perked.

"Lesanda!" She yelled. "I think that sound was a Jokai… Lesanda!"

She got nothing.

Aphiwe jumped as though shot out a cannon, roaring baby lungs producing a baby growl. The creature retreated as though chased. She stumbled, holding her head, dropping to her knees and breathing for air.

"Lesanda, get up!" She gripped handfuls of earth and rot, squeezing as it bled out her fingers.

She whistled, short bursts and erratic bursts. Her legs a blur rushing to Lesanda, immediately scooping her up. Her muscles gave a frightening chill to her bones. There was blood coming out Lesanda's mouth. She ran out of breath and simply held onto her friend just throbbing in pain until the weight and pressure on her let her breathe.

She whistled faster.

In the distance, a bark returned in the same bursts, followed by a long running whine. Heavy paws pounded the ground. An immense Sedi jaguar appeared. It's head and paws were bulbus. The muscles in-between thin, all coated in scales. With every step they rose and dropped, revealing millions upon millions of spikes like waves in an ocean, each insignificant compared to the package. It bowed, spreading its front paws low to match her eye line.

She patted its head, almost falling on it.

"Good girl, Bae Bae, I need you to go to mom. There's a Jokai here. We got to get out of here, now!"

The creature jumped away but came back. In one hand, she lifted Lesanda, wiping a tear with the other. Spikes sharp enough to dig into rock, bounced off dull onyx and silver as she lay Lesanda over the beast. Aphiwe jumped on after.

They took off.

A distinct roar made her shudder. All across was a dense forest, earth and thick raised roots. Remnants of civilisation could be seen, abandoned. Unmaintained and unwatched by her people. The level of earth abandoned for the health of the God Tree.

Bae Bae deftly blasted ahead as though open plane. Aphiwe held Lesanda and dug into the spikes, letting them branch and cling to her as they swung. They were out of the densest forest.

They were still surrounded by trees, these were so large they weren't pillars but towers, running, seemingly forever only to end in the shadow of ones so large she couldn't see its curve. All a sickly white and tan. There was another chill down her spine as another roar came. In the distance was a pit, above a solid wall of wood and plane tan vines. In-between and along the bark, a stairway.

"Bae Bae, we're not going to make it if you don't go faster."

Bae Bae's were not the only audible steps.

She turned to see a monkey. It had six tails, each tip a mace of fur and spikes running up its spine. Its fingers dense. Steel nails ripping into the wood. Its face a sunflower of jagged leather and bone. It was small; waist-high at its tallest, but enough to make Aphiwe scream for Bae Bae to go faster. She was trembling, looking back and forth, before taking a deep, deep breath.

"Bae Bae, go back to my mom. Bring her back, I'll work to gather enough time for you to fetch her."

She jumped off and Bae Bae slowed only for Aphiwe to scream for her to go. Her others words rang in her head, Jokai did not leave survivors.

Bae Bae ran, howling as she blasted off. Aphiwe scrambled, picking up a petrified rock that had caught her eye. She started swinging it, the creature halted.

"Go away!" She screamed.

It tilted its head as though confused. Aphiwe took a step forward, it took one back. She pressed, taking five, it took four back, then taking three for her four, two for her three, one for her two and then none.

Aphiwe jumped on the spot screaming, she looked back seeing Bae Bae and Lesanda disappear up the stairway.

She looked back to see it growling, sharp but thick fangs flared, the tails spread wide. Crushing what nerve she had and fast.

Screaming, she ran at it as it bounced from left to right, it jumped over her head, all six tails forming a mind of their own, each picking a different spot. Two targeted her goggles, one on her chest, another on her legs. The steel bounced off her skin but pushed her back. The bat caught air. The creature belched; a purple spray burst from its lips. Her eyes widened and she immediately took off, pulling what was left of the leather tunic over her nose. The Jokai was fast, overtaking her and slapping the rod out her hands, forcing her to go get it.

The moment she bent, it jumped on her back, its claws bouncing off her skin but ripping through the tunic like tissue. A purple spray hit her head, passing over as it tried to pull her goggles off.

Her hand caught metal and squeezed, it howled and she bounced it against rock and root spinning fast and hard. She watching it bounce and looked to the pit.

It might as well have been in another world.

She ran for the branch, her world spun, nearly making her buckle and trip, spitting and seeing purple.

Sprinting, she dove for the branch, grabbing it and running directly at the creature. It was quick to its feet; shaking but bouncing as she chased it like a maniac.

Aphiwe panted like an animal but didn't stop, her teeth gritted, body weight on her heels before she bounced, sidestepping and swinging wildly, catching it off guard.

Just as dense purple spray burst, Aphiwe dove.

She rubbed her nose finding purple snot. A secondary concern because the creature was down.

Still purple sprayed.

She unhooked her eye gear, putting one glass on her eye and the other over her nose. Closing the exposed eye, she grabbed the branch, breaking the ends a taking any rocks there and filling her mouth. Struggling to breathe she made her way forward, it blasted more purple, black blood oozing out its head. It tried to retreat. She came after it slamming without mercy until there was black blood all over.

Her world still spun, and she stumbled to her knees. The branch fell, forgotten for a desperate run for the pit, zigzagging against her will.

'Mama!' her mind cried out, mouth locked.

Her muscles spasmed but pushed. A tail swept her legs before another shoved.

A tiny Jokai jumped on her back. Rich purple blew over her head, her exposed eye forced shut.

The creature jumped in front of her, spraying directly into her face, she flailed but might as well have been nailed to the floor, her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she collapsed.

2.

Aphiwe woke up, choking.

There were multiple tails squeezing on her neck. Her elbow pressed against her neck, her wrist stuck under her goggles and a belt tied around her neck. It was enough to keep her head on her shoulders. But not breath. Her eyes darted up and down, there was dense wood surrounding her, not forest but pure uncut natural wood, the stem of a trunk. It was old, parts of it petrified. She'd never seen a tree so cavernous, skeletons hung in their hundreds, a butcher's dream. Next to her was her Jokai, upside down and missing a head. In the distance a skeleton dropped. Unable to hold its weight it crumbled where bone and rock spread like gravel. Black blood dripped onto a wooden bowl. Aphiwe squirmed. The creature let go, moving to the bigger Jokai, caressing it before lapping up blood and whining loudly.

Aphiwe fought, losing to the vines holding her. She should have been able to snap free, but her every muscle fought and what wasn't fighting was shutting down. The pressure loosened, letting her take deep breathes.

The Jokai hadn't noticed, she held her breath swinging, flinging her head back and forth. It noticed, her knees bobbed, purple filled her world, the vine held until the creature jumped on top of her, going for her neck.

She dropped, landing on top of it.

She couldn't break free, but her shoulders were enough to pin it down, she had her head and it'd have to do. Purple pounded her face and her face pounded it. Its claws and fangs bounced off her skin, then suddenly it fell still with her forehead still beating on it. Purple tears rolling down her eyes. She rolled free, her body rebelling by the second. The rock in her mouth long crushed between her teeth.

"Mama!" She cried, rolling further away, deep in the purple fog as she screamed. "Mama!"

The tree shuddered and a Jokai, bigger than any she could ever imagine stepped in front of her. Aphiwe shut up beyond frozen, almost in awe.

It roared, rushing her.

A whistle erupted followed quick by dozens of thuds. The massive creature froze. Its eyes bobbed, jaw slack. It, on all fours, shrunk bunching herself into a ball, one many times bigger than Aphiwe. It shivered and a whine started only to be replaced by a slow, low rumbling growl that grabbed her lungs and squeezed, vibrating the whole time. It grew, thinner but far larger as though unfolding. The tails, all endlessly long, grew purpose, each with a function, collecting goods. Two impaled the dead Jokai and, in a flash, it climbed high to an endless ceiling and disappeared.

"Mama!" Aphiwe cried.

"Aphi! Aphi!"

It was her mother!

"Thato! Calm down." Yelled a different but familiar voice.

"Babalwa just blow your way in!" Thato yelled.

"We can't do that! All we can do is try find a way in."

"Aphi we're coming!"

Aphiwe's muscles were losing the fight, she whistled in bursts, her lungs aching as more purple dribbled from her lips. A familiar bark caught her ears.

Her eyes shut against her will. Her breath grew shallow, what desperation had pushed her was so long gone, a dream.