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Sunday, 13 August 2023

Accursed Weststead Manor

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

    There's no time to get help. I can't let her follow me, she has to be kept away from town. So, to whomever finds this, here written is the account of the events leading to the death of my wife, Isabelle, and, almost as certainly, myself.

    It started with strange noises in the night. Isabelle began to gargle in her sleep. I thought nothing more of it than the flu, so I rolled her onto her side and it seemed to fix the problem.
    This was my first mistake.
    Six nights this went on, though she showed no signs of illness through the day. But the gargling soon worsened, and then came the night fits. I soothed her as best I could, I hid it from the children, and I quickly called the doctor. The "Change", he'd said. He'd given me an elixir and she drank it every night. We expected it to subdue the symptoms, give her better rest, but the fits only became more violent. She began waking up bruised. Before long, Doctor Yves recommended strapping her to the bed for her own safety. I did this, despite her growing terror. But I...I couldn't bear it. I slept in the guest chamber.
    That was my second mistake.
    On the thirteenth night, after too much ale, the shaking stopped, then I heard a thump in her room. I hurried in and found what I thought was her sitting upon the bed, spine bent backwards, a smoking black hand reaching out from her gaping mouth.
    Too much ale. A fever dream I hadn't fully withdrawn from; my worries manifested with too much fuel. I went back to bed with a headache.
    The hounds On the nineteenth morning, the hounds didn't howl with the roosters. They didn't howl with the bells. They didn't come when the children called, nor when they cried at a game gone wrong. My dear Isabelle, growing pale and drawn, suggested they were ill, but I was too busy to check on them until their feeding. That evening, I found them in pieces in the kennels, limbs and innards thrown around, their heads bitten through as if their skulls were butter. What creature could have done it? I might have wondered, but how could I have known? How could anyone?
    From that moment on, we didn't feel safe. This manor is far from town, and the forest surrounding it is thick. Anything could have been lurking. Truly anything, if the old stories had any truth to them.
    So I put signs up in town, looking for a hunter or someone who could help identify and kill it. A few came; some said wargs, others basilisks. But none would go into the woods to search. We increased the payment, but still, no one.
    So we locked the doors and barred the windows. The children were terrified. So was Isabelle, whose fits had finally ceased, though she had returned to scratching at her shoulders, opening up old scars. A sign of anxiety, but nothing more. Though still pale, her health was improving and my concern passing, so I was better able to swallow my own fear and put on a brave face. Such is the job of husband and father, after all.
    From that night on, though, I barely slept. I kept watch, moving from window to window with my crossbow, staring into the dark while my family rested uneasily. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. For a week I maintained vigil and, slowly, I began to ease. We all did. There was nothing out there anymore.

    I have made mistakes. I let things slip by, brushed them off as my imagination, a bad dream.
    There was nothing out there, because it was already inside with us. Everything that happened since the massacre of the hounds is my fault.
    I didn't hear anything at night, but I felt – felt often, I now realise - something moving around. A shifting presence through the bedroom. But I was never awake enough to take notice. I let it pass, another figment of my imagination. But I did hear Isabelle's occasional mutter to herself in her sleep about a scratching sound. And, with that, I'd listened more intently, wondering if she had located something that I hadn't...but strain as I might, there was no scratching. Nothing. Yet every night, every night, she would mutter. Then the muttering rose to speaking. Then to screaming.
    But still, there was nothing but her voice.
    I called the doctor back in. It went beyond the women's Change. "Touched," he concluded, although he didn't seem too convinced of it himself. A worst-case scenario, but one that, if handled immediately, may never have come to pass. So I did as he told me, keeping her in the sun all day, and the bedroom as black as possible at night. But her screaming continued.

