The swamp offered an unforgiving muggy heat during the day that wore on anyone unfamiliar with the terrain. It made breathing nearly unbearable by attaching a dank and musky earth stench to that heat. The idea that anyone choose to live in such a place seemed most unreasonable to the three proper gentlemen who found themselves exploring this place of hateful green waters.
Cecil, the smallest of the three men, had found the swamps during the day as close to a physical hell as he ever wanted to visit. His two companions had made a daily ritual out of convincing the young man what they were doing was worth his fear and discomfort. It had worked to some extent, until they realized their presence had been discovered and they were being followed by denizens of the swamp. To him it felt as though they were trying to outrun dark water demons.
The sunlit swamp was a distant memory now. Cecil sat huddled between his two companions in the darkness of a moonless night. The small torches the three men gripped were not up to the task of throwing much light over the dense scene around them. What was worse than the darkness for Cecil was knowing there was something moving in that darkness. His demons were in those black places that could not be illuminated.
One by one the swamp’s demons moved from the darkness to show themselves. A torch would suddenly come to life and reveal a well dressed man standing not far away from the three men. Ten men in all came out of the darkness and formed a circle around their prey.
Cecil let his eyes dart over the scene. It was unlikely they would be able to pass through the circle of strong men around them. Even if they could get through they’d been caught in a treacherous spot in the swamps when the sun went down. There was no way the trio would be able to navigate the boggy area without better torches. The best they could have hoped for was to huddle together for warmth and ride out the night until the sun came back up. The appearance of the demons now made that idea moot.
“What do you want?”
This was asked by Matthew, the oldest man in the trio, though that still didn’t make him very old. He still liked to think of himself as their group leader. If anyone was to challenge the circle of men he accepted it would be him. His question was answered with silence.
The third man in the trio was Clint and he was overly sensitive to things that became apparent when least expected. In this case, having Matthew ask a question that was not addressed made the other man aware that the silence around them was absolute. He reached over and gave Matthew’s sleeve a tug. The other man swatted at his tugging hand.
“Matthew!” Clint whispered as loudly as he dared. “Listen!” he insisted, again pulling at the other man’s sleeve.
Cecil was doing what had been asked of Matthew as he let his ears do a sweep of the area around them. The swamp was anything but quiet, especially at night. At least until that moment. All of the nightlife around them had gone silent. It was eerie and most unnatural.
“He’s right.” Cecil whispered, his shaking becoming more pronounced. “These men aren’t the only things that are silent.”
Matthew pulled away from the hand that pawed at his coat and pushed the smaller man away from him. The fear of his colleagues was infectious and he didn’t want it getting to him. Though he did turn a listening ear to their environment and Clint had made a good point: It was far too silent around them.
The leader of the trio was about to question the circle of men again when an unseen voice addressed them.
“These men don’t speak, they just hold the circle. When the circle is being held there is not a creature in the swamp who will interrupt it with so much as a sneeze.”
The speaker moved around the outer edge of the circle of men. He kept far enough away from their torches to be little more than a series of dark colors wrapped in moving shadows. His voice was deep and rich with the local accent. It was a little bit southern mingling with French creole.
“We don’t want any trouble.” Matthew offered.
The unseen man came to the head of the circle of ten and passed through the two largest men as though they were a living gate. He was well dressed like the men around him, but in a more casual state. He’d rid himself of a formal coat and stood there in a form fitting vest and tie. His white shirt sleeves were rolled up past the elbow. Something about this casualness in his formal dress made him seem more menacing.
The man reached into his pocket and retrieved something that went unseen in the low light. He raised his hand and flung something towards the ground of the trio. There was a collective wince among the three as they waited for whatever was to come from the item thrown. There was only a small pop of noise and then a flood of light that seemed to radiate from the ground itself. The scene was fully illuminated.
“How did you do that?” Clint asked out of shock. The whole of the ground was glowing. It was a strange thing to witness.
The man before them moved his hands about dramatically and laughed. “Magic!” he exclaimed.
Cecil and all of his five foot five inches of slender man was almost completely obscured behind the much taller Matthew. He felt no shame cowering in such a way. He made no grand allusions to being the brave man… the strong man. The only thing strong within his fragile body was his mind. So as his core strength, he tried to put his brain power to use and deconstruct the situation that was occurring around him.
The man addressing them was undoubtedly from the people Cecil’s group knew to be the black water cult, or locally as eau noire. Small pockets of the cult were found throughout the south and all the way up the coast into New England, though the swamp cultists were considered the most zealous and aggressive in nature.
The cult followed a hodgepodge of different beliefs, most rooted in ancient mythology regarding the darker side of nature. Water played an important part in their belief system, especially very dark or corrupted waters. They believed the water was a mirror of the sky above and therefore a way to gain access to a dark place in the heavens that held the deities of their trapped black court. What was known of the malicious circle of court characters was that they were cruel and defined as evil. It was a trait shared by their followers.
Cecil was not originally an expert on the history of this water cult, but he’d studied under the expert. He’d been very proud when that expert offered his full confidence that Cecil would well represent him when he wasn’t able to join the other two men on this task. Now, as he stood cowering between two men he barely knew in the middle of the muggy and wretched smelling swamp, he wished he’d never campaigned for it. Being able to replace the expert simply meant that he understood how precarious their position among these bad men truly was.
The small man’s eyes nervously darted around the circle of men who could now be seen clearly by the light of the glowing ground. Each was tall and thick: Men that were born in a harsh environment where they were raised to be strong and cold. There would be no reasoning with such men. Of course they weren’t the ones who had any sway over the scene taking place. That power belonged to the casually dressed man who, by reasoning, was their leader.
