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Monday 7 February 2022


Estimated read time: 9 minutes

      The binding stone loomed atop the barrow hill. The ghostly breath of fog drifted and curled around it, lit by a moon bleached silent, riding the low, cold hum that had come to infect every night in the ancient glade. So too did shadows stand and flicker in the fog as though time stopped and started, figures of jagged, hulking forms with emaciated waists and huge, circular eyes that glowed and flickered out of time. These shapes rarely strayed from the binding stone. They watched, and guarded. Nothing more.
     Weather had worn down neither carving nor duty. Time hadn't vandalised the stone. And the dead below stirred no longer.

     "I've put this off for long enough."

     The young man approached through the trees, leaving behind the vibrant land where the green lay rich and full beneath the darkness, and on to where it and the night melded together like lovers. The village lay far behind him, but even here he could hear the drums of the festival just beginning, despite the moon's warnings.
     But, as the trees opened up into that foggy, shadow-haunted glade, suddenly nothing but Night could be heard: silence woven with a streak of the Unknown's breath.
     And then, as visibility dropped, the featherlight footsteps of shadows.
     The three hulking shades lurched towards him, slow and menacing, growing larger and larger until they stood taller even than the tangled yew trees, though their steps were eerily quiet.
     But the young man didn't flinch. He walked on despite them, passing between without pause or glance, and continued on towards the barrow hill in silence.
     This, the shades wouldn't allow. They turned and followed with low, creaking groans, and a sharp rush of air chased a swipe across his back. But it didn't touch, and he didn't turn.
     He continued on, muttering an incantation beneath his breath, but it did little to dissuade them. Again they swiped, and again they missed. But the creatures wouldn't stop.
     He heard the strain and felt the buckle in the earth as a tree was uprooted, and the frantic rustle of the leaves as it was thrown towards him. Quickly, his fingers pressed to his forehead.
     The tree bounced backwards. And the shield shattered under the impact.
     He lowered his hand from the spellstone in his brow, stopped in his quest and turned at last towards them. Their eyes, he discovered in that passive look, were different now, tinted with a sickly yellow ire.
     His other hand rose to his forehead as each of the shadows threw flickering black claws towards him, and another incantation breathed through his lips. Upon the final word, the shades dissolved where they hunched, eerie howls juddering from their cores. But for all their absence, their presence remained.
     He turned and walked on anyway.
     Another gust swept by behind him, then another, and another, but their effort was unrewarded. Their claws could never reach him. He wasn't strong enough to banish them away, not without overruling the binding stone first. They were, after all, its guardians - but there was little they could do whilst doused. This, at least, he could manage.
     But he would need much more.
     The young man moved on towards the barrow, dogged by the helpless creatures who howled in silence against their impotence. But the defence did not fall with them. Something else lay in wait, a single, stronger thing, sitting upon the barrow on a throne of pure darkness. This one, the young man knew as he eyed it with a veiled gaze, was powerful.
     But he had known what awaited him, and was prepared.
     Again he touched the spellstone and uttered another invocation, dutifully pacing through the ancient words until they began to muddle and melt on his tongue. Lethargy fell over him far sooner than he'd expected, and he dropped to one knee before that throne, even as fire flared at last to his will. But its glow was weak; it didn't reach far enough.
     The shade rose from its seat while the darkness reshaped into a cloak at his back, and drifted slowly, heavily, towards him. The young man half-watched with bleary eyes, but he was struck before he could activate the shield. It was too fast, much too fast - unless it was an inconceivably ancient one of its order.
     He was no match at all.
     Blood speckled his lip as he hit the sharp, rock-studded ground. The impact rang in his ears and spun behind his eyes, but he steeled his will and rose again. The pain chased the lethargy away, and his spell moved justly.
     Fire erupted between them, more powerfully than the last, and blinded the shade. A shriek ripped free in a backward voice, and it recoiled in its smoke, red skin flickering, the being's indefinite shape breaking where the light was at its brightest. But he had no chance to force the flame into contact for the final strike. Even in shock, it was too fast, and it had nothing corporeal to hit until it itself attacked - at which point, it would be too late. His only hope was a counter-curse.
     The fire sputtered and died all too soon, and the lethargy closed its grasp around his mind once again. His knees sagged to the ground while the being began to circle him, drawing a cold, wretched air around with it. But the young man still had bearings enough. He turned his back to the shade and staggered around with him in the opposite direction, brushing a line over the grass with his fingertip as he went.
     He'd made it barely over half way when a rush of dark, freezing smoke swiped his hand aside. But the shade didn't rasp in victory. In that moment, the man had closed his fist and caught a wisp of that smoke, and with the last of his strength, he snapped the nail from the string about his neck and drove it down through the darkness and into the ground.
     A shriek like the sky itself breaking pierced through his ears and stole his hearing away.
     The ancient shade rushed forwards in the new silence, reaching a gnarled black claw towards him, but the young man didn't recoil. Its claw turned white as it passed over the nail, and that purity spread throughout the darkness until the smoke itself became solid and the shade a jagged figure of pearl.
     The lethargy passed in a heartbeat. The shade had been defeated.
     With a gasp of relief, the man struggled back up from his knees, stumbling on to the top of the barrow while blood trickled from his ears, and the pearl shattered and crumbled to dust behind him.