    I know now. Not everything - not even enough - but I know this is something beyond the reach of medicine. A priest would be better suited, but after the unholy massacre at Rolinghan, there are none to spare. They are all either dead or dying.
    There is something in her. A madness manifested, a creature, a beast - something living inside her. And I have now, to my shame and horror, witnessed it come out.
    I doubt I'm making much sense, and I realise I've spent too long on this already.
    The day of the hounds, she had scratches around her arms. Old scars on her shoulders had opened up and bled. I presume there was blood elsewhere but I hadn't noticed it at the time.
    The night the windows shattered in our bedroom, she had been covered in blood and scratches. I hadn't pieced together how she could have gotten them unless she had been standing beside the window when it broke - and how it had broken, I hadn't worked out either. It made no sense unless she had done it herself, but she barely had the strength to stand.
    The same with the damage to the walls. The damage to the fireplace that she had somehow extinguished with her bare hands. Things of which I had witnessed nothing except the final result.
    The hunters dead in the yard, those few who had come back with a second thought over the reward. The doctor, who never made it to our last appointment, nor further than twelve paces through the gate.
    And the children...the children...
    I buried them this morning, what parts I could find. But I spared no words. There was no time. I would be tormented by that for the rest of my life if I thought I would survive more than two more days. But I am being hunted. Not by Isabelle - this isn't my Isabelle. I don't recognise her anymore, and I don't believe she recognises me either. Whatever little of her remains shows no sign. Only the beast breathes now, sees through her eyes, smells through her nose, hears through her ears. And as long as I am out of sight and tread lightly, it doesn't seem to know where I am.
    So I steal time, and I prepare.
    These deaths are my fault. I didn't trust the signs; I shrugged them off as dreams, but whether they come truly from a demon, a curse, a malignance of one kind or another...that, I will never know.
    I have to make things right. I have to correct my negligence. For her. For the children. For my family.

    Should I fail and the beast walks still, then to whomever finds this account, take heed: she it has an aversion to willow and recoils at the scent of the oil, and its wood and iron both leave ferocious burns on her its skin. There may be other weaknesses, but I haven't had the chance to find out, and if I delay any longer then she it will come for me.
    It cannot be allowed to escape. I mustn't lead it away, nor give it any reason to leave. And, I admit, I cling to very small hope that the demon or curse will be destroyed wit

The rest of the vellum is bare, unspoiled; no spilled ink nor blood, no rips or crumples. It sits, silent and unfinished, beside a dried out inkwell. The quill itself is missing. The rest of the house, too, lies still. Deafeningly still.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2023 Kim Wedlock