Cecil dared peek around the side of Matthew so he could get a better look at this man.
The leader was maybe in his late twenties. He might have been a handsome man if he’d been raised in a more polite society. The swamp had left its mark on him though. He was lean but strong looking, with features that were sharp and overly defined. His eyes stood out the most. They were a very bright gray and peered out from under heavy eyelids. He looked bored and mean. The kind of man that had a lot in common with a feral dog.
The leader was moving around the circle quietly. His hands were casually tucked away in his pockets while his face looked bemused. He was enjoying this situation. He was enjoying having absolute power over the three cowering men. This made Cecil worry more for his trio.
Clint was skiddish by nature, however Matthew was headstrong and thought his intellect was all he needed to maneuver the world. He had a very bad habit of underestimating those he looked down on. In his mind the members of this water cult were nothing more than swamp rats who worshiped smelly ponds and juvenile stick sculptures. This lack of respect didn’t escape his companions in that moment.
“Matthew!” Cecil whispered as he leaned into the other man. “Please, be smart here. Show these men respect. We’re in their house.”
Matthew started to reply to this urging when the leader turned towards the three men.
“Smart advice little man. Who might you be?” the leader asked.
With all his failing courage Cecil stepped out from behind the taller Matthew. He didn’t move far from him; just enough so he could properly face the man addressing him.
“I’m Cecil. This man to my right is Matthew and behind us is Clint. We are researchers.” he tried to make his voice steady.
“Hello Cecil.” the leader replied politely. “My name is Willum. I thank you for acknowledging that you are in my house. I assume you were reminding your friend of this fact because he has a tendency to speak before thinking?”
The steadiness in his voice wavered as he replied. The very last thing Cecil wanted was the be the voice of his group.
“He means well, but yes, sometimes he speaks plainly in inappropriate situations.”
Willum nodded. “I thank you for your honesty Cecil. It allows me to skip the niceties and be quite frank.”
The leader approached the three. He took a hand from his pocket and ran it over his closely shaved head. There was a hint of a tattoo lurking at the back of his head. Cecil could only make out small lines of it that swept around the sides of his head. He might have been curious to see the full markings if he didn’t want the man to get any closer.
Willum stopped a few feet from Matthew and looked him up and down with great intensity. His head dropped to look at the man’s shoes and followed his legs up to his torso and so on until he was looking him in the face. There was a strong look of disgust coming over his sharp features.
“See Cecil, I know this type man… this Matthew of yours. He’s an intellectual who takes great pride in his research work while at the same time having nothing but utter contempt for the focus of that research. We’re all just ignorant specimens to him.” Willum spit on the ground at Matthew’s feet. “I know this kind of man well.” he sneered as he turned and moved away from them.
Matthew took a step back from where the spit landed, giving the ground a soft kick to throw loose earth over it. “I have no respect for a glorified swamp rat that worships dead twigs and yet thinks throwing on a suit somehow gives him substance.”
Almost in unison Cecil and Clint rolled their eyes in irritation. Clint made a hissing sound and gave their unofficial leader a poke in the back. Cecil started to say something that might diffuse what was said.
Willum put a finger to his lips and shushed him.
“Ssh ssh Cecil. It’s alright. I’ve had far worse things said about me by men I actually have respect for. There’s very little that could come from your friend’s mouth that would actually bother me. I’m not one to invest much value in the intellectual mind that isn’t also tempered with common sense, thoughtfulness, and a healthy respect or fear for that which he doesn’t understand. So in that sense you friend Matthew here is one of the biggest idiots I’ve ever met.”
Matthew’s body became rigid and he started to speak up. This prompted Cecil to do something very uncharacteristic and move himself in front of the offended man. Clint followed this lead and moved around so the smaller pair could form a semi wall in front of their foolish companion.
“Not another word you fool!” Clint hissed in their unofficial leader’s ear as he passed. “Has that big brain of yours not realized that we’re in danger?”
Willum’s hand shot out and pointed at Clint.
“That is an excellent point! Thank you for making that point, er… your name is Clint? Yes Clint, you three are in some very serious danger here. Think dire.”
None of the three dared make a sound after this was said. It was the magic words that needed to be said for them to fully realize where they were and their potential jeopardy. They were three young scholars in the middle of the swamp at midnight surrounded by a group of men they’d just stolen from. Though only two of them were aware of the theft.
It was as if the leader was able to hear their collective thoughts. His head started to nod slowly as his reached out a hand to them.
“Hand it over.” he instructed.
Quickly Cecil pulled the bag at his hip open and pulled out a small pouch. He hadn’t had a chance to look at the stones inside of it yet. He offered it to the leader.
Willum came forward and snatched the pouch out of the smaller man’s hand. He opened it and the look on his face was incredulous and annoyed.
“Oh Cecil.” he said with disdain. He looked down on the smaller man with honest disappointment. “Do you really think this is going to fool me?” He poured the contents of the pouch into his hand and flung them at the three men.
Cecil’s arms went up to shield his face from the small black rocks that came flying at him. He wasn’t sure how his actions were meant to be misleading. He was giving back the one thing they’d intended to take from the cult’s sacred place.
“I… I don’t understand!” he stammered. “That is what we have. That was one of the small things we were sent to find! Our people were very specific!”
Willum moved forward quickly and grabbed the cowering man by the neck. He gave him a hard stare before letting him go with a push. Cecil fell back into Matthew who had to help keep him from falling to the ground.
