They’re vicious things, those black nymphs. They can be as big as small children. They have sallow colored skin that scabs and peels like they’re sunburned. They’re mostly bald, with thinning dark hair, and they have large black eyes that roll madly about in their fervor. Their teeth are jagged and crooked, with bits of wood and moss in them, and they are stained and rotted.
They hate everything. Every living creature, every growing plant, every sunrise and sunset. They feed off the dead trees, gnawing on the stiff dry bark so that you can see their teeth marks gouged into the wood. They stalk any and all outsiders of their black forest and after they’ve accumulated enough gall, they begin to pelt their victim with any and all objects they can throw. If they’re daring, they may even try to jump on your back and bite something off. They sabotage tools and vehicles, burn clothes, and defecate on your food. If they hate life, they hate civilization even more, and they want nothing of it in their forest.
…There was once a time when I dwelled here, in the Kreut. It was…just after my banishment and all of my family were dead. I was alone in that forest, mourning. I shed my clothes and laid on the ash covered soil. I writhed in the desolation, and I think the black nymphs took a liking to me. And by that I mean…well I’m not sure. Typically, black nymphs seek to drive anyone from their home, and in the beginning they did this with zeal. But in my grief I thought I deserved it, so I took their punishment without complaint. I think this confused them. Startled them, even.
As the months stretched by, the evil creatures came to watch me in large gangs–black eyes winking up in the trees at night. They’d whisper and grunt to each other. They’d pelt me with objects when they felt like it. Sometimes, they kept me from sleeping, shrieking in my ear or biting my limbs just as sleep (or unconsciousness) sought to claim me. They tormented my Twin when we’d Change. There was no doubt–they hated me and wanted me dead. But it was with pleasure that I felt them plot my demise. They giggled at my pain and sadness. I think they found me special, and so their cruelty reflected this.
Those terrible creatures are the only things I hate as much as dogs and violence. And if my memories of my time in the Kreut forest were stronger and clearer, then I imagine I’d hate them even more.
They’re vicious things, those black nymphs.
And they descended on me. I knew it to be them, from the small voices that shrieked and hooted. In the confusion, I managed to pick out my own name in the devilish chant that could be heard. Nyx…Nyx…Nyx… It frothed in the horror. It sent great shivers of revulsion through me that these filthy things would hold my name in their black hearts after all this time, but perhaps it was fitting, given my past.
Sharp teeth clamped onto me, and I noted Lacertli’s weight was absent from my shoulder, but I had little time to dwell on that. Was Argos free of this? I thought I could hear him howling and barking in the din. He sounded far away. I felt far away.
…This was really happening.
The pain came from all around. I felt pieces of myself tear. I was going to be ripped apart again, but this time I wouldn’t be able to walk away. These things would not be satisfied with a small prize. They would devour me whole if they could…
Away. I had to get away.
Inward I went, through the unseen passage that led me to Her usual place in my mind–now empty–but I pressed onward, and as I dragged myself (it seems one of the evil things was close to gnawing off my right foot) somehow the pain I felt dimmed. I imagined myself free of their bonds and my body started to heal. I paused to allow the process to complete. Gaping wounds closed. I wretched and vomited up bloody bile. The whole of me was covered in gore and other things I care not to name. Then I was up off the ground (“When had I fallen?”) and was moving again.
I was once more forging through the labyrinth of my mind, following cold lonely trails through a landscape of a whistling canyon and cool rock beds, where beings caught between transformations pulsed in the rock. I ran, my legs scything through the air and my boots pounding. I was feeling a pull at my back even as the pain faded. Reality was trying to draw me out of my subconscious, but I fought against its phantom grip and fought to clear the hill that seemed to hedge my mind until–
–A breath over me. The pressure and the pull was gone. I stood at the top of the sandy crest and nearly fell backward in my fright.
Standing before me was a giant creature with a hunched back and writhing skin. It turned my way at my gasp and let out a roar.
I squinted my eyes and saw with a start that the giant was actually hundreds of black nymphs all writhing together, clawing each other, biting one another’s limbs. Black blood seeped down their bodies and I turned sick at the sight of some being burrowed into, intestines and other organs falling free to dangle by their fleshy attachments. The nymphs were trying to become one…literally.
The giant’s head, already a bloody mass of corpses and half-dead nymphs turned to me, parting its misshapen mouth to scream.