Monday, 27 March 2023

Song of Scratches

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

I can feel them closing in. The walls. Big black things. You can see them too, can't you? Shutting out all light, rotting the air... They're inching closer. Have been for months now, scraping along the ground on all sides. I could ignore them at first, they were far enough away...but they're right there. Right behind me. Beside me. Inside my shadow. I-I swear, I can feel them inside me.
*I'm sweating. I'm always sweating. Always slick and short of breath, always scratching at my shoulders, panic ripping small holes into my skin. I know my eyes are wild.*
Every time I hear the sound...words, a melody, a droning wind, a noise in so many forms yet all telling me the exact same thing... Every time I hear it, the walls rush in closer. They abandon their scraping creep while I'm distracted, like a game of Grandmother's Footsteps. A cheating game of Grandmother's Footsteps, because they never truly stop. And what little stale room remains in here with me is being filled by a growing cloud of bitterness, one that swells even as the walls surge, and just as fast. Every single time I hear it...
The breathing space is shrinking. Rapidly. I know I'm going to choke.
*I'm fighting for breath. I'm scratching my shoulders again, flicking wild glances around me*
...I'm afraid of what I might do before then. I'm afraid of what I might say. I'm afraid I could - afraid I will - ruin what little good I have left, what little there is to get up for in the morning, frighten that little light away...but...but if I keep biting my tongue...
I tell myself to wait. Leave it alone, enjoy the light for now. Give it time. I have other things to think about, other things to face, other things to escape from. Leave it alone. Enjoy it. For now. For now. I deserve it. Let Future Me deal with the walls.
...But every time...every, single, time I hear it...e-every...every damned time...
*A bitter chuckle shudders from my closing throat, and I clutch myself tighter in the darkness.*
I catch myself in the middle of this sometimes, disconnected, wondering if this is what it feels like to go insane...
I can go days sometimes, hiding from the thoughts, ignoring the slow scratch scratch scratch of the walls. I even imagine that they've stopped, convince myself of it, that it's become such gentle white noise as to be completely inaudible. Completely absent.
That's when they speed up. Always then, when I start to feel comfortable, even, dare I say it, hopeful, hah...heh...that's--that's when I hear it.
The sound finds me.
Then the scratches.
The can no one else see them? Feel them?! They're there! I mean, they're right there, and everyone is just...going on with their lives like I'm not about to implode... How is that possible?! How?!
*Blood runs down my arm*
...What's going to happen? When they get here? Will they destroy me? I feel like they're going to destroy me - I mean, you can't see them, apparently, no one can, but they're there and they're going to kill me. I know it. They're going to crush all the light out of me...all of it...all of it...
...And yet I know it's a choice...
Fuck. How could that be a choice?!
*My flickering stare lands on the door*
The door... Yes, there is a door. It's there, it's big, it's unlocked. I can fit through it. And it's getting closer just like the walls. It's within reach...
If I go through that door...
*The blood is trickling through my fingers. Still I scratch my shoulder, my head spinning enough to unscrew where I'm huddled*
If I go through that door, now, it will be my end. The end of everything. Absolutely everything. I'm not ready. I will never be ready...
*And now my voice, my thoughts, my soul withers even further*
...This is where the choice is, isn't it? It's go through that door, or be crushed by the walls. But I'll be crushed on the other side of that door too, because it's all the same, on all sides, fucking everywhere...there is only one outcome, so it's really only a question of how many bones I want to get broken in the process.
Except it's not the bones I'm worried about...
Haha...ugh...heh...ohhh I can't talk about this. I'm...I'm trapped. I can't talk about it, but I'm stuck. I want to scream for help, I want to act, I want to get out.
*But now my head is shaking*
No, no I don't, I want to stay, I really want to stay, the light, that's the twisted part of all of this, I just want the light and for these walls to stop I want the walls to stop...
Stop, stop, stop, stop...
...Please, stop...
...But...but that's evolving into something. I can see it, jumping around across the walls right now, casting shadows wherever I look. It's touching the walls, how can it do that? It knows they're there and it's treating them like they' they're nothing...
It has teeth. It has teeth, it never used to have teeth. Or eyes. Or such a toxic fucking aura... It's like it's choking me, it's these moments when I just can't breathe or see or think or survive...
...Please...please just stop!
...p l e a s e...
...Oh, God...
*A flicker catches my eye. For a moment, my heart stops, and the viciously wonderful teeth sink back in*
...W...w-wait...wait, there...look. Look, see it? Do you see it?! There, that glimmer! It just appeared out of the dark! That little light...heh...ohh...yesss...yes, see, it's that light that does it...I know it's that light that does it, that little flicker, that little's so bright, so beautiful... It does so much. Too much. That's what keeps me here. And that's what made the walls start moving in the first place. And I'm not imagining it. That little glow...the glow...the joy it brings me, the lightness, the feeling of worth, it's real. It's honest to God real. And it's the onl--
Wait...wait, no, d-don't go, don't--n-no...ohh, no, fuck, no it's happened again! It's happened again! It's happened again happened again happ--

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2023 Kim Wedlock

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Uruz, VerĂ°a

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

     A lethargic silence blanketed the world.
    Winter's graceful grip had frozen even sound, and cast the mute forest into a stark lullaby of blue and gold. Trees, tall and tightly packed, were silvered with the year's age, their branches glittering in the low midday sun, tousled by a whispered breeze.
    Amongst those giants, a run-down shack stood almost indistinguishable from the fallen trees, so old and forgotten that the forest had reclaimed the rotten, hollow wood, and young trees grew, winter-kissed, through the broken roof in their hunt for light.
    Burrows closed off by a tangle of frozen spiderwebs were filled with hibernating life beneath trees and walls, but even those active went almost unseen, small birds sitting fluffed on the broken fence, absorbing the weak warmth while they closed their little eyes lazily against the blinding light.
    The world was asleep, at peace beneath the alluring claws of winter. Blind and deaf to the thump-thump-thump of hooves approaching rapidly from behind.