The leader sighed. “I believe you Cecil. I believe you. However, that isn’t what we want returned.”
Cecil shook his head furiously. “I swear to you that’s all we took! I was told they were black water runes. My teacher specifically said they were not a relic in your culture so it was not an offense to bring them back. We just wanted to study them, not steal something of importance!”
The leader said nothing. He pointed towards Clint and then motioned for the man to go to Cecil and move away from their unofficial leader. Clint quickly wrapped an arm around the smaller man and led him away. Matthew was left standing apart from his companions.
“I won’t ask you again.” Willum warned.
Matthew’s face was defiant though. He looked proud and upset. Past that there was a deep look of growing contempt for the man who was addressing him.
Cecil was beside himself watching this arrogant and defiant display from the other man. The other man in the trio was seeing it very differently.
“Damn…” Clint hissed under his breath. There was a look of sudden understanding crossing his features and with it fear. “You didn’t?”
“What did he do?” Cecil asked in a panicked voice. “What the hell did you do Matthew?!” He felt woefully left out of something the other two men knew. Something that might mean the difference between life and death.
Willum slowly moved towards Matthew, shaking his head slowly. He stopped a few feet from the other man as he slipped his hands back into his pockets. He looked casual, but the tense lines in his face suggested a man that was trying to keep a great anger in check.
“Cecil, your friend here stole from one of our alters.” he offered for the other man’s enlightenment. He looked towards Cecil as he took a hand from his pocket and pointed at Matthew to accent his point.
“I would have had my men take his offending hand that only touched our alter and sacrificed it to the dark swamp. That would have been the end of it. Life would have gone on after such ugliness. And yes, perceived ugliness, but just. I don’t care what you intellectual types think about my people and our beliefs We have our convictions we live by and when you force yourselves into our world without permission you accept the outcome of such convictions. Or at least you should.”
Willum took a few steps back and became eerily calm.
“This is not ugliness though.” he offered with a distressed face. “This is a theft that is a direct insult to our beliefs… our dogma.”
The scene fell utterly quiet. There were no crickets strumming, no night birds singing. All the frogs had fallen silent. There was just the statues of large men outlining a circle offering so little, not even the sound of their breath. Their leader was still. Of the three men standing at the center of this scene, only two made heavy breathing noises and only because they were not so disciplined that they could keep themselves from it. Everything about those moments was unnaturally calm.
Cecil broke this calm.
“Matthew?” he asked softly. He pulled away from the restraining hands of Clint to approach their other companion. “I’m sure anything happening here is a misunderstanding. Right? Right now might be the time for all of us to clear those misunderstandings and settle up before this gets out of hand.”
For poor Cecil he thought he was offering a good, mediating point among all who were there. The intense man in charge had already made it clear that circumstances had become very grave. In Cecil’s worrisome mind their fates had already been sealed and all he could do was attempt to grasp at whatever rescuing vines might present themselves. He was willing to grasp at what he could. Cecil was not a proud man, but a loving one: He loved his life. He meant to keep it.
“Please Matthew.” he pleaded. “Show this man our caliber.”
An entire lifetime existed in those few moments where Cecil made his plea and the person in power answered him. It was a very diverse expanse of time that was quite personal to the person contemplating it.
Cecil was perhaps the most easy to surmise. He was a good man who didn’t try to claim to be anything but what he was. When he’d found himself to be smaller than normal, though quicker in thought, he’d gone with his strengths and sought the knowledge of power. His soft, empathetic nature also showed him to be kind, thoughtful. He might fear much, but it was because he wished to protect so much.
Clint was born to be a side character from the moment he drew his first breath. At the moment of his birth his older sister fell from a staircase and nearly died upon impact. A very clinging father prayed to the heavens to bestow its grace upon her instead of the newborn because he, sadly, had already grown to love one while he didn’t know the other. Clint understood trying to find a place in the middle so as to have a place at all.
The last piece of their trio was far less thoughtful than either when it came to desire and accepted weaknesses. Matthew had a great loathing for the strange collectives he was asked to study. The one he disliked the most was this one. To be trapped in the swamp by such a cult sickened him and he didn’t want to hide his disdain.
It was Matthew who finally brought this long moment to an end. He pulled his side bag open and withdrew a very strange looking relic made of some type of weak metal. He didn’t bother handing it to the leader, he simply threw it to the ground at his feet.
“Have your cheap trinket back.” Matthew sneered. He looked on defiantly and both Cecil and Clint couldn’t quite figure out what had gotten into their fellow researcher.
The leader said nothing as he slowly moved forward and knelt down. With the utmost care he took the object into his hands. He stood up and walked to the edge of the circle. One of the men standing there quickly took off his coat and offered it to Willum. Carefully he wrapped the thing with it and handed the coat back to the other man, artifact now inside.
“Material worth makes no difference to us.” the leader whispered.
Willum turned back to the three men and approached them. He looked at each of them long and hard as he came closer. He stopped in front of Cecil and reached out and put on hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. The small man’s trembling because worse.
The leader leaned in close so he could whisper in Cecil’s ear.
“Don’t be frightened little man. You are as open as a book and I’m sure honest to a fault. I have no ill will towards you. I’m sure you’re just a simple researcher. Unfortunately you were sent with these men under false pretenses.” he leaned in even closer so that no one but Cecil could hear his words. “They have all lied to you little man.”
“Lied?” Cecil replied in the same hushed tone.