     Darkness reigned. Clouds moved fast in the distance. Trees waved, and a light wind blew over him, tugging silk and chain. But nothing at all passed his ears. The world was mute, and would, he suspected, remain so forever.
     He didn't wallow. The bloodied young man, his silk robes torn, turned around atop that barrow hill and looked back over the tree tops towards the distant village. The glow of lanterns limned the corners and edges of the rooves, purple lights afloat in celebration.
     His thin lips hardened, and he brushed his loose golden hair back from his face in resolution. The celebration wouldn't be wasted this time.
     A deep breath flooded his lungs, his head tipped back, his eyes closed, and he sank again to the ground. With feeling alone, he opened his satchel and withdrew the knife, the string, the bottle, the flowers, and all else. Then, with a prayer to the moon and a brushing touch to the spellstone, he began.
     "The Second Circle rings anew," the words murmured beneath his breath while he took up the handclamp and relinked and closed the broken chain, bent and beaten, and lay it upon the ground in a circle.
     "Once vices shed," then he poured wine and scattered tobacco, poppyseeds and gold around the circle.
     "And duties bled," he scattered nails and petals beyond.
     "And vessels cast aside." The empty wine bottle smashed on the rocks behind him.
     "Outgrew did we our hate," he cut a length of straw.
     "Our fear," a length of thread.
     "Our fate," a length of chain.
     "And strive no more to bitter' rue," the blade turned to his wrist, "once tethers cut by fate." His blood was warm as it flowed over his skin and stained his misty sleeves. Then he made himself comfortable on the grass, and exhaled deeply. "Wander... Wander... Wander..."
     He saw the glow of the binding stone through closed eyes. He felt the presence of the hulking shadows shatter. And he felt the pressure upon the barrow diminish. Spirits were not meant to be bound like this. Death is the Untethering; the time to fulfill all of life's lost curiosities, to see and learn and discover what they couldn't in life.
     For most.
     The young man breathed his last; his spirit vacated its shell and entered instead the cursed heathen binding stone, disintegrating its wretched, hateful hold on the dead at last.
     With a beautiful, bright hum, the spirits of the barrow rose again from their prison and drifted on through the wind, glowing among the scattered pearl dust.

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

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Winter Relict

Estimated read time: 24 minutes

     The hooded woman grumbled to herself and rubbed her thin arms furiously against the cold. No cloak was thick enough at this time of the year, no matter where she was. Even the mildest winters were bitter. But this...the mountains, the drifts, the trees hidden somewhere under that thick white sheet...ugh. This was just ridiculous. And she was fairly certain her lungs had frozen solid.
     'Needs must, needs must, needs must,' she reminded herself again, gritting her teeth behind chapped lips. As wretched as it was, it was a good sign. She certainly wasn't going to find the old man - man? - in a tropical setting. So, rather than follow a hunch, which had not been working out for her, she'd decided to actually do some recon. She'd moved from one town to another, listening rather than asking, and among the pleasant atmospheres, Yule pyres, mulled cider and pine needle tea, she'd finally found exactly what she'd needed regarding the giant goat that had been carrying people off in the night.
     Aaalllll of which had led her out here, tracking through frozen mud in the dark, shivvering, small teeth chattering as she searched for prints and traces under the half-lit moon. She could still hear the town's horns, drums and bagpipes blaring in the distance. Casting a wistful look backwards, she was sure she could see the light of the bonfires from there.
     She sighed witheringly and trudged on.
     'Needs must.'

