Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Starsoul: the Artificer Enigma, excerpt 3.5

    Weeks went by, and the villagers’ attitudes toward her only got worse. They were angry and resentful, and Farynna was certain that it was only a matter of time before things came to a head. Kylie grew dull and detached, performing her apprentice duties with no enthusiasm and few words. Worse, there was an undercurrent of power, something strange and alien seeping through the village.  She was sure that the strange power was tied to the villagers’ temperaments.
    Something had changed; she could feel it. Farynna was in her garden, Kylie was inside, working on some herbal mixtures. Farynna looked up and saw, on the other side of the village square, one of the women held an object and was arguing with another. Both women suddenly stopped and looked toward the cottage. Farynna went cold.
    The woman holding the object snarled and raised it. Farynna felt sick. It was a bone, a human thigh-bone, sized for a child. She knew, in that instant…
    It had been Kevan’s.
    Farynna was certain she was about to die.
    “She let them die!” The woman screamed, and the villagers gathered, listening avidly. “She is our witch, and did not lift a finger to help them. Our smith, and his child. Kylie is orphaned! And for what? We are left only with a memory of horror invading our village! Kylie is left with only sorrow!  And SHE LET THEM DIE!” The words gained strength and volume, and the woman moved toward her. The rest of the villagers, men, women, and children, once her friends and family, moved with her.
    “Gods, let me pass with grace,” she prayed quietly, and stood. “Let me face this with courage.”
    It took them only moments to reach her cottage. Kylie had not emerged, and Farynna prayed that the girl stayed inside. She didn’t see Kylie standing at the window, dull eyes beginning to spark with a sudden rage.
    Farynna retained enough of her wits to realize that the current of strange power grew stronger and harsher the closer the woman… and her grisly token… came to the cottage. When the woman stopped, bone still raised, Farynna was certain. The source of the strange power was using the bone as a focus for the rage and hate, using it and the woman to impose the emotions on the villagers. The witch touched the power briefly, and terror touched her; it was the same power that had surrounded the creature that had killed Karavoss and Kevan.
    She was most certainly going to die. “Don’t do this,” she begged, her voice cracking. “You are being used and manipulated. The creature…”
    “See how she cannot even save herself!” The woman raved, her eyes gleaming with madness.  She screamed, then, and pointed the bone at Farynna. The villagers surged forward and seized their witch, forcing her down on her potting table. Farynna’s vision blurred; the power pulsing around her made it hard to see.
    “Punish her! Make her suffer as Karavoss and Kevan suffered, as Kylie suffers, as we all suffer. She could not save them! She could not save us!”
    Farynna could no longer see the woman, but she could see the bone in her mind’s eye. It was, in fact, the only thing she could see. The outpouring of rage and hate ceased, and it began instead to draw in the emotions around them. It stank of corruption, and grew stronger with every passing heartbeat. It absorbed the villagers’ fury and hatred; it drank Farynna’s fear and pain and sorrow. It took in the rape of the innocence of the children who had joined the crowd. No one in the village would escape the taint of this day’s actions.
    The crowd muttered angrily; she could no longer understand their words. She felt their hands; she heard cloth rip and tear and suddenly she felt air on her skin, everywhere. She was naked and vulnerable, and she began to weep. “Gods…” someone hit her across the face and she cried out.
    “You don’t get to call to the gods for aid, witch. You are beyond their touch, now.”
    She didn’t know who hit her, but she did know that it was no longer the villagers acting of their own accord; it was the creature’s will that worked this vileness upon them and her.
    Then the pain began, everywhere. They slapped her, and pinched her. They scratched and even bit. She felt every attack, and knew, somehow, exactly who had struck her. She knew when it was one of the children, felt their smaller, sharper teeth and nails, and sorrow overrode the pain and fear, just for a moment. Oh, gods, no. Spare the little ones this, at least…
    Children are the tastiest treats, Farynna. Do you think I’d let them go?
    She screamed at the invasion, the voice in her mind. It was that thing, that creature, she knew.
    Give me your pain and fear. Give me your grief. I will even take your anger, oh yes.  How does it feel, to be helpless and ravaged by those you trusted and called friend? Laughter sounded then, and a new pain between her thighs caused her cries to reach a new, panicked pitch. She screamed until her throat was raw and all she could manage was a hoarse, rasping cry, and still they continued to rape her, even as the others continued their assault. She was bleeding to death slowly from dozens of wounds all over her body. Please, let it end…
    An evil chuckle sounded in her thoughts. You want it to end, Farynna?
    Beg me. The tone of the mental invasion was deep, satisfied, and intimate- the sort of voice that lovers might use in bed. It sickened her, but her life would end one way or another. It could not get any worse for her.
    “Please, end it. Kill me.” Her voice was hoarse, but she managed to get the words out.  “Let me die. Please. I beg you…” Farynna continued in that vein for a minute or so more, before her voice gave out, and all she could manage were weary whimpers.  Please, please…
    I believe… I have fed enough, for this day. Know this, Farynna, even as I grant your wish…
The assault on her body slowed, and then stopped. The bodies surrounding her parted enough for her to see her death coming towards her.
    It was Kylie.
    No, oh no. Not like this, not her. Oh, gods, spare her this…
    Oh, no, Farynna, the creature told her.  The girl who knew you the best will be the one to grant your dearest wish. Just know this, before she rips your throat out with her teeth: I am going to continue to use this village and these people – all of them, men, women, and children – to visit horrors upon poor, helpless victims until I tire of the sport, and the taste of the horrors they can gift me with.
    Farynna’s eyes opened wide. She watched Kylie move toward her, the girl’s eyes wide with an almost feral rage, her teeth bared. The girl paused momentarily, standing over her teacher and staring at her with eyes devoid of anything besides anger.
    There was a flash, just for a moment, of something else in Kylie’s eyes, something resembling fear and horror, as if the girl was aware of what was happening, somewhere beneath the grip of the creature’s power.
    And then the creature’s threat became reality.
    Kylie moved, swift and sure, and tore her teacher’s throat out with her teeth.
    Farynna had just enough life left in her after that to have the sight of her twelve-year-old apprentice, covered in blood and with gory flesh hanging from her teeth, imprinted in her mind, the last thing she’d ever see.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Starsoul: the Artificer Enigma, excerpt #3

    It had been a long, hard road to get here, to get back home.  Her parents had moved away from their tiny village when she was very small, and she had returned a young woman, after completing her apprenticeship with an old herbalist. It had been her dream, all her life, to come home again with knowledge and power, to help her village. She had succeeded at her dream, and was happy in her work as the village witch.  She was young, and beautiful, and wielded her will through her magics, to bless the village and its people. After returning and establishing herself, she had immediately made the acquaintance of the local Druid, who watched over the region’s forests and the river that gave their village so much of its life.
    Life was simple, here in Innishee. Farynna had her small garden, and her small, cozy cottage. The villagers loved her, and she them. Each new day was much like the last. She kept her shelves stocked with various remedies, teas, poultices, salves, and tinctures. She cultivated a small stock of spices to use for trade, when the peddlers came though Innishee.  Life went on, with few surprises.
    Until one day. Farynna awoke with a sense of foreboding, her witch’s senses telling her that something was not right, that something was going to happen that day.  She got up and ate breakfast as usual, going outside then to tend her garden. Later that day, a peddler’s caravan would come into town, and the Druid, Tamsin, would probably come with them. Farynna could ask him if something was strange in the forest…
    Someone called her name, loudly and urgently. The smith’s daughter and Farynna’s apprentice, Kylandria, rounded the corner of her cottage and stopped just short of trampling her plants. “Farynna! Come quick, and bring your herbs, Tamsin needs your help!”
    She didn’t stop to ask questions and grabbed her bag as she followed Kylie into the village. Tamsin had collapsed on the western edge of the village, bloodied and barely conscious. Oh, gods, she thought to herself. “Tamsin? Tam, can you hear me?”
    “Aryn,” he murmured. “Can hear you.”
    “Why didn’t you heal yourself, Tam?” She asked while she worked, taking stock of his wounds. They were horrific, and she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be able to save him. This was too far beyond her skill; she wasn’t a surgeon.
    “Can’t, Aryn. Attacked… cut off from… my grove…” he gasped in pain and jerked; she was trying to cut his jerkin away from his wound and tugged a little too hard.
    Fear filled her. “What could do that, Tam?” She was trying not to cry. He was losing too much blood too fast, and she didn’t have the knowledge she needed. “Tam… I’m so sorry…”
    He opened his eyes and looked at her, shaking his head. “Not your fault, Aryn. Creature… get out. Get everyone out, it’s coming.”  This seemed to cost him a monumental effort and he sighed, closing his eyes again.
    It took her a full minute to realize that he was dead. “Gods, no.”
    “Is… is he…” Kylie, standing to one side, stammered.
    That brought Farynna sharply back to herself. “Gods. He’s gone, Kylie.” She looked around her and realized the entire village, or nearly so, was standing around them. Swallowing back her tears, and her fear, she straightened and faced them.  “Tamsin is gone. He was attacked in his grove by some unknown creature…” she swallowed again, this time fighting the urge to turn aside and empty her stomach. “He said it’s coming here. He said we must run.”
     The villagers looked at each other and talked amongst themselves, increasing in volume. Questions were shot her way but Farynna didn’t hear them. Her fear was growing. That sense of something wrong, something coming, intensified until she could no longer stand it. Unwillingly, she turned to look at the river on instinct; Tamsin’s grove had sat at the river’s edge.
    Its surface boiled. Her horror must have shown on her face, for the others turned to follow her gaze.
    Kylie’s twin brother, Kevan, stood too close to its edge.  Farynna raised a hand, opened her mouth to shout, but it was already too late. Great ropy tendrils of muck-colored something shot out of the water and wrapped around Kevan’s torso. The boy screamed, and Farynna grabbed Kylie before the girl could run to her twin. Kevan disappeared underwater a moment later, and the river returned to its tranquil flow. Kylie was screaming. Shocked faces turned toward Farynna, but her eyes did not leave the river. It wasn’t over, her instincts told her that…
She was right. But, by the gods, she wished she’d been wrong. Something surfaced, something taller than a man and with masses of thick tendrils undulating wildly at every angle, something apparently made from the muck at the bottom of the river. It shifted and grew, and something emerged from its side…
    Oh, gods…!  To her right, someone retched.
    Kylie screamed her brother’s name.
    It was Kevan’s head and one arm, and the boy was still alive. One leg stuck out of the creature’s other side, as though the boy had been unnaturally stretched… or ripped in half. He cried for help, his one free arm reaching toward the villagers. Farynna fancied that he was looking straight at her.
    The villagers looked on in stunned silence for a moment, until Karavoss, the twins’ father and village smith, roared in challenge and charged toward the river’s edge. Farynna looked on in horror, still holding Kylie tightly. The girl was sobbing and calling for her brother, and for her father. Farynna tried to cry out a warning, but something imprisoned her voice, something had reached within her, touching her small store of witch’s power…
It was the creature, she realized. 

    That thing had power… finally she found her voice and she screamed. “Karavoss, it’s a trap! Don’t!”
    But it was too late.
    A heartbeat later, Karavoss lay dead, impaled by half a dozed of the creature’s tendrils. Kevan gave a final scream as the creature fully absorbed his body, his leg, arm, and head disappearing into its form. Kylie thrashed, sobbing, but Farynna held her tightly. The creature twisted, the top of its body reshaping itself into…
    It grew a head, and a face, and that face was Kevan’s.  It grinned at them, using its facsimile of Kevan’s face, and disappeared beneath the river.
    Farynna waited. Kylie sagged against her, staring in the direction of the river. They all waited, certain that it would return and finish what it started.
    Minutes passed, and then an hour, and it did not reemerge. Finally, the villagers dispersed, still shocked and saddened. A few of the men carried the bodies of the Druid and the smith away to be buried. Farynna took Kylie back to her cottage and brewed some tea. She was alone now; her mother had died when the twins were young, and there was no other family. When Kylie finally looked up from her tea and met Farynna’s eyes, they were dull with grief but no longer distant. Farynna hugged the girl one last time and set about brewing more tea, enough for the entire village.
     Farynna and her apprentice took the tea door-to-door, sharing a cup with every member of the village. They regarded Farynna dully, with subdued accusation; she was their witch and she hadn’t saved the smith or Kevan. Or Tamsin, for that matter. Guilt twisted her heart but she was also realistic; there was nothing she could have done with her meager power against that creature. The attack had come too fast. If she could have had a little more time, then she could have made preparations. She could have kept them away from the water’s edge. She could have evacuated the village. But she had a feeling that someone would have died regardless.  The attack may not have lasted very long, but she was still terrified.
    Why had the creature left the rest of them alive?