    Birds fled in a flurry of ice and startled peeps as the aurochs crashed through the hollow wall. But she barely noticed them. She ran in a different world, a blissful silver blur and deafening thunder of heart and hoof. She stormed on through the rain of splinters as if the shack hadn't been there at all.
    The fence flattened just as easily beneath her hooves.
    While the wilds alighted again upon the settling wood behind her, her pace grew only faster. Debris fell from her broad and polished horns, misshapen with a hint of elk tine; defined muscles tensed and shifted beneath her painted, vibrant skin as she ran, fast and powerful, and clouds huffed steadily through a fierce grin.
    The forest itself yielded. Bowing back, branches tinkled in her wake, loosening frost to her lustrous golden brown mane and glittering among the first hints of grey. And through that chiming, the drum of her pace and the melodic chirp of distant birds, her heart sang.
    Frozen air prickled her skin and rosed her cheeks. Frost gathered on her eyelashes. Her fists were numb. Her lungs and muscles burned.
    Yet she laughed.
    It had taken years for her heart to become so light - not through passive time, but conscious practice, and defeat after defeat after defeat. And now, her demons had been both tamed and destroyed.
    Worries were gone, lost to the moment. Inferiority forgotten; she was incomparable. Time was no longer bottled and stagnant in the present. Armour no longer weighted her bones every moment. Her heart was open, thoughts were spoken, grudges released; hate became pity, and pity became forgotten.
   She could barely feel the ache around her wrists any more from years spent in shackles.
    Her grin only broadened.

    A silver branch reached across the aurochs' path, and she seized it without a thought, swinging herself up into the boughs, loosening clouds of frost beneath her hooves. The slippery and impossible steps were executed with equal grace and lunacy.
    Up here, the world was a disorganised tangle, yet she navigated it just as easily. Forward remained ahead of her, Backwards remained behind; Up was still above, Down was still below. The sun still hung in the sky, and it still set every night and rose every morning. These were all the directions she needed. The rest came from within.
    Her hooves slipped again and again on the frost, and weak branches gave way beneath her, but she didn't stop running. Birds fled in startled panics, weasels leapt playfully along behind her, a snow fox ran through the frost below. Wind whistled past her ears, and an imagined scent of hot berries played around her numb nose. Imagined or not, it was pleasant, and she accepted it as part of the moment.
    She dropped down into a clearing when the branches became too distant, and stampeded on, storming through frozen puddles. Her grinning reflection multiplied in the shards, and the life in her hazel eyes challenged the hold of Winter itself.
    The landscape had grown steeper now, and the trees thinner. Frost turned to pockets of snow, pockets became sweeps, until the ground turned fully from silver to a blinding white, flooded by the sun.
    Then, the forest stopped.
    The aurochs skidded to a stop at the edge of the cliff and stared, panting, over the snow-blanketed valleys and frozen rivers beyond. The view was immense. Frightening. And freeing.
    Clouds huffed from her numb, chapped lips, and as she caught it, she breathed deeper of the crisp air, again, and again, and again.
    Her skin, too, burned in the snow, but she stood firm, naked and self-reclaimed. The scrolling runes painted on her skin flashed the only colour in the landscape. Her scars shone in the sun. Lumps from the healing of splintered shins were all that marred her with a hideous shadow. But that shadow was hers. Her strength had been lost for a decade, but now it was wrapped tighter around her bones than ever before.
    Another hungry breath. And another. Wild ran restless inside her. Her heart raced, adrenaline pulsed, muscles twitched and tensed. Her head tilted from one side to the other, feeling the weight and power of her horns, cut now with new carvings for a new life.
    Her grin was primal.
    Power burst from her throat, a lump of energy uncontainable, and she roared, a huge mist that hid the landscape from her eyes like the smoke of a dragon.
    And the world roared back. Bear, swan, warhorn, wolf, fox, elk. The wind, the earth, the mountains themselves.
    She stamped her hoof, a savage thump as the reverberation filled her, and bellowed again.
    Her shadow stomped beside her. Her echo roared around her.
    Territory. Sanctuary. Freedom.
    There were more like her out there. The Free. She could hear them, she could smell them; wanderers with no destination in mind. Going and doing as they pleased.
    And she, at last, was one of them.
    Her grin widened. Then, she charged on.