     It didn't take long - though it certainly felt it - to find the prints, and they were exactly as people had described: a goat. A bipedal goat, with a...
     She took as natural a step as she could while being so aware of it.
     ...With a longer than average human stride. And given the depth of the prints in frozen mud, it was big. Or, more likely, heavy.
     "Looks like I'm on the right tracks," she murmured to herself. So, glad no one had been around to hear her pun, she wrapped herself tighter in the never-thick-enough cloak, took a deep breath, and followed the prints onwards into the snow-laden forest. The chill rapidly seeped through her boots, and a second set of tracks - a simultaneously pleasing and worrying set - appeared just as fast: the unbroken marks of something dragging through the ground on either side of cloven hooves.
     She paused and looked closer. The edge of the snow wasn't crisp; it had collapsed back in over them.
     So they were made by something heavy. Like a thick iron chain...
     A smile stretched her pale, grey lips. "Bingo."
     But she couldn't celebrate too soon. It was an old beast, a relic; unique. Powerful. Intelligent. Capable of reasoning, if only in black and white. And that reasoning, it seemed, was failing. After all, it was only December 2nd, yet the Krampus was up and about.
     Evidently, somewhere in recent months - or even days - he'd become corrupted, and, since he wouldn't have been easy to handle at the best of times, untouchable as he was by her inter-realm magic, all that was left open to her - or all she could think of while the cold built icicles inside her skull - was good old-fashioned assault.
     Extending her gloved hand, a silver blade appeared within it. Conjured, yes, but now her fingers wrapped around the hilt, it was real enough. And just as heavy.
     Her lips twisted doubtfully as she wielded and hefted its weight. But she'd just have to manage.
     A cold wind tugged her gaze back out along the tracks.
     Pulling her cloak tight again, she stiffened and moved on, stepping quietly, covering the distance faster than any human, and listening even closer. The air was cold; sound would travel further, and the first thing she'd hear would be--
     The tinkle of the bells and clang of the chains.
     A grunt rumbled in her throat. 'Found you, fella.'
     Silently, she stopped at the edge of the pines and stared on ahead from the shadows, half-blinded by the open white snow beyond. It took half a heartbeat for her eyes to adjust. Then, there he was, a dark shape moving across the field, ninety metres away.
     Clink. Clink. Clink.
     The chill the beast gave off reached her even from that distance, seeping deep and paralytically into her organs. So she set the briefest flame in her core in answer.
     The shock of the heat pushed a gasp from her throat and her legs back into action, and she left the shelter of the trees, flakes of falling snow melting as her red-hot breath cut through. Fast and silent she moved, until both he and the sack on his back were defined in the dark. She'd seen enough bags of bodies to know what was in it. They may not be dead yet, just entranced - but if he was out already, breaking the laws of his...what was it? A 'deityship'? Well, if he could do that, what else was he doing?
     But victims were second to the Krampus. He had to be stopped first. And she wasn't exactly under any obligations anyway. If there was time to save them, there was time. If not...well, she was never there.
     She wondered for a moment just how literal that truly was.
     The closer she drew, the colder it became, and the air darkened just as unnaturally. It was as if she'd stepped into some kind of bleak, corrupt atmosphere, and a grey, sour smell soon began to thrash inside her nose. She closed herself off to it, losing some sense of balance in the process, but it was better than the lethargic submission that would come from the aura's exposure.
     When she was finally just ten paces away and her heart was hammering in her chest, she stopped, straightened, thrust the blade into the snow beside her, loosened out her arms, and took a deep, steadying breath. She'd faced off against the Devil Herself, and successfully - she assumed - fled from Hekate. She could handle the Krampus.
     "Sorry old boy," she said aloud, since there was absolutely no way to get the sneak on a creature like this anyway, "I need a moment of your time."
     The figure slowed to a jangling stop. She waited. Then, slowly, cumbersomely, he turned and cast her a look over his shoulder.
     Her hammering heart leapt up into her throat.
     He looked almost as she'd always imagined he would: a goat-man, upright; dark, hairy, tall, with a long, sharp tongue lolling out from a mouth twisted in misery. But she hadn't expected his build to be quite so broad, nor for his teeth to be quite so long nor so yellow, nor for his goat-like horns to be so thick and twisted. He looked...ancient.
     And his eyes betrayed just how ancient. Primordial, almost.
     She stalled at the sight of them, then fought motion back into her body. Withdrawing the sword from the frozen earth, she steadied her grip just enough for control while keeping her arm loose enough to relieve at least some of the image of threat. "I realise you're busy," she continued coolly, "you've got your work to see to, but I was sent by theeee errrmm deeeiiity council...the Deity Council, and I'm afraid I have to take a look at your list--" She ducked sharply beneath the lashing chain. "Either that's a 'no'," she muttered, "or I'm on it."
     He struck at her again, booming an old, ragged howl over the bells, but she shifted where she stood, barely missing the strike as she collected her strength and burst ten feet backwards in a single movement. "I guess you're right on that count, though I'd rather it wasn't you who gave me the spanking."
     The sack he'd carried as if it weighed nothing crashed like lead to the ground as he swung at her for a third time, chains and bells clamouring, following unwittingly as she lured him away for the trees. He wouldn't be able to swing so easily in there, and if he tried, he'd save her the trouble by tangling himself up. Then she could get what she needed and be off, back to somewhere warmer, brighter, with pleasant company and absolutely no bells.