“Someone has taught them black magic. They have enacted a spell that brings them together as one.” Lacertli’s voice. I jumped and turned to see the god was right next to me, once again in the guise of Marquis, his fierce eyes upon my face. “The spell has yet to complete. The body is not yet whole. Get at the abomination’s heart, before its skin turns to steel, and you will have defeated this threat.” And then the god glanced to the side, his form fading. He quirked an eyebrow before he vanished. “…And you should probably duck.”
I blinked and looked forward again just in time to see the mammoth sized clump of earth launch toward me. My body tensed, intent on jumping, ducking, whatever–but it was too late. It slammed into me, and sweet Aelurus, I thought my very soul had been ejected from my body. There was pain throughout, down to the bone, and when I slammed down the crest I had just cleared, I felt that agony doubled.
Consciousness came slow. Half-out of my mind, I thought the world was falling on me. Was that what Elmiryn imagined, when she whispered that the world was too small? I managed to shimmy halfway out from underneath the great clod of earth, but gaped in horror as the disgusting monster bared down on me, with frothing eyes squelching and popping fresh from the nymphs’ heads. These things, like plant stems, snaked and slithered through the mess of the monster’s throat, and the eyeballs collected together on its misshapen face. It opened its maw at me again and screamed.
…Or maybe I was the one doing the screaming.
They returned to the smithy, because Elmiryn thought she saw a wheelbarrow somewhere there. They indeed found a wheelbarrow and also a rusty shovel, short on the shaft but lacking any compromising cracks or splints along the wood. With gentle hands, they took Graziano’s body, already stiffening, and laid him out in the barrow’s bed. They wheeled him out of the building–a scribe house, what with the stray pages baring neat scrawls of history and literature and such. The woman scooped one up and glanced it over on her way out. At the top of the frayed paper, she read:
….Ohrek and Stedif broke through the swarm of tunnel worms, their slime and blood and excrement staining their cloth and boots. They were merry in their slaying, for their prize was within sight…
It sounded interesting, so the warrior folded the page and tucked it down the front of her wrappings. She hurried to rejoin the others.
The sound of the wheelbarrow squeaking and bumping over the flagstones left everyone quiet. None looked at the body. Not even Elmiryn cared to gaze upon Graziano’s corpse more than she needed to. His eyes were half-open and staring at nothing. She wondered, though, if the man would have been livid to discover himself being transported in such a graceless way. This only made her a little sorry. Elmiryn had liked Graziano’s company. He was funny, and brave…even if he was a bit of a fool, like Quincy had said. Were they ill words if they were the truth? The warrior had been even less charitable to Baldwin back at Gamath, a boy she hardly knew, so she supposed she was being a bit of a hypocrite. Perhaps the wizard had all the right to call Graziano things. She knew him far longer than the warrior had.
…Aw, who cares.
Elmiryn looked up from her staring contest with the ground (“I lose,”) to find that the road opened up ahead. One of the large statues towered there in the middle of a square. It was all dark, and the face had eroded, leaving it featureless. The stone that had once been the nose and the eyes and such had fallen to the ground below, wrecking the circular road about the statue’s feet. She pointed, “Maybe we can bury him over there?”
“We’ll have to find a place where the flagstones are coming away, somewhere the soil is free,” Sedwick said through a grunt. He was given charge of pushing the wheelbarrow, and he forced the thing through a wide pothole.
“A hard thing to find in this stony place,” Quincy muttered. She gripped the shovel in her right hand.
“We’ll figure something out. If it has to be a soldier’s service, then so be it.”
“A soldier’s service?” The wizard turned and gazed at Elmiryn with squinted eyes.
The warrior cursed her slip. There was still the bounty on her head, and though Quincy claimed she could never find work as a bounty hunter again, a king’s ransom would likely change her mind… She gestured around them at the deserted shops and homes. “There’s plenty of wood here. Good for a pyre. That’s what I meant.” She tried to sound casual.
“No.” Quincy said firmly, perhaps with a note of bite in it–but then again, in her emotional teetering, she always seemed to have a level of bite in her. “The Morettis come from the Santian kingdom, who believe in rest in the soil. I would not do otherwise.”
Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose high. “Are you suggesting that the fire is not good enough for him?”
