Oornu awoke. He squinted, blinking rapidly to clear the bright blur of light.
It was cold.
As his vision cleared he could a see wash of movement beneath him as the ground rushed passed – a blur of green and brown and grey. For a few seconds he could not remember where he was, or why he was moving so fast. Or indeed what the clattering and grating sound all around was.
And then something touched his face.
Oornu turned over. Kneeling over him was Uurna. She looked sick, and her expression seemed consumed with pain. Somehow she managed a brief smile.
Oornu looked around. The stoor, which had previously been a mass of rotting muscle and entrails, was now almost a clean skeleton, with only few strands of flesh and cartilage still attached to its thick spine above. The stench of decay had almost gone.
Uurna pointed ahead. Straining, Oornu sat up and turned, resting his hands on the creature’s heaving ribcage to steady himself. There, a few strides in front, was the other stoor. It too was nothing more than a stripped skeleton, and it was running with remarkable speed through the tall fronds of grass. It was a remarkable sight.
Oornu looked back at Uurna. “How long was I unconscious?”
Uurna’s voice was hoarse. “Through the night and into the morning.” She looked around at the skeleton they were riding inside. “Almost all of it was gone before the sun appeared.”
“I’ve never seen it go this far before, and it’s only mentioned in the Sharh-Elder’s legend.” He shook his head. “I never once thought it could be anything but an old man’s rant!”
Uurna put her head down and began to sob.
“What’s wrong? We survived! What is there to cry about?”
She looked at him for a few seconds, her eyes distorted with tears. She coughed, and the struggled out of her kneeling position, the motion of the stoor making her movements unsteady. She sat with her feet forwards.
Oornu looked down. The bones of Uurna’s feet were completely exposed, and the muscle of her lower legs was exposed and partially decayed. He recoiled in disgust, and then he noticed his own feet. They too were nothing more than exposed bone. He vomited bile. He spat out the foul-tasting fluid and looked at Uurna. “This is... Surely it’s impossible?”
Uurna could barely speak. “It started as an itch on my toes... Got worse... Unbearable at times. When I scratched the flesh just fell off!”
Oornu touched his lower leg. His finger sank in through the skin, releasing a putrid dull green flow of puss. He pushed harder. The muscle on the front of his leg fell away revealing the white surface of his tibia. He tensed up, his stomach tightening. “This can’t be happening!”
Uurna sniffled. “We are infected. We cannot return to the village.”
Oornu looked at her. “We must. The medicine charmer will...”
“We will be killed. You know that!” Uurna said. Her head sank. “And the medicine charmer only brings comfort to the dying, nothing more, and only then to those of great age.” She looked up. “You know that, too.”
Oornu nodded once. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, trying to focus his mind to find a solution. But his mind was already consumed with anguish, and deep despair. He felt breathless, nauseous. “What can we do?”
Uurna obviously had no answer. She looked ahead. The tall fronds of grass were thinning, and the landscape was becoming open and rocky. “We are heading to the bone pit, I think.”
Oornu turned quickly to look. A large tear in his neck opened up and oozed puss. He grimaced. “Why would they run to the…” Realisation hit him. He turned back, widening the tear. “To throw themselves in!”
Sighing, Uurna sat back. A split in her skin just below her right ear wept a pale cloudy liquid. “Why would they do that?”
“To end their existence. They no longer have living flesh, so disease and age will not take them. They must break themselves apart, otherwise they would be like this forever.”
She frowned. “And why would they wish to do that?”
“I don’t know. But if they didn’t we would see a huge number of them running around by now. This must have happened to many more before these two.”
The stoor was now clattering over a solid and uneven slab of rock. Oornu looked ahead. “We must be almost there. We must jump!”
The two stoors were running faster now. The one ahead suddenly disappeared. It had reached the pit.
Uurna gasped, and then coughed, bloody phlegm dribbled from the corner of her mouth. “Perhaps you’re right.”
“I am right!”
The edge of the bone pit was now visible; a wide oval canyon more than a thousand strides across.
“Jump now!” Oornu shouted. He leapt towards Uurna, pushing her out from the back of their stoor’s ribcage. Following her, Oornu tumbled to the ground, smashing hard onto the rough rock-strewn landscape. They both howled as they rolled to a halt, their decaying flesh ripping away from their bodies.
Oornu lay on his back for a moment as the pain dulled. He stared at the sky, pale blue and bleached by the intense sun. And then he coughed hard as something foul-tasting tricked into his throat. He sat up, wincing as something tore on his back. The stoor that had carried them for almost a day had vanished. He looked back from where they had come. A trail of blood and flesh was smeared across the hard ground for many strides. Uurna was lying not far away. She was still. Oornu crawled over to her and touched her shoulder. “We were lucky. We almost went over the side.”
Uurna turned. Her face had been almost wiped clean. Bare grazed bone stared up, one eye pit empty; the other containing nothing but a mass of pulped tissue and blood.
Oornu vomited. He tried to speak but let out nothing more than a hiss. He looked down. His tongue – a slab of almost purple muscle – lay in front of him. He felt his neck and realised it had almost no flesh left.
A swell of fluid erupted from Uurna’s mouth. Oornu helped her up. He pointed down the slope and hissed. She hissed back. Despite her lack of eyes she seemed to still be able to see. Oornu got to his feet and helped Uurna do the same. Oornu noticed that they were both almost half-skeletal now, but despite his grotesque appearance, and the increasingly large clumps of his flesh that seemed to be falling onto the ground, he felt less and less pain. Such sensations were distant now, and the anguish he had felt had gone. Uurna, too, seemed to be calmer. Oornu took her hand which was now no more than a collection of bones. He tried to speak again but his voice was nothing more than a rumble of wind through his exposed jawbone.
Oornu and Uurna walked slowly along the rim of the bone pit, the remains of their flesh falling away.