     But she had to get him in there, first.
     Again she evaded, ducking low beneath two more swings before spotting the pattern and stealing a precise attack of her own.
     Black blood hit the snow with a single satisfying nick, and a colossal roar ripped the night immediately after it.
     Her head rang as the howl knocked her balance and twisted deep in her gut, rattling her eyes inside her skull. She barely collected herself in time to avoid the retaliation, and looked back in confusion, searching urgently through his fur.
     The edge of her silver blade had liquified on that single cut, and she could see it now, sizzling, mixing with his blood and oozing with an acrid stench. So she had hit him. Clearly, it wasn't enough. And now, he was moving faster.
     She sprang backwards again despite the dizziness, closing herself off further from the smell, and desperately avoided the chains, reading his pattern again to work in another strike. It took more concentration than she had. If she got it wrong, if she moved too soon, she'd get her blade tangled in those ringing chains and wouldn't get the chance to summon another. All she could do was move and wait until she could guarantee a clear strike. However long it took.
     The chain clanged back in, a bigger movement than the others and a noise that was beginning to make her feel sick, but it was wide enough to be able to dart away from. Until a second chain swung in behind it, longer and heavier than the first.
     The pain it fired through her shoulder tore a yelp from her lips, and she was sent skidding sideways on her feet through the snow as the bells rang mournfully between them. But there was no time to find solid footing nor prod at the swelling; the Krampus was already on her, howling while his chains flashed by yet again.
     She bit back the useless squeak, tightened her grip on the sword and struggled through the snow, summoning more attention and lowering her defence against the smell of his burning blood. Her nose was cold and numb enough to withstand it, and if she fell again, she might not be quick enough to get back up. She was fairly sure that single hit had broken something in her shoulder. She couldn't afford to waste her energy.
     So when he closed in, she tensed, ready to spring away, and watched both of his chains for the cue.
     But it didn't come. He bellowed directly into her face instead, an impossibly loud sound that rattled her eyes all over again and reverberated into her bones. For a long moment, her mind escaped her, and she found her sword swiping recklessly, ignoring the chains. Somehow, it hit.
     More liquified silver seeped into his bloodflow, another wave of the acrid stench pulsed into the air, and another wretched howl of pain ripped from his old throat.
     She stole the moment to jump back to her feet, drawing on magic to aid her speed before he launched into an enraged fury. But it didn't come. Instead, something wrapped tightly around her left leg, then her right, and as she looked down in alarm at the two small, grey, flickering figures, more chittered and leapt gleefully onto her arms. Then the pain burned through the weaves, and the toxic smell of sulphur irritated her eyes.
     But a simple ice shard spell seemed to take care of them. Goblins apparently couldn't take very much.
     Though that, she soon realised, wasn't their point.
     While more swarmed in, she growled and cast again, and the snow reached up to root the goblins in place. Then er attention fell sharply back to the Krampus, already galloping, bellowing and swinging his chains.
     She dropped sharply when his weapons were within range, and struck out with her leg in a move she really didn't have the practise for. But, by more luck than skill, she still managed to catch and stagger him. If not for his fetlocked legs, she'd have missed completely.
     While his chains fell limp, she stole distance, dancing backwards through the writhing snow and clawing goblins still stuck in its reach.
     Then a sharpened birch stick flew towards her face.
     Instinct dragged her to one side even as she cursed. She should've grabbed for it.
     Then, once again, with the speed a creature that size shouldn't have possessed, he was suddenly in front of her. He was getting faster, she was sure of it. And his eyes were wilder, too.
     When something suddenly struck her backwards again, she was sure nothing had hit her but his voice, and though her ears rang with the sound and her eyes weeped under the smell of his breath, she still made out the sound of horns and bagpipes drifting in from the distance.
     The town. It was too close.
     But so, she realised with a leap of her heart, were the trees.
     She gritted her teeth, scrambled back up, struck clumsily, and made to run the final stretch. But heat pierced her shoulder before she could even turn.
     The lethargy already creeping through her arm told her what had happened.
     She ripped out the birch stick and clutched it tightly even as the heaviness spread to her chest. Just how potent were these ruten?
     She had little time to wonder. Despite the jingle of his bells and the clatter of his chains, the Krampus was on her too soon, knocking her to the ground before she even thought to try to move.
     'No,' she thought as his heavy chain withdrew, 'I underestimated him...'
     Then the goblins were back on her, burning her through her clothes. Her spell had collapsed.
     Maybe this was too much after all. At this rate, she was going to get dragged back to his realm, and--
     Her eyes widened. 'Ohhh...'
     Quietly, she spat out a curse and sighed, pushing herself slowly to her feet while the goblins giggled and the hooves stamped up behind her. Her vision doubled, but she cast the spell anyway, regardless of whether it would work fast enough or not.
     The hooves stopped, and the chains moved again.
     The goblins retreated.
     She slipped the blade into the sheath that appeared at her hip, just as the clatter and ring of steel swung its way around her.
     The deafening bells and chains' tight squeeze were the last things she knew.

