10.1 – Keepers of Form
She gets to her feet. Closing in on the mystery door, she is intensely aware of every single sensation. Her heart, beating with a fervour matching the hefty strokes of the sun drum players calling warmth to the bodies of the world at the advent of spring. Toes curling inside her snow shoes, whose thick soles feels like they’ve melted away into nothing, giving her the peculiar impression that she is walking barefoot across the ancient earthen floor. The slow, erratic dance of locks of hair in front of her face every time she breathes. The strangest feeling. Of closure before its time. „Let’s see then,“ clucks Briar behind her. Brittle’s fingers find the handle, a vertical curved wooden bridge almost overgrown by spirit leaves, like a ruin lost to the ravages of time. The wood feels old. The leaves are glistening, wet to the touch. „They feel new,“ she says in a tone she doesn’t even recognize. And then, with the conviction of a hunter cutting the throat of a wounded animal, she pulls. And looks into the void.
That’s what it seems like. Like the revealed room doesn’t have any fixed dimensions. It’s just darker than darkness itself, stretching out into infinity. „What…?“ „Lesson number two,“ says Briar and hands her a flickering frost nettle lantern, seemingly prepared while she was edging towards the door, „settling for simplicity sometimes is the best course of action.“ Yes. The light does do the trick. In her current state of mind, Brittle had given the darkness too much credit. It’s still much too hard to make out the contours of the room, though, as if something in here bends the light. Or eats it.
A few steps further in, and she can make out what she thinks is the outer wall, and something, a bundle of sorts, like a heap of discarded dark garments on the floor next to it. The shape makes a sound, like a blend of tinkling water and the purring of an oversized cat. She knows what it is. Has known since before she entered this room, since before she opened the door, since before she rose up. This is her mother’s killer. As if reading her thoughts, the formless form begins to move, to shift, to elongate, to flutter. The pure blackness of its being a contrast even to the darkness of the room. It flits through a myriad of shapes, like an impatient child flicking the pages of a book to get to the juicy parts, before finally settling on a favourite form. Her own. But not her current self. The straining mirror that looks up at her is seven years younger. The little one, whose smile is far too wide, and whose hair is far too feathery, reaches out a shadow-bleeding hand to touch Brittle’s cheek. Yet before she even finds time to react, her dark child self retracts her….no, thinks Brittle, its, insist on its…its hand, shaking its head, mouthing a silent „No“, just like Brook had done before her final breath. Unable to turn, unable to move, Brittle says „Why…why is it here?“
„You already know the answer to that, little mite,“ caws Briar, her voice booming from the other side of eternity. „Because you and Brook disturbed its age-old slumber.“ The thing, the fearrowing, cocks its head as the features of its face disturbingly start to ripple like water, flickering between her younger self and her mother. „You know that’s not what I mean,“ Brittle says through gritted teeth. She wants to back away, but cannot. Everything feels frozen, like a water strider unpleasantly surprised by winter. „It depends on how you define it. What, in this case, is the original sin? How did it come to be? Who is to blame? We tend to look for that, don’t we? Someone to blame, something to crush, to vomit all our undigested poisons over, a person, a people, a creed, anything that can absorb all our bile, so we will retain the purity that was lost to us, in some idealized and totally imaginary past that never, ever existed.“ Briar’s tongue clicks. Twice. The dark child implodes softly into a circle, like a black hole of nothingness. Briar’s tongue clicks. Thrice. The hole expands again, painting a new picture, a shape with four hazy hooves, antlers and a tail. Small white dots, like pearly eyes, adorn its legs in serpentine streaks. Brittle knows what the fearrowing is trying to resemble. Brother’s brother. The one she never got to name. Another one of its victims.
Briar’s voice returns, this time within her mind. Without needing to see, Brittle knows that the owl has closed its eyes, and that a darkness similar to the semi-materiality of the not-stag in front of her, is now also piercing her from behind. „As to your question, here is the meat of it. The gristle, the sinew, and that stale fat that always proves too hard to chew, which does nothing but wear out your gums and choke you in the end. I found it in your mother. When preparing her corpse for the ceremony. I extracted it, I kept it, I found its slinking echo in the forest, like a lost and slimy member hiding from predators in the shadow of an upturned root. I rejoined it, reforged it, reared it, raised it…“
Why? thinks Brittle, as she finds herself unable, too, to speak. The not-stag circles her, its gait all wrong, closer to an unaturally slow river crab, scuttling along. „I told you. I am a Seer. A Keeper of Form. This is a shade, a nightmare, a pus-filled dream wound let loose in the real, a nebulous no-thing forgotten by all who cross its path, except for me. And you. Because as I’ve told you before, droplet, no matter how much you would like to deny it, we are more alike than different, you and I. This was true the first time, when you watched me snort the pain of others in the dream tents.“ Briar tosses the corresponding heartbone, making it land in front of Brittle’s feet. „This was true the second time, when you fought my twisted essence on the cliff top.“ The yellow heartbone follows suit. „This is true the third time, here and now. What you see before you, is a composite of cuts, of flaws, of things that should not be, like the tendrils of sickness I drew out of those who came for my aid, all those eons ago. But this, this is a heavier no-thing than any you or I have seen. A memory of a much deeper scar than a lost child or a gored husband. If I hadn’t taken it, molded it, trained it, fed its nascent desire to form, oh, things would have been very dire indeed.“
The not-stag faces Brittle. Its muzzle breaks apart in an impossible way, revealing a tunnel, a bridge, which splits into three thin tongue-like prongs. They almost, but not quite, touch her face, the center tongue in front of her forehead, the other two undulating in front of each of her eyes. The tongues grow mouths. They speak.
„And as it stands, the form it desires the most, is yours. So much so, that it escaped my grasp and tried to hunt you down, a mere few days ago. It got sidetracked, though.“ The doe, thinks Brittle. „It has a jealous obsession with form, wanting both to posess and destroy. Belly bursting with life, mere moments before birth, she was a veritable feast, impossible to ignore. But it met its match in your father’s Mirror, adding a new trophy to its collection of shapes, as you can clearly see.“ The tongues intertwine, becoming one, reminding Brittle of Branch and her Braid. Briar’s croaking voice keeps scratching in her head. „Every waking hour since you returned to the hold, its power has grown. It is far stronger than it’s ever been and, to be frank, quite a hassle to control. It is screeching out for freedom, and at the same time it yearns to be contained.“
Briar walks past her, turning to face her next to the fearrowing. „And though I’m far from sure if you are ready, you are the only being alive with a chance of containing it.“ A sense of lightening in the small of her back. Her fingers twitch. She can move again. „But you must choose it. Willingly.“
The fearrowing shifts and swirls again, becoming a dark mirror of herself again. But this time it is not a child, but an exact copy from the here and now. Leering, its manyfaceted black eyes churning and glinting with voracious apetite, it opens its arms as if readying for an embrace. The white eye-like pearls reappear around the area of its non-existent heart, grouping themselves into the shape of a heartbone. „This is what we do,“ says Briar with her own voice, eyes closed once more, „we, the Keepers of Form. Whatever it takes.“
Brittle turns and runs with the speed of a hundred mountain stags, out of the hut, down from the hillock, down to the red stone in the center of the village. She pants and breathes like a hunted animal. Which is what she is.
„BRIIIIIITTLE!!“ The memory from her first life of running through the forest latches onto the present and jolts her entire body. Briar has exited the hut, her black eyes dominant once more. Around her a dark and viscous fog is forming.
„Lesson number three:“ croaks the Seer in her head, „Even when you have to choose, there is no choice.“