Firesoul is a tale of Jiri, who was found as an infant in the ashes of her village and taken in by a neighboring shaman to be trained as a powerful jungle druid. When Aspis Consortium mercenaries release an ancient evil that burns her adopted home to the ground, Jiri must gather a group of her own to uncover the secrets of a lost nation and stop the fire spirit—and the greedy treasure hunters trying to leash it for their own ends—before it lays waste to the entire Mwangi Expanse.
Chapter Two: The Pyre
There were no animals.
Jiri could still hear them in the jungle all around, the birds, monkeys, and bats, but their familiar cries were all distant. Even more unsettling, no insects flashed iridescent in the thin sunbeams that filtered down through the canopy, or swirled around her, eager to feast on her blood or sweat.
Ever since she was old enough to walk, Jiri had been warned never to pass the statue of the Mango Woman.
What tainted aura warned the animals to stay away?
Whatever it was, it touched the plants, too. Around her, the undergrowth grew thinner, sparser. The ground beneath the trees finally turned into empty red earth, mottled with patches of gray. Scarred ground, burned ground. The trees that arched over them looked the same: Their bark looked charred, and their leaves curled in, tattered and black. Twisted, injured, dying, they clawed at the empty sky, and the mud steamed between their roots.
"There's something here."
Jiri barely breathed the words, but Oza caught them. The old shaman nodded, but his hand touched his mouth.
Jiri locked her teeth together. They were hunting, and she should be silent, but...It was in the ground, in the tortured trees, in the air: a smell like smoke, a faint brush of heat. Some spirit touched the world here, something old and terrible, and Jiri burned with its presence.
With a deep, silent breath, Jiri forced the feeling back, locked it down and drifted like a shadow behind her teacher as he stalked forward. Just ahead of them, past the crumbling corpses of a few more trees, the Pyre rose.
It stood in the middle of a small, shallow lake, the black water a still mirror that refused to reflect the clouds and sun overhead. The Pyre stood like a stony splinter in the water's dark eye, a jagged rock cracked and blackened, as if touched by some ancient inferno. Ashes crowned its shattered peak, and the air over them twisted with a shimmer of heat.
Jiri stared at that warped curtain and her concentration disintegrated.
Like flames, like...In her head she saw fire and flame, dancing all around her. Tall and beautiful, and everything was turning to smoke and ash, burning and rising and whirling and going away, even the screams...
Oza's fingers pinched hard on her earlobe, and Jiri gasped into the palm of his other hand, the one he pressed against her lips. The shaman's dark eyes were inches from hers, blocking the Pyre, staring at her until she nodded. Then he slowly took his hands away. Angry at herself, Jiri looked past him at stone and ash and—
Jiri jerked her eyes away from the broken mirror of heat that hovered over those ashes. She didn't understand what it was that she had seen there, but she didn't want to see it again.
Instead, she forced her eyes to trace over the fire-blackened cliff that the ashes rested on. Halfway up she found the door, the opening like a wound in the rock. The stone that had once covered it like a scar now lay in the water below, a slab the size of a hippo, and Jiri wondered how the intruders had moved it.
And how do we move it back?
Oza touched Jiri's hand, motioning for her to stay by the blackened trunk of the dead tree they had crept up behind. Then he stepped into the open and began to chant. Rough and low-pitched, the words scraped through the shaman's lips, a call to the bones of the earth.
The ground shifted at the pool's edge, stone tearing through dirt skin. Oza's hands rose, and mud twisted like tendons around the rough rock, snapping it together into a crude parody of a man. An avalanche on thick legs, the elemental towered over them, staring down at the man who had called it into the world with gleaming eyes of gem. When Oza pointed, the earth spirit lurched into the water and splashed toward the Pyre, its rough hands reaching.
Stone ground against stone when the elemental grasped the great slab, and dirty water poured from its body as the rocks that formed it shifted. Slowly the earth spirit began to lift the massive boulder, scraping it against the Pyre's cliff face, until at last it raised it back into place, covering the door's dark opening. Jiri watched the stone man work, so tense with triumph that she almost missed it when the water behind the elemental began to swirl.
The thing broke the surface of the pool with a roar, sunlight flashing off slick green skin and black scales. Smaller than the elemental, but still much larger than Jiri, it looked like some hideous amalgamation of gorilla, crocodile, and toad. Lunging up, it dug great claws deep into the mud and stone flesh of the elemental. It pulled the giant back, and its teeth flashed. The sound of those great fangs scraping against stone tore the air like a shriek.
Not a beast, not a spirit—gods and ancestors, what is that thing? Jiri was scrambling back, her spear up, a puny, useless threat raised between her and the monster. And how can it smell so bad?
It reeked of stagnant water and dead things, rot and gangrene and something else, something acrid and bitter and unnatural. The smell made Jiri's stomach heave, her eyes run, and she had to wipe her tears away to see the thing snarl and attack again.
The monster's claws gouged deep into living earth as it pulled itself up, climbing the elemental. Lunging forward, it drove its fangs into the earth spirit's head. With a vicious twist of its neck, the scaly thing ripped the lumpy stone head free from the thick, muddy shoulders and spat it down into the dark water.