Part 2

     The sour sting in her sinuses finally permeated the fog behind her eyes, and dragged her from the depths of what had been an almost pleasant sleep. It was acrid, both natural and ancient.
     Burned...hessian? And...ffff...sssss...ssssomething... No. No, she couldn't place it.
     Slowly, the thought finally came to open her eyes, but the effort was far more than it should've been, and when she thought she'd managed, the ongoing darkness made her wonder.
     She adjusted after the third delibrate blink, and found herself staring at a hand and a knee, neither of which were hers.
     "Well. I'm inside the sack after all." And it was shockingly spacious - but she supposed it had to be to accommodate everyone else in there with her.
     Her gaze drifted upwards, though there wasn't really enough room to move her head, but she couldn't feel anyone pressing down above her.
     So no one else had been added since. Then her spell had worked fast enough; the birch rut's enchantment hadn't fully taken hold. She'd probably only been unconscious for a few minutes.
     Of course, that was probably little comfort for the others, who remained petrified solid, faces twisted and frozen in fear. Some were probably close to death already, whether they were back in the Krampus's realm or not.
     But, again, they weren't her problem.
     She turned her attention out through the sack, rocking with the beast's slow, ponderous steps, and listened, trying to map the route as rapidly as possible - the smells, the sounds, the creature's speed, the ditches in the ground, uphill or downhill...
     But the Krampus's own aura was throwing it all off.
     She strained over it as best she could, deciding not to risk raising her defence any higher or the dizziness would make orientation impossible, and soon noted the sound of horns and bagpipes, joyful music that played now like a beacon.
     And then a dreadful warning. However far he'd carried them in the few minutes she'd been out, they were already nearing another settlement, and if he put any more people in the sack, her chances of escape would plummet. And it would be bad for them too, of course...
     'The corruption seems to have made him almost wild, though... Maybe I can distract him...'
    Her eyes drifted back over the frozen, horrified faces and her voice rose through the sack. "So, how's business?"
     No reply. Had she expected one?
     Maybe she wasn't reaching him. Well, if her voice wouldn't, the snow would. Her fingers shifted where they were trapped and directed the spell, thickening the drift around his hooves and slowing him as he walked.
     "Must come pretty easy, given how people are," she continued anyway. "They rarely learn their lessons, do they?"
     No response.
     "But I have to wonder: this isn't a curse, so what do you get out of it? Reputation only goes so far, and it seems a pretty dull form of entertainment. So...what is it?"
     "Mm. No, then again, you don't seem the type for any of that - necessity, that's all. So it must be food then - enough to stock the coming year, I suppose. Can't say I wouldn't do the same when you only have to work one night of the year...though I hear you've been busy for the past four..."
     Her eyebrows rose as she felt him come to a stop and turn, then heard him grumble something beneath his breath.
     A frown slipped in as she listened, but he soon fell silent again and walked on. "Any particular reason for that? Is your list too long this year for one night?"
     But, again, no answer.
     "Mm... Well, what constitutes 'naughty' these days, anyway? Because I notice Queen Amelia is still knocking about.... And witch hunters. And witches, for that matter, so I think it's safe to assume that whatever forces you obey seem to have their own criteria. know, I'd almost go as far as to say there aren't any rules. Pick and choose; make examples out of restless sleepers. Should keep people on their toes, right? Of course, if that was the case, you wouldn't be out here right now..."
     Again, he stopped, turned and mumbled.
     She muttered a curse of her own. Mapping still wasn't working. She was fairly sure they were moving away from the village, but she couldn't be sure. With a purse of her lips, she redoubled the density of the snow and tried another tactic.
     "You know, you came to my town once. Took two kids, only brought one of them back. I was terrified I'd be gone the next year. Funny how things stick with you." She stifled her struggle as she attempted to free her trapped arm. "The wrong things, clearly. You know, I can't actually remember any Yule from my childhood other than that one. Realm-walker's lot; we live too long. Assuming we don't get done in by our own shenanigans." She grunted. "I'm sure that's how I'll go. It'll be my own fault. People always said so.
     "But, you know, I never really made a lot out of Yule. But I suppose you don't have to. Doesn't make a difference; memories happen when they happen, and whyever they happen. I've been around long enough to learn that. For example, my best Yule was in Navalehya. It was quiet, aurora was flowing, almost got frostbite and Nisska made a chicken eskellian that almost killed us." A grin snapped across her face even as she continued to subtly wrestle herself free. "At least I think it was Yule...
     "My worst, though, was definitely Yule. Xarinill - they do things differently there, that's why I know it was Yule - and I was hunted by a tribe of dracoria. My fault, I misunderstood, removed a curse I shouldn't have. Or, rather, one they didn't want remov--"
     She hissed, barely missing biting her tongue as the sack was dropped down. Then came the unmistakable smell of sulphur.
     Hell lay ahead.
     Good. At last. Stronger there, he might be, but the problem areas would be solved. He'd be more corporeal, easier to strike, and, more importantly, slower. And she could use the energy in that place just as well as he could.
     And, if she carried on irritating him, he'd get there even sooner if just to get rid of her.
     Finally, she freed her arm as the sack was lifted again. "So," she sighed in relief, though the limb was empty of blood, "what's it like for you? Are you as singular as I am? I suppose you would be. It's how you were made. Nowhere to go but your home, bound to one purpose, no deviation allowed, and feared by humans just for doing your job." She squeezed her fist to revive circulation. Not for the first time, she wondered if it was already rotting inside from starvation. "You know, even if you hadn't broken the rules, it would only be a matter of time before they started hunting you. There are a few already after me, and I didn't abduct or lose any of their children. Then again, I suppose some would argue I'd done worse, but regardless, hunted is hunted, and there are too many of them and far too few of us. It's only a matter of time before they come up with something to end it once and for all. Then neither of us will matter. All the children you've taken, all the lessons you've taught, all the things I've taken and lessons I've taught... Pointless. We're wasting our time really - but that's an awfully dangerous rabbit hole to go down, don't you think?"
     She puffed a quiet sigh. "You know, I can't help but notice you've not answered me yet. Must be that tongue of yours, hard to control, lolling out like that all the time. Good thing I'm perfectly capable of holding a conversation on my own, eh? Master of the monologue. Don't get much practice with people, but it's either this or lose the ability to speak altogether, and I don't much fancy that."
     The monotonous pace stopped, he turned again, and the smell of sulphur in her sensitive nose noticably thinned.
     Curses rasped behind her teeth, and she moved to finally reach out of the bag until the pattern of his mumbling registered. Then, she stalled.  'A Yuletide song?'
    The sack dropped again, and as the cold seeped deeper through the hessian, she frowned and listened to him walking off, his bells and chains clanging. They stopped several long paces away and swayed, presumably, as he looked around.
     The frown deepened as she waited. Then, she moved. Out poked her head, then her shoulders, then her elbows, and she watched him for a while. There was something else in his eyes when he finally looked back.
     A question?
     Slowly, her hand rose from the sack and pointed back towards the sulphur. His eyes followed, and his head bobbed a cumbersome  nod. Then back he clanged, pushed her back inside, lifted the sack and shifted it over his shoulder once again.
     As a stranger's hand pressed into her cheek, her eyebrows rose. 'He's just...senile...'
    And a better idea formed.
     She wracked her memory as the sack resumed its slow to and fro swing, and began to sing along. The rough, mumbling voice outside soon rose in tandem, and when the Krampus finished that jolly song in something half-resembling the usual tune, he moved immediately into another. The bells and chains began to rattle with the rhythm, and his hoofsteps stamped like a metronome.
     Slowly, with that measured pace and deciphered sound, the rest of the world presented itself around her, and the smell of sulphur grew strong again. And when the bag next dropped to the snow in the midst of the toxic stench, out she climbed, the pair of them still singing, sun on its way up, hellish gateway open beside them, and she summoned a flute to play along. For only a few minutes they stayed this way, until the Krampus suddenly turned and descended that fiery path as if he'd been called by something. She, the sack and its contents had been forgotten. Yet even as he disappeared into the fire, his singing drifted back out with the sulphurous gas.
     She wasted no time. Letting go of the flute, which continued to play itself, she stooped and drew a circle in the snow around the gaping, sputtering hole, whispering an incantation in alternating tones. Only when the final word and gesture had been made did she stop circling and straighten, and watched as the ground pulled itself back together and the toxic haze diminished.
     The Krampus wouldn't be visiting next year. If he even remembered to try.
     While the cold, white sun rose low on the horizon, a gusty sigh steamed from her curving lips, and her shoulders rounded. "Problem solved." At least until something else stepped in to fill his role. Something more suited to modern values. Necessity was necessity, after all.
     Then her gaze dropped to the birch branch she'd saved, its end covered in white blood, and smiled with satisfaction. The wound in her shoulder steamed itself shut in a heartbeat. "Jolly good." Then she moved on to leave. She had too much still to do.
     But she'd barely gotten more than five paces before her attention drifted to the sack. "...Ugh. I suppose I should get these people home first..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Friday 19 November 2021