Willum took a step back and let the smaller man go. “Lied.” he said in a strong, loud voice. “They used your knowledge to make their way through our sacred waters and steal our relics.”
Cecil looked at his companions, confused. “What on earth is he talking about?” he questioned them.
Matthew was silent. His hateful stare was latched onto the leader and Cecil couldn’t be sure he’d even heard him speak. Clint, on the other hand, became so flushed in the face it could be seen even in the fading light of the glowing ground. Red cheeks were Clint’s tell. It almost always meant he was being dishonest.
“It’s nothing Cecil.” Clint quickly replied. His voice was nervous. “I think this gentleman has the wrong idea of what we are doing here. And I’m sure Matthew just made an honest mistake when he picked up that thing.” He turned and looked towards the leader, his words now coming fast and frantic. “We were told to acquire anything that was not one of a kind or sacred to you in nature. That’s why Cecil was instructed to take the pouch of runes when he came across them. And we didn’t even take them. We bartered for them from a local. We came across that metal object by accident and I instructed my companion to leave it alone. I’m sure it was just an impulsive thing to take it.”
Cecil listened to the other man practically falling all over himself to defend their actions while at the same time clearly singling Matthew out as the only one who was to blame for the relic theft. Cecil had no idea where the thing had even come from.
Willum was not swayed by Clint’s words. He remained silent, eyeballing the man until he finally shut up. Then a slow, creeping laugh started to come from him. It was unsettling.
“Impulse? I was thinking more along the lines of premeditated.” Willum replied.”We were told there would be academic types coming here to steal from us. Especially now, on the eve. And don’t worry Cecil…” he turned and pointed at the smaller man. “We know you bartered fair and square for the pouch of runes. I’m sorry I got upset and threw them away. Anger is a gut reaction for me when outsiders are found with our private things. It took a moment for me to realize you weren’t truly with these men.”
Willum turned back to Matthew and Clint. His face was stony and suggested whatever was to come next would not be savory.
The leader brought his hands up to his chest and unbuttoned his vest, removing it and letting it fall to the wet ground below. He took his shirt in two hands and tore it open sending buttons flying. Beneath the fine linen was a well defined but lean chest that was covered in a series of tattooed scenes and words in an unfamiliar language. He pointed to his chest.
“This is our true history, this is who we are.”
Willum motioned to two of the men in the circle. The men rushed forward as the other men spread out to keep the circle even. The two men came for Matthew and Clint and roughly grabbed them and forced them onto their knees. The leader moved to stand over them.
“We here are older than the moon in the sky and the blood in the water.” he said with teeth clenched. “Ours were the first gods and they came from the twilight of the endless night. We were raised up from the hidden waters underneath the black star of the first dawn. We are nothing but word of mouth and stinging whispers in the dead of your witching hour. We wear our beliefs and history in the grooves of our skin where it was meant to be kept. With us in life and back into the secrets of the waters at death. Your people have sought to force it into words and paragraphs and books. For centuries you’ve attempted to define us with your language. We are not for your research!” he yelled, sending spit flying at the men.
This sudden outburst finally put the fear in Matthew he should have felt from the beginning while Clint was shaking harder than Cecil. Neither man moved to say anything in reply.
Willum continued, lowering his tone.
“Here in this moment is all the time you and I will have together in this world. So I’m going to indulge you three with a story. Listen closely to it. Few are the people who have heard it.”
The leader grew quiet, his face thoughtful. He looked down at his torn shirt and took it off, tossing it to the ground with his vest. He looked more natural standing mostly uncovered in the night. The only thing that served to make him look less feral had been his fancy clothes. Seeing him bare, a tall and fit man covered in a history of tattoos suited him better.
“You are quite right calling that particular relic you stole a cheap trinket.” Willum began. “It was crafted a very long time ago using whatever metals were available and not useful to my people. No care was put into its creation. It meant nothing. My ancestors used a false language to etch into its nonsense. Any place my people considered sacred we left one of these relics, these trinkets, just in case that place was discovered. They were in essence an anti-fact for when your kind came to invade our culture. They offered a fictional mythology that had nothing to do with what my people practiced and believed. It was the best way we knew how to keep pretentious and invasive groups like the Vitandi or the Reevers from taking our faith and treating it like little more than a specimen in a jar; something that you dissected and documented.”
Willum’s head casually fell back as he looked up at the night sky. He slipped his hands back into his pants pockets. It was a strange clashing of looks between the relaxed stance and the chaos of the tattoos lining his chest and arms. He let out a deep sigh.
“We never used to care about getting these things back once they were taken. We’d simply make new ones to replace them. It became a game really. That is perhaps where things took their turn. There were those among us in the past who decided they didn’t like the disorder of the relics. They wanted them to have meaning, or… anti-meaning. They started creating puzzles. Puzzles that those early researchers could find and piece together. The solutions depended entirely on who was the relic creator. It was a very secret game that our leaders would have never approved of.
“Games change don’t they? They change when the people crafting them decide there needs to be some deeper meaning to them. A purpose more thoughtful than the truth. What was meant to be a simple way to corrupt the studies that sought to exploit our people soon evolved into a subset of our faith. That cheap trinket? It became something more profound as a result. Profound and yet hideous because it was being designed and crafted for the benefit of outsiders.
“This subset of puzzle makers was finally discovered and they were treated most harshly for their betrayal of our traditions. There is a moment in our shared history each of you should have studied at some point. I believe the Reevers called it the Red Morning. Do you know it Cecil?” he looked over at the small man.
Cecil, trying to find his tongue, nodded his head slowly. It was apart of his dedicated black water cult reading: An event that happened and had as of yet not fully been explained.
“Yes…” he stammered. “It was a morning in October more than a century ago where all of the research houses, of any name, woke to a mutilated body at their front doors.”
“And who were the mutilated?” Willum asked.
“It wasn’t known for a long time, but eventually it was decided they were exiled members of the different water cults. The reasons for their deaths is not known. Researchers took it as a warning to stay away.”
It felt eerily natural to talk about history, even in the middle of the night with men who were most likely very close to savages. Cecil was able to take a quick breath and calm himself down a little.
Willum nodded. “It was a warning, but not to researchers. It was a warning to our people. It was a lesson in how deeply our faith keeps its rules. Rules that spare no one. Our little puzzle makers were dragged into the light and punished accordingly. The act of leaving them at the doorsteps of the researchers was to make it known they would not rest in their beloved black waters. They would be buried as the disgraced in the dry dirt outside of our lands.
“Our people went back to the old ways. Useless and nonsensical trinkets once again left as relics. There was one problem though: Not everyone took the punishment and purge of those puzzle makers well. Some tried to honor and avenge them by keeping up the practice and instead taking it to the extreme. Do you know what that means Cecil?”
Cecil shook his head slowly and mouthed the word no.
“We have doorways Cecil. Some more sacred than others. The way through these doors is often branded into the skin of one chosen person at any given time. These great individuals are our gatekeepers.
“One such gatekeeper was married to a woman who was not born into our faith, but turned by it. She brought with her two brothers. I will simply sum up their story by saying they found our rituals and beliefs fanciful… intriguing, but placed little to no value on them. They delighted in the puzzle making games of the subset that welcomed them in. They were not among them long when the purge began.
“The brothers, as twins, were allowed to at least hang together outside of the Reever House of Blye. They were also spared the mutilations that pure bloods were given. I guess you could say our people simply felt they were to be pitied and treated like outsiders; meaning it was not worth our time to waste such rage and focus on them.
“Needless to say the sister did not take this well. Her revenge was slow and quiet though. Every night she would feed her husband just a little belladonna to see him sleep deeply. And while he slept she documented every last inch of the language of his skin. Can you imagine what she did with that rare and sacred information?”
Cecil shook his head slowly, standing there in his stupor. His fear was being replaced with his genuine love of learning secret histories.
“That woman went to blacksmiths outside of our lands and had proper relics made containing this information. She broke it down into pieces so that it truly was a puzzle that needed to be collected and then solved. Then she took her relics and placed them who knows where. Some where in our sacred places, some fell into collector hands. She was quite thorough with her scattering of them to the four winds.
“When this task was done she killed her husband, our gatekeeper. Apparently she found it hard to continue to love a man who helped kill her brothers. She defaced his skin with knives before burning him. Her actions took away the last known ways to pass through our most sacred of doors. We, the keepers of these passages for a millennium, were made equal to the researchers with their scattered bits of knowledge. That was her revenge. She is still the greatest traitor of my people. And think…”
He walked back over to the two kneeling men. He ran his fingers over Matthew’s face. The other man recoiled at his touch.
“No one in your world of books and scrutiny knows that story. I think it was the Vitandi who first found two of these special relics and realized they were different from the others. They have their theories without access to any knowledge to back such theories up.”
Willum leered over Matthew. He gave the man a sharp push to the side of his head that upset his balance and sent him falling over. He started to right himself. The large man behind him put a foot on his hip to keep him down. The leader made a motion for him to stay down like he was a scolded dog.
“Cecil.” Willum looked back to the small man. “Your companion here was tasked with finding these false relics and taking them whenever he came upon them.”
Cecil for a moment forgot the situation he was in. He wanted to defend the men he traveled with, but truth be told he really didn’t know either very well.
“He shouldn’t have taken your sacred thing. It was foolish. But…”
Willum held up his hand to silence the small man.
“Don’t defend him Cecil. This man would have gladly offered up either of his companions to save himself and get his loot back to your people. Your friend Clint here would have been the first, he offers the least. Then it would have been you.”
The leader walked back over to Cecil, his face now looking somewhat sad.
“You see, the Vitandi is planning a very big event. The price to get into this event is very high. Despite all of the Vitandi’s power and influence they only have a few pieces of the puzzle they’ve been looking for. After a disastrous event they didn’t have the same enthusiasm to collect our things as they once did. Your Reevers, so small now, so stripped down and belittled by the other collective over time… they never stopped collecting. And now that this event is coming upon us they want in and this collection of theirs is the only thing of value they have to barter for entry. This trip of your friend’s was a last moment attempt to discover a few more relics to add to their barter. And they do need all they can get. After all, you can’t tell which are genuine until you know the fakes, yes?”
Cecil understood. His own face came to match the sadness on the other man’s, though his sadness was born from a different place. A place of sudden and complete understanding.
“I see.” he whispered by reply.
Willum reached over and gently cupped his hand to the small man’s cheek.
“If this were any other time things might have gone differently. However, a very long time ago the Vitandi cheated us out of something that was rightfully ours. We tried to get it by force last time and bad things came of it. This time we shall use stealth instead. We need every little thing we can find or steal to realize this.”
The small man almost felt himself nuzzling into the warm hand at his cheek. It was as if he could ingratiate himself to this powerful man in the same way a submissive dog seeks approval from its owner. He felt his eyes starting to water as he realized this would never happen.
“This is not fair.” he whispered. “It’s just not fair. I only wanted to learn… to understand.”