The wizard glanced at her. Then she pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. I know cremation is preferred in your kingdom. It was not a reflection on you or your origins. But…I feel honor bound. If the task dragged on and you or Sedwick felt the need to move on without me, I would understand. But I would stay to get the job done, whatever the danger.”
“…She says this as I grunt against the wheelbarrow carrying the deceased’s body.” Sedwick growled out, struggling once more to keep the wheelbarrow moving forward. “Somehow, I feel my involvement in this is being under-appreciated…”
“You would put yourself at risk for someone you had spoken so critically of?” Elmiryn asked the wizard, ignoring the blacksmith’s grumbling. She thumbed over her shoulder as her mouth took on a cruel tilt. “Not even ten minutes ago–”
“I know what I said.” Quincy said, her eyes flashing. “I say a lot of things. Count on this being one of the important ones. Graziano will be buried properly and in unhurried fashion because it is all the comfort I can give him considering–” Quincy stopped with clenched teeth as she turned her face away.
Sedwick gave Elmiryn a sharp glare and the warrior threw her hands up, exasperated. “It’s alright Quincy,” the man said turning to her. “I understand where you’re coming from. Together we’ll do this right.”
“I wasn’t trying to…for fuck’s sake, never mind,” the redhead grumbled, crossing her arms and glaring off to the side. It made her cross that Quincy was forgiven her outbursts, but the truth, however bluntly stated, was not tolerated. She had been to many funerals, most for comrades, and she knew this to be true in each case. A bit of irrationality was fine, but if you came in swinging with the facts, somehow you were the more evil for it.
“I think I see a spot.” Sedwick said, nodding up ahead. “There. The stone that fell off that statue broke through the concrete. We should be able to get to the dirt underneath if we clear the debris.”
The warrior swiped at her nose, feeling it itch in her irritation, and she gazed forward with lidded eyes. As her eyes swept around, she thought she saw something off to the side of the road, but when she looked again, nothing was there. Still the feeling of being watched came over her, and she nudged Sedwick with her elbow. “Hey. Can you go on ahead and move that rock with your water powers? I’ll push the wheelbarrow.”
Sedwick stopped and set the wheelbarrow down gently and Elmiryn moved to take his place. The man, with a wavering form, turned clear as his body became entirely water and he lost his human shape, falling to the ground in a collected puddle. In this form, he slithered ahead of them, his body a long thin stream like a snake. He moved quicker in this way, and within the minute he was at the great chunk of stone, pushing at it in his watery form. It didn’t budge at first, but as Sedwick became less human in shape and more like Nadī in her amorphous form, he managed to get under the edge of the rock. This gave him more leverage, and within the minute, the great rock tumbled away. Sedwick retracted his arms, looking so much like geysers, and he returned to flesh as Elmiryn and Quincy came up.
The patch of ground revealed was wide and like a misshapen oval, with flagstone shattered beneath it. When they cleared these, there were still foundations of concrete to work through, but Sedwick again, proved useful, using his watery form to squeeze into the cracks in a way neither of his companions could’ve hope to. The slabs were up and away, and they were met with soil. They kept working, sweat beading on their skin as they expanded this patch to a suitable burial spot, one that Graziano could fit into.
“Is this really okay?” Elmiryn said, glancing around for the umpteenth time. She kept thinking she saw something out of the corner of her eye, but when she looked there was nothing. Perhaps her mind wasn’t all that much better in the Other Place. “Maybe we would have had an easier time of it back in the tunnels?”
“Some of those tunnels are derelict. Digging into them without any proper knowledge could very well see us buried with Graziano.” Quincy hefted up the shovel and struck into the free soil. “This is our best bet. We may still be interrupted here, but at least we have a chance of finishing.”
For a short while it was just Quincy digging at the dirt, her breath rough as she kicked at the shovel’s head and sunk it in deep. Then Sedwick turned his arms to water and he scythed at the dirt, taking away big clumps. Then Elmiryn got bored and took up a rock, and though of all of them she did the least, she felt better being involved somehow. Eventually, Sedwick had to stop with the water as it was making quite bit of mud, and both Elmiryn and Quincy found themselves up to their shoulders in the hole.
“This seems good. I doubt we have to worry about flood or animals ruining the grave, right?” Quincy panted. She had dirt on her face and all over her clothes. Elmiryn as well. “Yer taller than I am. Stand straight and lessee if the grave comes to your ears.”