New Project Underway

      After completing The Devoted trilogy early this year, I'd already had my next book in mind for almost two years, so it hasn't been difficult to work out my next project!

     I began truly planning Sylvia (working title) in August, finished up around the end of September, then began work on origin stories to get to know the characters and their pasts. These have been shared on my Patreon. Then, on October 29th, I began work on the book itself.

     So far, I'm quite happy, and once the first five chapters have been written and edited, I'll be handing them over to my patrons to beta-read to help me get my eye back in. Otherwise, I'll be sharing more information on the story in the coming months.

     I will still be working on one unrelated short story a month, but life has recently taken a few big (but good!) turns, and I'm not sure what time is going to be like for a while. I'm going to have to work on my time management and practice being kind to myself (if I'm not working, I'm wasting time, and that's a good mindset if you want your brain to dribble out of your ears). But a balance can and will be struck,

     I'll be sharing snippets on my Patreon as I write, accessible by all tiers, and I'll have something new to announce some time after Christmas, too!

Monday 8 November 2021

The Door

Estimated read time: 17 minutes

      It took a long time for the old house in the overgrown forest to sell. It was pretty enough, but a fixer-upper, and that had always put people off. But someone brave had eventually seen it, seen what it could become, and took the plunge. Once the greenery was tamed and the walls and balconies repaired, it was beautiful. They had created something wonderful, something small, rustic and scenic, where people could get off the road and stay for a night or two without bedding down in their wagons or under trees. A 'motel', they'd called it, rather than 'inn', and that word alone drew people in.
     But it hadn't worked. The wrong partners, the wrong labourers; the wrong decisions. It was doomed from the start. Mismanaged. Dirty. Unstable. There were skeletons of all kinds where people couldn't see them. And it changed hands frequently; sometimes to those of someone bold, who could see what the first person had. But it never worked out. The house had always had bad energy; people always gave up and left. And it always drew unsavoury tenants. Or people who were hurting. Or people who were desperate and had nowhere else to go.
     Little Annie, daughter of one of its many owners, decided long ago that it was because of the Door. It only opened from one side, was visible from neither, and stood somewhere in the westmost room of the bottom floor. That door, she'd decided, was cursed. Bad things always got through. So did the cold, like a never-ending draft. A wintry cold - the kind that should've meant snow or ice outside, but lied. She hated that, always had; if it was cold, there should be snow. What was the point if you couldn't build snowmen or have snowball fights? Where was the fun? What was the point in anything if there wasn't any fun?
     That was the only reason she and her brother had investigated the door, but the fun had quickly run out, if it had even started. And, as long ago as that was, she still didn't really understand it. But she felt like she wasn't supposed to.
     So, she sought fun elsewhere, though the kind that came to this 'motel' wasn't the normal kind. Yule was nowhere to be seen. Nor Beltane, nor Lughnasadh, nor Samhain. But music was; people heading to festivals. So were games of chase, people running from or looking for other people, and treasure hunts - all kinds was stashed and hidden away in nooks and crannies. And there was a lot of wrestling, especially when doors were locked.
     So when the right kind of fun came around, Annie always liked to get involved, and dragged her big brother along in the process.

     Annie's voice strained as she reached to hang her length of string from an old nail near the ceiling. She didn't quite hook it, but that was okay. It stayed where it was anyway, just like the torn confetti she'd scattered through the air. They'd all stay exactly where she'd put them until they were taken down again. Everything in the old birthday box was like that; over-used but determined, happy to be a part of any celebration.
     "Is this all right?" Peter asked from across the room where he'd tied his length of the bunting. The question came with the usual bleak shadow in his voice. Every party always seemed to make him sad. "Pity", was all he'd say about it, and when Annie asked "what was", he just shook his head and told her not to worry. "It's not our problem."
     His glumness barely grazed her anymore. He was a barrel of fun otherwise. Everyone had their thing, and this was his.
     "Yes," she replied, peering backwards along the length of ribbons, "perfect!"
     "Why are we bothering?" He asked as he helped her down from the stack of boxes. "They won't see any of this."
     "Because," she replied simply, "it might help them if it goes wrong."
     He didn't reply beyond a grunt. For all his complaints, he always helped anyway.
     Annie stepped back and admired their work. Hands on her hips, she gave it a single, satisfied nod, then turned and repaid her brother with a hug. "I wish we had a cake, though."
     "I know, but there wouldn't be any point."
     The door latch moved again, silencing her protest, and the pair of them scrambled away to hide atop the wardrobe, even though Peter was almost as big. There, they watched the woman come back inside, beaming excitedly while another followed. Annie grinned as a smile spread across her face. "Funny sort of party, though," she whispered to her brother. "Just two people..."
     "Normal for this place."
     She squeezed his hand and grinned, wriggling happily beside him.