Willum gave the small man’s cheek a gentle pat before pulling his hand away.
“Understanding is not something that comes without a cost Cecil, I’m sorry. I can only hope you’ll take solace in the fact that it will be quick and painless. I promise this to both you and this other man. To show you I have no malice in my actions I will also give you one last thing that no other man from your collective has ever seen. Should your ghost come back and share that secret fair play to you. It means our gods are approving.”
The leader turned away from the three and walked towards the other edge of the circle. He looked over his shoulder.
“Suffer unto the first the worst. Grant unto the second and the third the least. Take them to the alter and let this circle be broken.”
Willum the leader passed through two men again as though they were some type of gate. The eight men remaining came to life and broke the circle. They moved towards the three shivering men.
The man behind Clint took him by the throat and brandished a knife to it to keep him in place. A strong hand grabbed Cecil by the arms and pulled him over to where the other two were. Another man came into the scene and he took one of Matthew’s arms while the man who’d been holding him down with his foot grabbed the other arm.
Cecil and Clint watched in horror as Matthew was dragged into the darkness outside of the lit earth. His protests turned to yelling and soon after he was simply screaming. There was no end to his horrible cries, they simply faded into the distance eventually.
Minutes ticked by slowly and for each one that was experienced Cecil tried to convince himself it meant his fate was going to change.
“The swamp sounds like the swamp again.” Clint whispered. “Except the swamp sounds a little afraid.”
Cecil turned his ears to the soft din of the swamp night life waking up. Clint was right though; it still sounded subdued.
It was hard to tell how much time passed as they stood there. At some point the two men holding them seemed to rise from their stupor and began pulling the smaller men towards the end of the lit ground. Passing from that place to the darkness on the other side was enough to steal Cecil’s breath. He reasoned he had to be imaging the sensation of hitting a wall of something solid and unseen. His body told him real or imagined it felt it all the same.
The path they walked was pitch black, yet the two men guiding them had no problem maneuvering it. Every so often one of the men would turn his head and an unnatural shine would come off of his eyes. A chill passed down Cecil’s back the first time he witnessed it. There was absolutely no light for the man’s eyes to be catching.
Finally they came to a stop. Cecil, counting his footsteps and silently doing the math in his head reasoned they’d walked about fifty yards in all. He forgot this as a stone archway started to glow. It gave off just enough light to see the strange woven structures in the trees and the path through on the other side of it.
Willum stepped into the light offering Cecil a welcoming smile. He motioned towards the place beyond the arch.
“Natives from places farther north used to make these types of structures in the trees. Trees were very sacred to them and they used them for nearly everything.
“Sometime after my ancestors came to these lands on Viking long boats they made their way to the west. They settled in all places that had dark waters… places our deities called to them. Some were more inclined towards the warmth of extended summers so they moved south and passed through the places of the natives who created these structures. They adopted the technique as they continued south.
“The trees along this path are old. They were old before my ancestors came upon them. They took all the surrounding young trees and used them to make these structures that are woven around the older trees. New trees themselves have grown into the structures.”
His head dipped back to appreciate how tall these structures went up. They only stopped when the darkness of the tree tops obscured their view.
“They house so many small rooms and private alters. This is the place our scared gatekeepers are laid to rest as well as our leaders who allowed themselves to be made keepers of the night instead of being laid to rest in our dark waters at death. This is but one of our great holy places that outsiders never see. Unless of course…” his voice trailed off.
Unless?” Clint asked.
Willum smiled. “Unless they are offerings to our gods.”
The reality of the approaching scene hit Cecil hard and he couldn’t refrain from pulling at the strong hands holding him there. His mind was in a panic.
The leader reached out a hand to calm him. When he spoke his words were soft and soothing.
“There is nothing to be afraid of Cecil. Death is not the end, it is only one doorway in an existence we shall all be made to pass through many of. And this is a special doorway. Past this arch our sanctuary and the path leading to it has passed into the dusk-lands.” Willum turned and passed through the archway and stopped. “These men are going to let you go and you have the opportunity to come with me as strong men with pride. If you decide to run you’ll be lost to the swamps forever. You have long since left the natural world. ”
Cecil and Clint both felt their holding hands leave their arms. The moments that followed were stretched over a lifetime.
For Cecil he remembered the very first time his father picked him up and set him on his work table so he could share in the pieces of his father’s project. His father had always been good to him that way. Early on the man of massive and strong proportions realized his youngest son would not grow up to be the same type of large and commanding figures his brothers were. So instead he nurtured his intellect.
His father once confessed to him “Sometimes I frighten myself when I am able to honestly acknowledge just how far I would go to see the miraculous… the hidden… even that which is forbidden. If that path was presented to me I would put foot to it and never look back.” It made the son somewhat sad to hear it as a young man, yet here it gave him strength. He took his first step towards the archway.
For Clint there were no coherent thoughts in those last moments. He didn’t want to walk through the horrific row of oppressive trees. He didn’t want to see what the most holy of places for these crude and backward cultists would be. All he wanted was to run and do anything to get the musky scent of the swamp out of his nose. So that’s what he did.
Cecil was almost to the archway when Clint cried out in fear and turned to flee. The small man only got the briefest of a last look at the back of his companion’s head as he was swallowed into the darkness. There were a few wet footfalls and then a sharp cry as the fleeing man found the swamp instead of the path back.
“God speed.” Cecil whispered and passed through the arch.
Willum smiled at the small man. “Walk with me.”
As the leader moved through the long path of tree sculptures Cecil kept pace at his side.