“I’m only taller by an inch or so. How tall’re you?” Elmiryn returned.
The brunette leaned on her shovel, her face screwing up. “Must you make even a simple question difficult?”
The warrior’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not interested in being used to measure how deep a grave is. I fill them up, not dig ’em out.”
“Ladies, I think your work is done.” Sedwick said over them. “Let me help you both up.”
Quincy went for Sedwick’s hand while Elmiryn struggled out of the hole on her own. She scraped her palms a bit but straightened, her gaze lidded as she turned to regard the others.
“So now…” The warrior turned and looked down at Graziano, with his limbs hanging over the edge of the wheelbarrow. “Our Moretti.”
The warrior went to take up his limbs, and Sedwick moved to help her, but Quincy grabbed his arm and held a hand out to Elmiryn. “Wait!”
“What?” Elmiryn said, frowning at her. She looked over her shoulder and back at the wizard. “We’ve found him a good resting place! We risk danger staying here!”
“I said I’d not just bury him, but bury him right.” Quincy stepped forward, her bow-shaped lips puckered and her angled brows knitted. She took up a pouch on her side, empty, and rubbed it with both hands. After a moment, she loosened the pouch and turned it over her hand, and out slipped a handkerchief. Another shake and a small vial of water fell out after it. Elmiryn’s brows rose high.
“That’s useful,” she commented.
The wizard ignored her. She took the vial and uncorked it, where she placed the handkerchief over the mouth and turned it over quickly. With the newly dampened cloth, she knelt by the wheelbarrow and wiped at Graziano’s face. The warrior noted the shake of her hand as she did this, but said nothing. Quincy closed his mouth and wiped the blood from his lips. She closed his eyes too. There was nothing to be done of the bashed in nose, nor the cuts and bruising. Still, with his mouth and eyes closed and the blood gone, the handsome young fellow that Elmiryn knew Graziano to be was apparent, even in death.
Quincy stood and with lips still puckered, she undid the clasp of her cloak. With a sweep, she took it from her shoulders and snapped it out into the air, where the heavy cloth fell at full length alongside their makeshift grave. Elmiryn stepped back, her eyes narrowed as she took in the brunette without her most prominent piece of clothing. She knew she had seen the wizard without the cloak on at least once before, but that moment was lost in a blaze of heat and metal and blood. No, now that image was gone from her head, and instead was this different person, shedding her cloak not for violence but…
Sedwick took Graziano beneath the arms and Quincy around his legs, and on a three count, they had him up and on the cloak. Elmiryn stepped forward as a sudden thought occurred to her. “Shit. Unless we want to commit him gracelessly, we need to find someway to lower him in. That grave is nearly six feet deep and too narrow for anyone to go down and receive him.”
Quincy frowned, looking stricken. “And he’s dead weight,” she added cheerlessly. “It’s one thing carrying him from the wheelbarrow, but…”
“I could turn to water and lower him that way, but it’d muddy the grave and that’d sully the poor man’s corpse,” Sedwick said. He rubbed the side of his face. “We could…”
There was a ‘harrumph’ from behind them. Everyone jumped and turned.
A stout dwarven ghost, wearing a smithy’s garb of a dark apron, a knitted cap, and thick gloves, swept off his hat and bowed low to them. Behind him, appearing more and more by the second, were men, women, and children. All dwarves. All as transparent as mist. All watching them. The first dwarf straightened some, his expression solemn even as it wavered from the likeness of flesh to macabre skull and back. “Pardon our intrusion,” he said in a deep bass-like voice. “But we think we can help.”
The abomination gripped me about the head–the head–and pulled. Perhaps if I had not shimmied out from beneath the boulder of earth as I had, with arms pushing even after its sweaty, disgusting fist closed about me, then I would have been pulled in two and that would have been the end of my story. Lacertli would have been quite disappointed. And Elmiryn…
But to my good fortune, I was out just enough that the worst I suffered was perhaps a damaged spine and neck. I speak of these things so lightly only because of what could have happened instead, which makes me shudder still to this day. But at the time, make no mistake, my limbs and my nerves did not take to the horrific damage that came to me.
In this fashion, with the amalgamated beast’s clutching me about my petite head, I was flung up and away, stunned. I think I blacked out mid-air. The collision back unto the earth was what brought me back I think, considering the dust was still settling when I opened my eyes. It was Lacertli’s sharp voice that had me up as I felt my spine right itself and my newly broken arm (I must have fell on it wrong) knit together. “Up, Knave! The beast comes!” he hissed.