    A thick, glittering cloud erupted from the edge of the cliff as hooves carved their way down through earth and ice. Sun shone on, turning the cloud to gold. Birds fluttered across it. A weasel leapt to catch it. And another bellow of freedom shook the sky from the forest below.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Saturday, 17 December 2022


Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

'You have no control. You need no control. Surrender it. Find out who you are.'

    The aurochs fought again to relax the tension in her face. It just moved deeper into her shoulders instead.
    The high, mossy platform should have been a point of calm, a place to breathe, rest and recollect herself, a small, private island above the forest overlooking the shelter she'd claimed beneath it. But a familiar thread of doubt ran through her spine, as always, and one she was sure had become entwined with her nervous system.
    Feeling that itch down her back, she straightened herself in determination rather than comfort, and sat a little taller beneath the single, gnarled rowan tree. It seemed just as uncomfortable and out of place here as she was, growing out from a rocky cleft on the side of the cramped platform, and had too lost its identity in the faded runes in its bark. The dulled carvings of her own horns rolled through her mind, but she didn't raise her hand to them. She didn't need to check again how shallow they were. She knew. She knew.
    Once more, she failed to relax her muscles.
    The dying light of dusk leaked in between the encircling standing stones. Amethyst bled into the sky. The cold air didn't move. Crickets chirped below, an owl hooted. Twilight was descending.
    A deep and forced breath lightened her body, thick with juniper smoke and the scent of recent rain. But in spite of it, the thread of conflict burrowed deeper into her system.
    The need to run was overwhelming. Adrenaline surged, pure power, enough to flee this place and its purpose and return to hiding down below where everything was safe, and the strange, new world was shut away.
    But her rational mind was still there; escape had brought it back to the surface, and as it slowly broke through, it reminded her that her familiar little shelter held nothing for her but stagnation and exhaustion. She didn't want this towering isolation, but she needed it. This was how she would truly reclaim herself, how she would shed her perpetual defence and become One again. Another deep breath. The smoke began at last to soften her mind, and finally, her shoulders loosened.
    'Give up control.' She'd been surviving for so long, an endless state of fight or flight. But now, finally, she could ease. Finally, she could drop her armour. No more wasted energy. No more stifled breath.
    Again, she forced the tension in her face away.
    Smoke swam in her head. She fought the panic of lost control and concentrated. 'Look inwards without turning.' Don't move. Don't slip. Just look.
    She closed her eyes. Her fingers dug into the moss, grounding herself to her surroundings. 'Stay in the Now.' Reflect, don't revert.
    The soft grunt of the sleeping bear down below acted as a gentle anchor, and the flap of swan wings on the reedy lake. Allies the both of them, and the knights passing in the distance, but none of them could help her now. This, she had to do alone. And each of them knew that; not one tried to intrude.
    Smoke filled her.
    And darkness rose to her surface.
    Terror snaked around her throat, but she continued taking breath after careful breath, separating herself from it and letting those wretched shadows rise. Higher and higher they came, and with them the growing suffocation, moving deeper from throat to chest.
    The aurochs steeled herself. She remained grounded, eyes closed. The darkness had to come out. She couldn't rid herself of it until she faced it, and merge with what genuine light remained.

"Horn of Uruz,
Hold of Algiz,
Infuse me, force and flame,
As darkness seethes
And devils rise,
Weave blood and bone with steel.
Bring heart and soul to heel."