Terror and nausea tore through Jiri, but she held her place, not running. Forcing herself to look away from the battle, she found Oza. His eyes met hers, flashing with warning.
"They left us a demon, Jiri. Stay back, and be ready to run."
The shaman turned away from her before Jiri could answer that. His hand drew a circle over his head, and he shouted for the spirits of fire. A spark gathered in Oza's hand, grew bright and hot into a flame that shot away from him, toward the demon.
The fire twisted in the air, thickened, red flame taking the shape of a mamba racing with gaping jaws toward the demon that still had its claws deep in the elemental's stony back. As Oza's spell neared it, the stinking thing jerked its claws apart, making mud gout like black blood as it tore the earth-wrought spirit apart, roaring with triumph. Then the fire serpent slammed into it, and the roar into a howl. For a moment, the demon stood, a misshapen shadow wrapped in flame. Then it fell, vanishing beneath the dark water with a splash.
"Is it—" Jiri started, eyes watering from the sickening smell of the demon, but Oza cut her off.
"No." His hands were moving, drawing jagged lines in the air as he called the spirits again.
He hasn't told me to run yet.
That was something, wasn't it? And before it had fallen, the elemental had shoved the stone back over the gap that had been opened in the Pyre. Jiri watched the dark water shimmer, and for the first time since the demon had surfaced she felt her own power, burning like a coal beneath the dead ashes of her fear.
Stepping from her hiding place, Jiri reached for the spirits. When she felt them answer, felt life and resilience boil into her, she moved forward and brushed her hand across her teacher's back, letting the power flow into him.
"Thank you," Oza said, voice harsh with strain as he held tight to the magic the spirits had given him. "Now by all those who came before you, stand back."
For a moment Jiri didn't move, her hands hot with magic. But she couldn't disobey Oza. She took one step back, another, and then the water before them split.
The demon broke the surface roaring, claws reaching, eyes flashing hate and hunger. Oza roared back, cutting the air before him with his spear, and the water between the demon and the shaman shattered with spray. Vines exploded up, green and thick as a man's leg, twisting into knots around each other as they rose. Thorns covered the vines, long as spearpoints, and they scraped over the demon's hide as the great tangle surged over it.
Jiri felt anger and triumph burn through her, and without thinking she raised a hand. A flash of fire burst from her palm, striking the demon, barely singeing it.
"Back," Oza snapped again, and then he began to call out another summoning.
In the water, the demon tore at the vines. Thorns gouged it, but their sharp points couldn't penetrate its reeking hide. The demon ignored them, ripped one of its arms free, and lashed out.
Oza moved back, barely staying out of reach of those huge claws, and finished his call. The water behind the demon surged and swirled, roiled by the thing taking shape beneath its surface.
Rumbling something like a curse, the demon pulled itself free of the vines and lunged after Oza, claws spread. Jiri shouted and threw fire again, barely a spell, more her rage and fear flung out into the world to destroy. But her attack sizzled to nothing against the thing's slimy hide.
The demon swung its head and tiny crocodile eyes found Jiri. Its thin lips skinned back, showing its terrible teeth, and the monster hunched like a toad, ready to spring.
Jiri stared at the demon, knowing it was going to kill her, but she raised her spear and called for the spirits, determined to draw blood before she died.
Then the tentacles caught it.
Striking like snakes, they wrapped around the demon, a hundred suckers biting down. In the black water, the slimy, giant-eyed thing Oza had pulled from the spirit world clacked the beak that lay in the center of its nest of tentacles and jerked the demon back.
"Jiri, go." On the muddy bank, Oza was reaching for his necklace. "Run!" he shouted, and the word slipped into a roar as the shaman changed, grew claws and fangs and black-striped fur.
Jiri clutched her spear, paralyzed.
But we're winning.
Tentacles wrapped the demon, and the great tiger Oza had become slashed its claws between them, spilling stinking gouts of blood. If Jiri stayed—
The demon threw back its head, and roared a word.
The twisted, evil power of it broke the air. It tore through Jiri's body like poisoned hooks, filled her lungs like filthy water. The world shuddered around her, dimmed, and Jiri felt herself being ripped away, sent into darkness.
She held on with all that she could, straining for light, for heat, for life, and suddenly she was back in her body, sprawled retching in the mud. Dully, she could see the demon, laughing as it tore limp tentacles off its hide. The massive tiger crouched before it, his gray-shot muzzle bent and dripping blood.
"Oza," Jiri groaned.
The cat raised his head and his eyes met Jiri's, old and stern. Then he turned and leapt at the monster, roaring, even as the demon wrapped its claws around him.
"Oza," Jiri said again, but she pulled herself up, made herself turn and stagger away, doing what those eyes had ordered her to do. Stumbling into a run, she whispered as she moved, begging the spirits to hide the tracks of her passage.
Running beneath the dead trees, Jiri tried not to listen to the booming laughter that echoed behind her, hideous and triumphant.
Coming Next Week: Gods and crocodiles in Chapter One of Gary Kloster's "The Gem."
Gary Kloster is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Firesoul. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Apex, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future 25. Find him online at garykloster.com.
Illustration by Davi Blight.