     "Decorating a room in an inn? Elisabeth, it's too much work for--"
     "Your birthday? I disagree." The first lady slipped into the other's arms and kissed her. "It might just be a quick stop-over, but it's worth it. Birthdays only come once a year!"
     "Yeah, every year."
     "Ugh, Rosemary--"
     "I'm kidding!" Rosemary kissed her again. "I love it." Then she let her go, closed the door, and began dividing bread, cheese and dried meat while Elisabeth lit candles from the fireplace. "I thought we'd stop at Rangeroak tomorrow - there's a huge field of white pumpkins I thought you'd like to see."
     'White pumpkins?' Annie mouthed to her brother, but he could only shrug.
     They watched the pair and waited for the party to start, but instead they both just sat down with their dinner and talked together beside the fire. So they waited. And they waited. And waited. Once it had gone black outside, boredom finally lured Annie to sleep. A clatter and screaming laugh in a room nearby jolted her back.
     Peter's hand rested softly on her shoulder before she could fall, and she found the two women right where she'd left them, bundled in a blanket and looking towards the window. It was a long few minutes before the tension left their shoulders.
     "This place is a shame," Rosemary murmured as she settled back against the other. "Maybe we should buy it, do it up. Do it justice. All it takes is the right pair of hands."
     "We have enough on our plate," Elisabeth replied, placing her hand gently on Rosemary's belly. "Can't be taking on anything else right now. Ooh, speaking of which..." She disentangled herself from the blanket and headed for the door. "I have something for you."
     "A gift? Elisabeth, we can't afford that!"
     "Oh hush, it's your birthday. And besides," a rush of cold air flooded in as she opened the door, sending Rosemary deeper into the wool, "it didn't cost me anything."
     "Oh. Then I'm not sure I want it."
     She rolled her eyes, took her coat and stepped out into the dark. "Gods save us if this baby has your sense of humour."
     "Then it will have a very happy life," Rosemary grinned while the latch clicked shut, then rose and left for the wash room.
     And Annie, with a weary puff, finally clambered down from the top of the wardrobe.

     "This," she sighed, straightening her dress and putting her little fists on her hips, "is unbelievably boring. These adults are the most useless at parties." She turned and peered up towards her bleary-eyed brother. "Come down, let's lea--"
     "Who are you?"
     Annie's voice caught with a squeak in her throat as the pair of them snapped wide-eyed towards the wash room, where Rosemary stood in a panic in the doorway, staring back at Annie.
     "And what are you doing in here?!"
     Annie blinked slowly. "You..." Then she cleared her throat, straightened, and turned to face her directly. "I'm helping."
     "Helping?" She stared on. "With what? And how did you get in?!"
     "Through the door..."
     "A while ago..."
     The woman moved into the room, looking warily from her, to the door, then the rest of the room. "I didn't...see you before..."
     "Of course you didn't. Because I was hiding." She pointed towards the top of the wardrobe. "Up there."
     She followed her finger. "How could you get up there?"
     "I climbed on the boxes."
     "...What boxes?"
     "Well they're not here..."
     "Not here? All of a sudden?" Her eyes sank back down and stared at her for a long while, thought moving rapidly across her face. But she didn't seem to land on anything she was happy with.
     Annie waited, hands held politely behind her back, but she clearly wasn't going to continue. "You look worried."
     "And you look pale. Are you all right?"
     "Oh," the giggle bubbled out, brushing a peculiar smile over the woman's lips, "I'm fine, thank you very much for asking."
     Then her dark eyebrows narrowed. "But?"
     "...Weeeell..." She sucked air in between her teeth. "I'm a bit...stuck."
     "Mhm. We both are."
     Peter then obediently stepped forwards. The woman flinched back in surprise. It seemed she hadn't spotted him yet, waiting behind the wardrobe.
     "Oh," she sighed, collecting herself. "Well," then she turned and moved towards the door. She'd barely touched the handle when Annie giggled again.
     "Not stuck in this room!"
     "Stuck in this place."
     "This place?" She asked. "You mean the building? You're not allowed out? Are your parents the owners?"
     "Annie," Peter said firmly, "stop."
     "Annie," the woman said carefully, judging the charge in the young man's stare, "is that your name?"
     "Yep! And this is Peter, my big brother. We go everywhere together!"
     The same smile flickered back across her face, and her hand moved to her tummy. "That's nice."
     "It is, isn't it?" Annie beamed. "I annoy him, but he likes me really. And when I got stuck here, he came after me!"
     Then a frown pushed aside the woman's smile, but before her next question could leap from her lips, a voice rose from outside. She sent the both of them a deliberate look. "Wait. Here." Then she turned, opened the door and stepped outside.
     Peter took Annie quickly by the shoulder. "What are you doing?" His voice was dangerously low.
     But his tone didn't touch her. "She," she snatched herself back, "could help us. She can see--"
     Rosemary came back inside, grabbed a set of keys from a table and tossed them down from the balcony. Then she returned to them. "You shouldn't be here."
     "I know," Peter replied witheringly, "but she doesn't listen. We're sorry, we'll leave."
     "No," she sighed, stopping him from steering her away with a gesture, "it's all right. Look, I'll take you to your parents. It's too late to be wandering around alo--"
     "We appreciate that," Annie replied carefully, slipping again from her brother's grip, "but maybe you can help us another way."
     "Oh? And how would that be?"
     Annie gave her a straight look. It stunned her for a moment. "Get us out."
     "Uh...n-no--well I can't - but I can inform the guard in the next village if that's what you need..."
     Annie's sudden giggle seemed to stall her again. "Oh, no, nothing like that! No, we just need you to open the door."
     The woman sighed and crouched down in front of her. "Look, I'm sorry, Annie, Peter, but I can't help you run away--"
     "We're not running away," she groaned, "we're trapped."
     "I don't see the difference."
     "Then I'll explain, it's very simple. It's not a door to outside. It's just a door, on the bottom floor, in the westmost room. You just need to open it."
     "...Just open a door?" She cocked a dark, sceptical eyebrow again. "And then what will you do?"
     "Be free."
     "Ignore her, Miss," Peter told her. "It's nonsense. Annie, we're stuck here, just leave her be."
     "If we're stuck here," she spun back to him, "then she can always just try. If it doesn't work, fine. But she needs to try."
     "What's on the other side of this door? It's not a back door to the forest, is it?"
     "No," she replied, returning to her, hands held politely behind her back, "it doesn't go outside. I said that."
     But the woman just looked at them with the same hook in her eyebrow. She seemed to be staring through them, because her eyes didn't follow as Annie stepped past her and walked through the door.
     "It won't take long, I promise. We'll show you the room. Then you can decide what to do - just, don't go through it yourself."
     "Peter, you have to come along. We can't miss our chance And I don't want to be without you..."
     He sighed heavily and followed while Rosemary hurried to block the door. She was too late.
     "Annie--Annie, Peter, wait--ugh." She cursed and followed them, snatching a candle and her coat from the peg.