There was a very noticeable change in the quality of the space around him. It wasn’t oppressive, though it did feel like even the air itself needed to press him down.
Cecil had never thought himself one to see the dusk-lands. Such adventures were meant for braver men than himself. He had always been content with his studies and to be the expert who could be used for research. Had the real expert for this cult been in better health Cecil wouldn’t have been there in the first place. He tried not to dwell on that fact.
A thought occurred to him as he moved along a path that seemed to go on without pause or turn.
“Willum… can I ask you one last question?”
The leader nodded. “Of course Cecil. Ask me anything.”
“Whatever happened to the woman who stole her gatekeeper husband’s knowledge? Did she end up some place like this?”
Willum shook his head. “No. She fled. She was given refuge by a small collective that split off from our beliefs centuries ago. Still worshipers of nature, but much more genteel than we are. They moved away from the dark waters and instead embraced the oak.”
“Did they protect her?”
Again Willum shook his head. “No. My people found her there and they invoked the laws of a truce we once had with them. The truce demanded that they judge her by her crimes against us. Though it stated that her punishment would be at their discretion. She murdered a sacred person and they could not overlook that even though they didn’t believe in death as a punishment.”
“What did they do to her then?”
Willum came to a stop and Cecil realized the path had come to an end at a narrow tunnel of overgrown brush. It looked like a horizontal hole made of sticks. The leader knelt down before it, looking up at the small man.
“They bound her to a very old tree. This is to say in their beliefs she was put inside of the tree to be its protector and would live within that tree until she had made amends by the will of nature for her crimes. At the time my people felt this was good enough as basically they were saying she would die of hunger and exposure trapped inside of a great oak tree. I guess they didn’t really think they understood the power behind nature as we did.”
Cecil thought about that a moment. “Do you think she’s still in that tree somewhere?”
Willum shrugged. “I have seen many things in my life and a few of those things have proven to me that one should never doubt anything is possible. She could still be in that tree. How long must one suffer to atone for the theft of life when it is taken without a proper purpose? Revenge and rage are not a proper purpose.”
“How long will you atone for taking my life Willum?”
This brought a most dark smile to the leader’s face.
“I have purpose for taking your life Cecil. But that’s not the answer you want. You want the truth and the truth is this: We are a people who worship the darkness. We are the black underbelly that must exist to give reason for that bright world you live in. It’s a balance. I have no illusions that my life will not follow a path of pain, madness and eventually an ugly death. I’ve accepted that fact. It does not pain me or fill me with guilt to take a life. Not yours, not anyone. I can sound kind and I am in my own way, but I am every bit the feral dog you see me as in your thoughts. Now, please…” he motioned towards the small doorway. “After you.”
Cecil knelt down and peered into the darkness. He realized this part of his journey he was going to have to take in darkness. There was at least a soft light at the end of the passage to move towards. He knew he wouldn’t be moving through the sticks and brush long.
As he came closer to the end of the passage he began to see the space on the other side. It took every bit of his being to continue forward.
The horrific scene on the other side of that last doorway was a thing of nightmares. Nightmares that were created in some type of wet hell where bones and cruelty were mixed into it along with the stink of a watery death. He stopped at the last moment and needed a gentle nudge from the man behind him to pass through the doorway.
Cecil’s mind took in every horrible thing in that earthy room. It was a scene of nature gone mad and violent. Only men of the most hateful kind could have come in and dressed it up with set pieces that made it even worse. This was not the last thing he wanted to see in life. He couldn’t help himself; he began to weep.
Willum rose up behind him and directed him to the center of the sanctuary. He whispered in a language that was unfamiliar to the small man. His hands came up and covered Cecil’s eyes.
“Close your eyes Cecil and imagine yourself some place beautiful.”
Cecil did as he was told. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and thought of the most beautiful places he’d ever been blessed with seeing in person. He cried out a little when he felt something cold and sharp briefly touch the back of his neck. Willum steadied him.
“It’s okay Cecil, it’s okay. This was just a test. I think that I am meant to see you again in a different light. Take a breath and relax, it was just a test.”
All the air poured from Cecil’s body as a sense of relief washed over him. He knew he was never meant to die in such a way. Of course it had to be some dark and gruesome test. He pitied his companions for having failed it.
Cecil was most calm and smiling when the long blade came sweeping down into the back of his neck. There was nearly no time for his thoughts to register what had happened. One moment his eyes were closed to the black cell around him, the next he was lying lifeless on the ground with unseeing eyes open.
Willum knelt down next to the small man and smiled as he took the man’s motionless head into his hands. “I will see you again Cecil.” he whispered. He stood and moved to ready the sanctuary alter.
Parka Driad sat at the breakfast table looking worried. She was a wax figure of that intense look of worry. Her food sat untouched. Her juice glass and tea cup remained full. The only movement in this scene was the occasional ruffling of the newspaper in her hands.
“You look more pinched than usual my dear aunt. Do we need to get some more fiber into that cowish body of yours?”
Parka looked up from her newspaper, her face blank. She hadn’t heard her niece’s taunting words. She wasn’t even quite aware she was no longer alone in the room. Her lack of response caused her niece to take pause.
“Auntie Parka?” Frangipani asked, looking on curiously. “I can’t believe I’m going to ask this, but… are you alright?”
These words slowly penetrated the older woman’s thoughts. Parka set the newspaper down and looked up at her niece. She started to speak, though all that happened was her lips shaping words and no sound coming from them.
“Auntie!” Frangipani snapped as she clicked her fingers at the woman. “What the living hell is wrong?”
Parka snapped from her daze and finally acknowledged her niece. She shook her head, still finding it hard to speak. Instead she handed the newspaper over to the young woman.
Frangipani grabbed the paper from her. “What am I looking at?”
The niece quickly read through the short article. Her eyebrows knit in confusion as she tried to understand what was upsetting her aunt so.
“So a few librarians died because of a gas leak? This is making you act weird why?”
The older woman’s face went from perplexed to annoyed. She stood and snatched the news paper from the young woman’s hands.
“How can you be so aware of everything else in our world and completely miss this?”
Frangipani shrugged her shoulders and casually took a seat at the table. She called out for a servant to bring her breakfast. When a balled up bit of the newspaper hit her in the head she cried out in shock. She looked up to see her aunt glaring at her.
“What the hell woman?!”
“That wasn’t a bunch of librarians Frangi! Those were Reevers! Some of the most respected in that collective… what’s left of it anyway. This is the fourth such account this week. Gas leaks, accidental fires, I could go on. Someone is plundering the Reevers libraries and killing their best members. Tell me this doesn’t have anything to do with the plans you don’t discuss with me?”
Frangipani was shocked, though not because her aunt had just asked if she was involved in theft and murder. She knew nothing about these events.
“Of course not!” she snapped. “The Reevers have more than half of the found Negra Aqua artifacts. We need those artifacts! The price we set for any Reever to race was the artifacts. Those idiots don’t even know what they’re for!”
Parka studied her niece intently and decided she was telling the truth. She didn’t put it past her to take such lethal means to get what she wanted, especially as they grew closer to the blessed anniversary. If the Reevers had things she wanted from them and she wasn’t behind these events it meant something else was at play here. Or rather, someone else.
“This is not good.” Parka whispered.
“Do you think?!” Frangipani snapped back.
A house servant entered the room with the young woman’s breakfast. She was met by a smashing hand as Frangipani hit her breakfast tray and sent fruit and tea in all directions. The servant woman quickly knelt down to pick up the pieces of the fallen meal, profusely apologizing for her own clumsiness even though it was the young woman’s fault.
“Leave it and get out!” the Frangipani shouted. The longer she thought about what she’d just learned the more volatile she became. She turned on her aunt. “Find out what is going on! Now!”
“Who should I contact?” Parka asked.
“Everyone!” Frangipani roared.
Outside of the dining room Lee stood unseen by the doorway. A smile spread across his lips as he listened to his twin screaming demands at anyone within earshot. His sister seldom lost her composure and when she did it was like an unsightly shit-storm that he enjoyed with great pleasure.
Aunt Parka raced from the room so quickly that she never noticed her nephew just outside the doorway. The lumbering woman was moving with a stealth seldom seen from her. That too amused the young man.
Gradually the barked orders of his twin became more distant as she passed into the mansion through the opposite doorway in the dining room. He wasn’t sad to hear her go. As time progressed he became more and more alienated by that harsh woman’s voice. Oleander Driad was a slow moving glacier that crept an inch a year from his blood ties. This was the first year he started to feel more free of that chain rather than guilty for wanting to be free of it.
“Sweet relief… silence.” he whispered.
A middle age man stepped into the otherwise empty entry (except for Lee) with a curious expression on his face. He looked from the smiling young man to the open doorway that only moments before held the main characters in the current drama. This man would have been met with a lack of recognition from Frangipani Driad, but he was no stranger to Oleander Driad.
“Sir? Might I inquirer…”
Lee held up his hand. “Give me a moment to savor.”
Lee let his body fall flat against the wall. His eyes closed as he slowly slid down the wall to sit on the floor. With a laugh he made a motion for the other man to continue speaking. “Alright Odhinn, let your inquiries come.”
The man Odhinn appeared middle aged. His hair was a light color of sandy blonde with many white hairs mingling with the faintest of gold hues. His eyes were a watery blue and for many people simply looked sad or worrisome. To those who really looked into those eyes they’d see a stare so intense one needed to look away. He was of modest height, average weight, and appeared to be nearly the every man as far as the average European man was concerned. It was a very bland ruse.
Odhinn offered a passive smile. He’d also heard the temper tantrum that had just taken place in the other room.
“Your sister is excitable and reckless. You will need to be more guarded from here on out.” he cautioned.
Lee’s head nodded slowly. He was more aware of his twin’s unforgiving disposition than anyone.
“Yes… I know. I’ve been with her since conception. Do you really think I don’t know what she’s like?” he asked.
Odhinn offered the younger man a hand and Lee took it and let himself be helped from the floor. He had an itch to get a drink or indulge in his potent opiate laced snuff. He knew the other man would keep him from such distractions though.
Lee absently shook his head. “If that evil creature hadn’t had enough thought to think I might benefit her in life, do you really think she would have let me survive the womb?” He shook his head and looked panicked for a moment. “I must have a death wish.” he confessed.
Odhinn said nothing, but did offer the younger man a sympathetic smile. Lee came across as bored, shallow, and thoughtless. The truth was he was acutely aware of his situation and his surroundings. Perhaps this is why he tried so hard to appear pampered and useless. It was the one disguise he could easily master and make people believe. This is how Odhinn knew he’d been the right man for his needs.
“Come with me Lee.” he instructed.
Lee said nothing and allowed himself to be directed away from his eavesdropping spot. The two of men made their way through the mansion until they came to one of the most unused libraries in the place. So unused that the only one that actually bothered to find the key to it was Lee a long time ago.