10.2 – Life’s doorstep

The darkness runs downhill like a river. Like a spring brook teeming with the opposite of life. As if to spurn its namesake, Brook’s night-coloured head bobs up on its oily surface. Not only one. A multitude of Brook heads, mouths wide agape, run down the wicked stream, only to drop off at the bottom, creating a slowly congealing mass, growing in size and stature. Completely forgetting that she’s a Daughter, Brittle cries out „Father!!!“ in abject terror. He is by her side in a matter of seconds. Broth too.

„What in the name of…“

Hnnrahh!“

Doors and windows open all over the hold. Breach, still outside the Life Hut, runs inside and is back out a breath of a moment later with a quarterstaff in her hands. „Mother!“ shouts Brade with shrieking Brood in her arms, „What in the Seven Hardships is going on?!“ Briar doesn’t deign to answer her child. All of her attention is focused on Brittle, trembling between the protective, but very confused, shapes of Breath and his brother. Briar’s unspoken voice is so sharp it rends a cleft in Brittle’s mind: „Even now, you insist on weakness. Remember, whatever happens now, it is on you.“ „You can’t do this!“ shouts Brittle, clutching her head. „You won’t get away with it! Everyone here is a witness!!“ A dry laugh echoes in the recesses of Brittle’s skull. „Whatever transpires, only you and I will recall it. To everyone else, it will seem a faded dream.“

„What is going on, Brittle?“ whispers Breath. „That thing,“ replies Brittle, „it’s what killed mother. But it makes you forget. And now she wants me to, wants me to…“ She can’t say it. „Killed Brook?“ says Breath, despair and non-understanding dancing a fierce spring pulse in his eyes. „But that can’t be. That’s not how she died. She…she…“

„You can’t remember how she died.“

The fearrowing has grown into a towering headless humanoid shape, a collar of fearrows at the top, like part of a travel cape. Then Brook’s face forms in front of the ruff of deadly barbs. „Nooo!“ roars Breath in disbelief. „What vileness is this!?“ „It’s..it’s…“ says Brittle, her fruitless sentence interrupted by the intruding Briar voice within: „Embrace your fate and all this will be over.“ She can’t. She can’t. With a howl, her father utilises every single grain of strength in his broad form, and rips the red stone away from the grasp of the frozen ground. It would be hard to believe, if it weren’t for the fact that she was already lost in a nightmare play, as if all of the hold had turned into a dream tent of the worst kind imaginable. Breath starts running towards the fearrowing with the stone held high, his Deepheart clanging with sorrowful rage. „No…hhh…don’t!“ she cries. But he is beyond listening. wshthang. A fearrow glances off the painted rock. wsththang. Another. Breath comes close and with a mindlessd graaaah he bashes the hateful impersonator of his greatest love, sending a ripple through the fearrowing’s current form.

wsthunk. The stone falls with a thud. And so does Breath, to his knees. His raw, bloodied fingers claws at his throat, managing to extract the fearrow, glistening with his life’s blood. „Hrrhg“ says Breath, giving the monstrous stinger a last baleful look before he crumbles into lifelessness.

Brittle screams then, though no sound escapes her. The entire world seems silenced, apart from Briar’s nail-scraping croak: „That is on you.“

Hnnnrahh! Breath’s Mirror rushes into the fray, leaping over the body of his friend, ripping a temporary hole in the fearrowing’s side with its antlers. In response, the no-thing reshapes itself into the twisted reflection of Brother’s slain sibling. The stag and the not-stag lock horns with a sizzling sound as the fearrowing’s fluid matter seems to leak corrosive ichor. Broth grabs her. „I…I don’t know what is going on here, Brittle. But come with me, let us get away before…before it’s too late.“ He pointedly avoids looking at his fallen brother. Brittle is shaking her head, she feels like something is strangling her, as if a large bird of prey has grabbed hold of her throat with its brutal talons, trying to bring her to its lair to feed her alive to its greedy young. hhh. This is not happening. hhh. This is not happening.

Breach futilely swats at the blackness with her quarterstaff, but her weapon semi-dissolves on contact, leaving her with a small stick with a dribble of murky goo at the end. She cries in terror and throws it away. Brand has come, his sister Brash as well. All of her kin, from the youngest pip to the gnarliest root, are outside their hovels now, confounded, horrified, unable to look away. Even the oldest of them all.

Brooder is standing on Breach’s doorstep. The hanging mass of black spirit creepers adorning the lintel gives him a mane of forest hair. In any other circumstance, she would be elated to see him returned to life, but now there is no place in her Deepheart. He is naked apart from the fresh poultices covering his groin, his hands, feet and other select parts of his body. With a surprisingly booming voice he shouts at the top of his lungs:

„End this, Briar!“

The owl opens its eyes. „Your comments, flaccid man-eel, are as welcome as a whiff of flatulence!“ Briar yells in turn. The fearrowing’s antlers gouge a steaming hole in Brother’s side. „This is not one of your sick games!“ Brooder cries „This is life and death!“ „Life and death is a game, you fool. And a precarious one at that. I am tipping the odds in our favour.“ Brother stumbles, his face smacking into Breath’s chest, most of his crown melted away. „Your rotted half-wit brain can never understand what moves I am playing here, or for how many lives I have planned them,“ Briar continues, „but don’t let that bother you. If you survive to see the morning light, hoary skinbag, your memories of your own impotence will be erased, along with everyone else’s.“ The light in Brother’s eyes flickers and wanes. His bane lifts its front legs triumphantly, before beginning to shift again, growing new appendages from its back, making it look like a gigantic rearing spider.

„Well then,“ spits old Brooder. He bends down, curling his painted back, touching the ground. A memory flashes through Brittle’s pain-ridden mind. Cutting by the lake edge at Breaker’s Hold, reaching for the roots of the earth. For the tiniest moment, Brooder looks at her and winks. Then his skin painting starts to boil. His hands become fists, his face a hard grimace, and then, from the original growth ring, from the center of things, a wood tail bursts forth. It shoots through the doorway of the Life Hut with violent force, crashing through the wall on the opposite side. Getting to his feet, the old man, eyes shining like spring, retracts the tail and points it at Briar, like a green, glistening snake. A spiralling garland of black spirit creepers spontaneously form along its length. Cries of surprise erupt from a hold already processing far more than their fair share of shock and confusion.

„They’re not going to forget this in a hurry. Khe. Khe. Khe.

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