Though I could feel my regeneration at work, my limbs still were quite twitchy. Becoming a champion of a deity makes one more hardy, that was easy to see. I looked and to my humiliation noted that my crotch felt wet again. I suppose my bladder was not quite as empty as I had thought. For its supposed benefits, my new station in life didn’t do much for my pride.
There was no time for self-pity, however, as I saw the great abomination charging toward me with its gray shifting skin, its misshapen head with its hundreds of little eyes. Every stomp of its terrible feet shook the earth, and I did the only thing I could think of…
I forced myself to my feet, back still hurting, neck twinging in sharp pain, and with my vision blurring, I ran.
Lacertli stepped out from behind a tree ahead of me–a teleportation trick handy to gods, no doubt. I found I resented his ease as he frowned lazily at me. “Knave, what on earth are you doing?” he sighed.
“Surviving, sir!” I panted as I sprinted past him. “Begging thy pardon, but I believe this to be one of your tenets!” I couldn’t hold back my cheek. I was the one running for my life, and yet he seemed unaffected by this danger. A little help would’ve been nice. But then again, Lacertli was a god, so I should count my lucky stars he didn’t turn me into a toad or something.
Behind me, I could hear the monster, its voice splintering into hundreds of little screams. It was gaining on me, damn it all.
Then I remembered. I could step through shadows.
My breath ragged I went diving into the narrow shadow of a twisted tree, and cold swept over me. I tumbled, head over heels, and skidded gracelessly along the black ground. With a groan, I straightened myself.
Just as before, all around me was black with shifting white lines. A mimicry of the place I had just departed. I thought I could make out the same twisted trees about me. Except I was no longer in the Somnium. I was in the Umbralands.
I turned and squealed as I saw the giant monster lumbering towards me. It looked as a glaring white scribble against the black world. I started to move backward, but like last time, the ground shifted beneath me and I fell. The beast was so near. I covered my head as it loomed over me, one foot raised.
I blinked and raised my head, coming out of my fetal position. The monster was running on without me. I blinked after it. It didn’t see me at all. Then I stood. I took one step, then another. Suddenly I was running after the thing. This was hard to do in this dimension, so I tried to see some sort of exit like the last time I was here.
Just at the thought, I saw my chance appear in the form of a wall up ahead. Lacertli had said I could shift the boundaries between the two dimensions. Was this what he meant? Could I create shadows where there otherwise were none?
I sprinted through this new passage, the pain in my back all but gone now and a new gleam in my eye. I had an idea…
With a rush of air I was back in the Somnium, the dream of the world, and felt a sigh pass over me–like a mother glad to see her child. Somehow, this thought emboldened me further, and I charged full tilt after the monstrosity, which had stopped and now tore trees up from their roots in rage. I saw the shadows…felt them. They were cold things. Slippery, like the dark things I had taken hold of not long ago, when freeing those poor spirits. I narrowed my eyes and pressed deeper, my gaze piercing into the beast’s chest where I knew my target lay. As Lacertli had warned, the beast’s skin was smoothing, the grotesque tangle of limbs fusing to become one. If the nymphs’ black spell completed, I doubted I could win this battle, let alone survive it. But then the thing turned, and there I saw that the front of its chest had failed to close all the way. Funny the things you fail to see when out of your mind with terror. But my heart lifted. I could still see the shadow of its heart.
I yelled in the way I imagined Elmiryn would have, charging in like this. The beast, having spotted me, took its great arms and slammed them into the earth. It opened its disgusting maw, and slime gushed forth, black and steaming. Just as I came within its range, I gave a small jump up into the air, and the beast took one great step forward and raised both its arms again. I closed my eyes as I fell, tucking into a cannonball, knowing that if this didn’t work the monster would bash my brains in.
…But with a ‘whoosh’ I was through the beast’s shadow.
Back in the Umbralands, I opened my eyes to find the monster over me, his chest bared. I grimaced, but pressed forth, into it. My hands clawed through gore and flesh to wrap around my bloody prize.
As I crossed back into the Somnium, I didn’t hear the sigh of the world. Just the nightmarish howl of a monster whose heart was being torn out of his chest.