     Rosemary wrapped herself tightly as she moved along the rickety balcony, shielding the candlelight while the wind tried to blow it out. Shadows danced maniacally across the walls. She called to her partner while she went, claiming to be speaking to the owner about something.
     "Take your time," Elisabeth called back, "I can't seem to find it..."
     "Why doesn't that surprise me?" She muttered with a smile. Then she descended the stairs after the children and stepped back inside.
     The corridor was dark and immediately so much colder, but the children were already out of sight, so she didn't spare it a thought, hurrying along instead. The candlelight reached them at last, standing outside an end room with the words 'no entry' hung on the door.
     Annie turned her a smile. "It's in here."
     "And you just need me to open it?"
     "Yes, please."
     She could feel her heart racing. Something was wrong. Even so, she opened the door. Somehow, it was even darker and colder beyond.
     She hesitated while the children rushed in. Something was seizing her, something with long fingers closing slowly around her throat. She'd felt fear like this only twice before in her life.
     She moved before it could overwhelm her, just as she wished she had before, and her meagre light spilled over everything. It was a tiny storage room, filled with crates, barrels and sacks. It smelled of oats and mould.
     She couldn't see a door, though.
     "See?" Peter sighed. "I told you. No point."
     But Annie didn't say a word. The shadow as hope left her eyes was enough.
     Rosemary smiled sadly, but just as she was about to reach for the girl's hand and lead them out, she heard the ring of a bell. Muffled.
     She frowned and looked closer at the wall. There was something on the other side... "The door's hidden?"
     "Yes!" Light flashed back into the girl's eyes. "But it is here, you have to find it!"
     Peter said nothing from her side. She found him suddenly staring, watching the situation cautiously. That set a small, dubious fire in her heart.
     Rosemary set the candle down and began pressing along the wall. It didn't take long for footsteps to sound in the hallway behind them.
     "Hurry!" Annie whispered.
     She pressed harder, moving up and down, her fire flaring hotter.
     The footsteps outside grew louder.
     "They're going to stop you! You have to open the door!"
     She could hear Peter murmuring 'please find it, please find it, please find it' behind her.
     And the footsteps were still getting closer.
     She gritted her teeth. The bell was still ringing. This was the right wall. The door was hidden. She moved along.
     The footsteps were right on top of them when something finally shifted.
     The hidden door swung open, and the children ran in without a word.
     "Why is this door open?" A voice came from the hallway. "Hey! Who's there?"
     Rosemary cursed and rushed through, crashed into the children on the other side and pulled the door shut quickly behind her.

     The room flashes awake. A dull, grey light.
     Vast. Endless. A cathedral of pillars and broken white columns.
     A hum felt, not heard. Annie is crying. Peter is comforting her.
     Rosemary turns around. The door is gone. The wall is gone. It's just more. More.
     The fire in her heart flares again. It leaps again, and sinks like lead. "...Where are we?"
     But Annie is still crying, kneeling over something.
     Rosemary inches closer.
     Two skeletons lay on the floor.
     Her throat closes up. Something roots her feet. Her stomach twists in knots. "W-what is--" The words stick.
     Her eyes drag away. A paper lantern, unlit and full of holes, drifts by. A string of bunting hangs, hooked to nothing. Birthday decorations. All bleached grey.
     She spins around, lead feet striking hard ground but making only half a sound. "Where's the door? Annie?! Where is it?!"
     The girl looks back up from the skeleton. It's small, Rosemary notices, and wears the same yellow ribbon she does. Her voice is ragged with hiccups. "I told y-you...not t-to...step th-through..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock