“What is it?” asked Trent as he jabbed at the shape with a stick. Pale and ugly, discarded in the dirt beneath their feet, stretched out into the long dark of the cave.
“Like, a snake skin?” ventured his younger brother, Darcy, apprehensive as he looked down at the crystalline shape. “I don’t know.”
The two of them stood at the mouth of the cave, the setting sun at their back the dying light making the dark before them seem so much darker.
“I don’t like it. It’s gross,” Darcy murmured, driving his hands deep into the pockets of his denim jacket, trying to suppress the shudder that ran through him.
It was late in the day, late in the season, carved jack-o’-lanterns already appearing upon the doorstops of the houses they had passed on their way into the hills. Their parents had decided that autumn was a suitable enough time for their much-delayed summer vacation.
For their children Trent and Darcy, twins but far from identical, the idea of spending a week in the onset of the falling leaves and the settling chill seemed ridiculous. Far better, Trent had argued, that they wait until Christmas: at least then it would be festive. Yet for whatever reason, their mother and father had remained resolute that the half-term was definitely the right time to make up for the summer vacation that had never materialised
. Thus, they had bundled both boys into the back of the station wagon , and begun the long journey upstate for familiar greener pastures.
,here they were, midway through the week and bored out of their minds, on the other side of the woodland, at the mouth of a cave with the discarded skin of some huge homunculus before them.
“What do you think?”
“Definitely not native to here. Probably something that migrated here.”
Behind them, the sun sunk further down past the hills, and beneath their feet
, there seemed the faintest suggestion of something moving.
Trent, tossed the stick away and pulled a card from his pants pocket. It was worn, the corners bent, and the colours of the ibeh depicted on its surface were faded.
“Better safe than sorry,” he said, looking to his brother for confirmation.
Darcy adjusted his thick rimmed glasses and nodded his agreement.
Turning the card about between his fingers, Trent lifted his left arm where the small box, black plastic and gold trim, was bound to his wrist. The card passed through its narrow length down the far side and dissolved into light.
“Apprentice Summoners Trent—”
“—and Darcy, request your presence!”
“Unfold your majesty—”
“Ibeh, get real!”
The light took form, coalescing into a shape before them, a perfect coil from which the head rose slowly, dark eyes looking out, forked tongue sliding from its mouth, glittering lavender scales still warm with the light of its summoning.
“Hi, Daisy,” Darcy said warmly, crouching down before the large serpent, smiling contentedly as he reached out and stroked the smooth, gaudy feathers atop the creature’s head. “You had a good sleep, right?”
The forked tongue again flickered between its jaws as the snake hissed happily, its tail rising up and rattling slowly in the manner of a dog. Neither boy had any idea whether this was something actual snakes did, especially not a snake as dangerous as the rattlesnake whose genetics had provided the basis for the ibeh, but in regards to their family homunculus, they had learnt to interpret it either as a sign of happiness or excitement.
Joining his brother alongside their ibeh, Trent gestured towards the skin that had been abandoned.
“Hey, girl, you know what this is?”
The large serpent turned its head, staring at the discarded remnants of the other homunculus with large, dark eyes. Instantly it straightened, rising up defensively, tail swishing about in the air behind it with a speed that both boys knew to mean excitement.
Hastily, Darcy glanced in the direction of his brother.
“That’s bad, right?”
“Yeah. That seems bad.”
As if to affirm their feelings, there came a low, rumbling growl from the dark of the cave
, and the shape of something vast was shifting amidst the shadows, the ground trembling with greater violence this time.
“Definitely bad,” Trent affirmed, anxiety evident in his voice.
“It’s late, so we should probably go,” he said, trying to think of an excuse without sounding like he was scared of what might happen if they stayed, of the confrontation they might be drawn into.
, came the shuddering growl of a vast shape in the dark, the noise of something massive pushing its way up from where it had settled, uncertain legs moving with gathering speed, slamming against the dirt and rock.
Before the two boys, the ibeh seemed to become more agitated, flattening itself low to the ground, writhing in the dirt, eyes wide in anticipation of confrontation.
“Daisy,” Darcy said, reaching out and placing a hand on the back of the serpent. “Come on, we need to go.”
From within the dark, the noise grew louder, and in his chest, Darcy felt his heart begin to beat quicker in response.
“Daisy,” he said again.
The snake remained before them, tail vibrating wildly, head strained as it stared ahead into the dark
, Tense excitement exuded from its long, slender frame.
“Daisy! Come on!” Trent shouted, joining the attempt to persuade the homunculus.
There was a moment in which they could see nothing, hearing only the terrible noise in the dark as it rose upwards toward them, and then suddenly a massive beast burst through the folds of shadow, its hideous form revealed in all its nauseating glory.
It had no face so as to speak, simply a roaring, open maw filled with triangular shards of teeth, whilst its body was pale and almost devoid of colour, a writhing, twisting mass of flesh. It was charging ahead on squat, withered chicken legs, decidedly lacking in any other avian attributes save for the tiny, shrunken leathery wings that protruded from the back of its segmented body, reminders of its evolutionary past. It was like the hideous child of earthworm and bird, a thing that should not have existed, that could not have existed but for the interference of artifice.
Around the creature hung a stench of damp and decay, the rot of something that had dwelt live for years far below the dank soil of forgotten lands and principalities.
Lindworm, they would learn the word later as their father chastised them for putting themselves in such a dangerous situation, their mother applying antiseptic and band aids to the cuts and scrapes received as they had sprinted back towards the holiday house through the brambles and foliage in the dark.
“Go!” Darcy cried again, the word stuck in his throat as he seized hold of their ibeh with both hands, trying to drag it back in the dirt. “We need to go!”
The ibeh refused to move, hypnotised by the instinct of confrontation, yearning forward, hissing with wild excitement.
Roughly, Darcy felt himself pulled back and away by his brother, dragging him out beyond the mouth of the cave, and as soon as his hands slipped from the homunculus it surged forward, twisting in the dirt with impossible swiftness, rising up just in time before being trampled by the huge bird-worm, and striking.
“Daisy!” Darcy screamed in alarm, watching as the ibeh’s teeth sunk into the soft flesh of the huge worm, its bulk slowed by the sudden attack.
Tears stirred in his eyes, the panic clear on his face. The worm was throwing itself about wildly in the dark of the cave as it tried to shake free the attacking ibeh, its clawed feet stamping against the damp soil.
The boy’s lips moved once more, the name of their homunculus upon them, yet so consumed was he with the horror of the moment that he was unable to fully voice the word.
With animal savagery, the lindworm thrashed about, deliberately charging at the walls, smashing the shape of the ibeh against the outcroppings of rock and dragging it along their jagged length, leaving a trail of blood slick against the stone.
Darcy threw himself forward, only to be restrained by the weight of his brother on his back
“Get off me!” Darcy shouted angrily, jabbing his elbows backwards, eventually striking Trent in the face with a lucky shot.
Moments later, while the two homunculi were still at each other’s throats, so the two boys were likewise concerned with their own scrap, rolling in the grass, lashing out at one another in frustration and anger.
“Call her back!” Trent shouted, his noise bloodied. “Call her back and let’s get out of here, you moron!”
Darcy’s face reflected slow realisation as he gave one final shove, pushing his brother off him and scrabbling into a seated position, adjusting his glasses and holding out a hand, Trent mirroring the action.
“Ibeh, return!” the two of them shouted as one, differences momentarily put aside.
The shape of their ibeh – its flesh torn, feathers dirtied with its own blood, its jaws still sunk into the side of the thrashing lindworm – seemed to glimmer with light, and slowly, moment by moment, its presence faded, the shape of its physical being rescinding. Until, at last, there was a single card in the damp grass before the two boys, torn and scratched, shabbier than when first it had been drawn out.
The giant lindworm howled, spittle flecking the grass at the cave’s entrance, and neither child could tell whether it was with satisfaction or resentment that the fight had been brought to such an unsatisfactory conclusion. Neither wished to find out, and hastily, Darcy scrabbled in the dirt and grass, snatching the torn card from the ground.
Above them, standing on the threshold of the dark, the lindworm howled again.
Behind them, in the blood red of the setting sun, the lindworm continued to screech its warning to all others that dared trespass against it.