    Her voice trailed off. She finished the third iteration before the suffocation became crushing, and barely controlled her panic as her eyes tore open.
    Darkness spilled before her.
    Her already thundering heart almost burst.
    Oily black smoke hung between the standing stones. Long, grey, gnarled fingers clawed out towards her from the clouds, turning the moss black where they touched like the creeping stroke of death. Once-effeminate silhouettes hunched and lurched where the darkness thinned, bodies too long and heavy for their limbs, and huge, white, glowing eyes stared back when the moonlight caught them, like ghastly pools of nightmare.
Countless mara crept into the circle beneath their cloak of shadow, their blind sights fixed on her. She could hear them wheezing, smell the nightshade, taste their malice. She fought to keep calm and let them approach, in spite of every fibre of her being screaming to get up and run.
    But she'd survived so much. What was one more struggle?
    Getting air into her lungs had become a challenge of its own, but still she sat, tall and determined, watching each demon's slow advance. She didn't flinch even as one of them screamed a guttural hiss and leapt onto her chest, nor let alarm get the better of her as the cold, heavy paralysis set in. But she was not unarmed. The stones, the smoke, the rowan tree, all worked against the mara, and the mara themselves were desperate. The night hadn't yet set in; they were not at full power. This time, the aurochs would face them on her own terms.
    In a single, smooth movement, she reached out and seized its bony wrist, and with that tight clutch, another scream, air-rending and ear-piercing, ripped from the mara's throat. The demon immediately disintegrated into a pile of twigs.
    Then the next came, as if blind to witness, and suffered the same fate.
    The third was quick to learn and changed its attack, climbing upon her shoulders instead, and another followed on the other side. Neither made it. One she speared calmly with her splintered horns, and the other she grasped just as smoothly by the throat.
    Her solid touch eradicated every mara as they came, and her mind stayed as steady as she could make it despite the constant battle for breath until the smoke and suffocation finally dissipated, and the foetid mara were no more.
    It took a long moment before her hands ceased to shake and the race of her heart began to slow. But that battle, brief as it was, was only the beginning. The worst was still to come, and that knowledge hitched a snarl in her lip.
    Again the aurochs steadied herself, even as she gasped for breath - not even the dust of her demons would get the satisfaction - and her eyes sank to the shadowy twigs scattered around her.
    Hesitation pinned her hands to her knees for only a moment before she reached out and gathered them. Some, she threw into the juniper fire; others, she clutched in her hands. She hesitated again as the noxious smell of darkness, a strange odour now not of nightshade but of too much aniseed, twisted her face.
    She closed her eyes as sour tears filled them, sat straight again, and sang.

"Bone, shadow,
And echo shorn.
Discard the dead to Ing,
Reforge the ashes,
Rise through flame.
Through sacrifice I soar.
Through seed I restore."

    She raised the two handfuls of twigs to her mouth, clamped them between her teeth with resignation, and bit down, hard. The pieces scattered. Much stayed on her tongue. She didn't spit them out. Instead, she reached out for the flask set on a stone before her, unstoppered it, held her breath, and drank. It took all of her strength not to heave it all back up. The flask suffered instead.
    Shards of glass dropped from her hand as her muscles loosened, and she gave herself over to the magic.
'Let it go. Surrender to it.' Everything she'd held onto so tightly, every black and white thing she'd held for so long, was released in that single draught.
    Pain set in quickly. Her throat burned, her stomach, her fingertips, her eyes. She hadn't expected it to be this strong.
    Then panic flashed in, or something more potent, wiping her mind clear while alarm ripped her eyes open. All she could think of was escape. But it was too late. She knew it was too late. It was too late the moment she'd sat down beneath the rowan's shadow. By coming here at all, she had committed.
    She stifled a cough in an attempt to regain control, but it tore its way out anyway. Flecks of blood spattered her lips and the heat in her chest redoubled.
'You have no control.'
The words swam in her mind, and she fought back another cough and the maddening spin of her head. She had committed. Committed, knowing there were only two ways this could go.
'You need no control.'
She slipped off of her knees and fell to her palms, bloody saliva streaming from her lips, stomach churning with the threat of purge. She barely felt the small hand resting on her shoulder, or registered through burning, teary eyes the shadow of elk antlers on the ground before her.
'Surrender it.'
But it was enough. She seized the wrist for comfort just as her stifled, desperate cough became a choke.
'Find out who you are.'
Thick blood splattered over the moss. She lost the hand, lost her balance, tipped head-first to the ground. Her broad horns speared the moss, sparing her a face full of dirt as she suffocated in shallow, bubbling breaths.
     Her skull hurt. Something was trying to break out of it.
     Her skin tingled. Something was trying to rip free.
    Her head rose from the ground, pushed higher as her horns began to grow. And in that moment, between broken breath and a screaming agony she couldn't express, she felt relief.
    It was happening.
    Haze set in.
    The roar of the bear, the honk of the swan, the horns of the knights, all of it played distantly against her eardrums.
    And she convulsed.
She let the change happen.
    It was the only way she could be One again.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock