The valet's request was already forgotten by the time Sam stumbled inside, doubly so once the priest approached him. Andrea watched, terrified, as Sam bucked and twisted under the man's hands; it was hard to believe her own eyes, hard to believe he was only touching Sam, so violent was the boy's reaction. Sam cried out piteously for help, and she bit her lip, brows knitting together from a pain that might as well have been physical. Easier to manage, if it were. Her boy--her baby--crying for help, but what could she do? It wasn't Sam. It wasn't Sam, couldn't be.
Gregory snarled, staring down the priest. "Leave the boy alone! You're hurting him!" God be damned, but he was not going to let this man hurt his son in front of him! Not possibly! Andrea and her wild theories had gotten them this far, but this was where he drew the line. He pulled the knife out of his pocket and leveled it at the priest, and Andrea gasped--but he paid her no mind. "Take your hands off him this instant!"
And then Sam went still, eyes slipping half-lidded in the sudden shift, body limp in the priest's arms. That voice that was not Sam's sounded again, and this time Gregory shivered. It had come from Sam's throat. That--that had not been Sam. He glanced at Andrea, and she gave him a look half-terror, half-I-told-you-so.
"I--I have to go," Andrea said, her voice shaking, one hand on the baby in her belly. She couldn't watch this any longer, for fear of the yet-born child's health. "Gregory, please."
With that, she disappeared, vanishing into the depths of the house.
Gregory rifled through the priest's coat and came up with shackles. It hurt him to put them on Sam, even as the boy struggled. "Please, father, please! Help me!" Sam begged, and Gregory shook his head and spat a curse, then slammed the shackles shut.
There was a moment when then shackles were only iron, but it was only a moment. Light shone from a tiny, near-clear soulstone set into the clasp of the manacles, and Sam cried out and held his hands away from him as though it burned. The light suffused the blackened iron, then settled to a dull glow from the inside of the cuffs.
Sam struggled for a minute more, then the voice that was not his voice cackled from deep in his throat and he fell still, relaxed, almost. "Chains already? I see what they say about priests is true, [i Father.]" The tone was scornful, mocking. "Not only children, but you must tie them up, too? How pathetic. You must have grown weak in your old age. Maybe you would have liked your own brother better?" It laughed, a disgusting, oily sound that made the hairs on the back of Gregory's neck stand up. This was not his son. His son did not know of...such things.
"Do you want to take this boy from me? Or do you want to avenge your brother? Oh no--don't answer, I know this one. You are no more just than me, child. You would use this boy for your own ends, no matter what pretty words you use."
"Silence, demon!" Gregory snapped, hand scrabbling at his soulstone.
Sam turned towards him, eyes big and gentle. "Dad, I--I'm fine. It's...it's not going to hurt you! It's not evil, just--"
"You fool me no longer," Gregory replied, eyes narrowed. "I have seen you for what you are, demon! Silence!" He jabbed at it with a hand and only realized after the motion that it had been the hand that held his knife. He had been acting the fool, refusing to believe Andrea, refusing to see the signs. He was embarrassed, profoundly so; more embarrassed at himself than angry at Sam or the demon. But the knife...he had forgotten.
It was too late to take it back. He had pointed a weapon at his son, and it could not be undone. Sam recoiled, betrayal written wide on his face, and then his expression contorted, turned to bitterness and regret.
"I told you they would not listen," Sam said, quietly, almost tenderly. "Let me handle this, Samuel."
"But--they hurt you! The manacles don't hurt me--"
Sam's voice cut off as though strangled. He swallowed, emotions crisscrossing his face, anger replacing fear replacing regret, replacing defeat. At last his eyes turned towards Ignass, impassive, red tinging the sclera where veins had burst inside his eye. "You have already injured me enough, priest, distressing my host thus. Be grateful I have not my powers." The boy's eyes were narrowed nearly to slits, menacing. "Will you let us go? He is a better match than your brother. We will survive together where he... unfortunately could not."
Andrea gave no consideration to the inquiry of the Father, appearing to – very nearly – snort at the mere idea. “Not at all. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Sam. He’ll just wave his hand and –throw it all away like so much garbage.” The explanation leads to an intimate introspection into the Wyler marriage, but a portion of a much larger issue of what has drawn the black soulstone to young Sam.
“What’s wrong with Sam?” The daughter, Hattie, who’s flaxen hair brush just past her chin when she appears at the base of her stairs, clutching a hand-knitted doll to her chest. A shirt, much too small to fit the five oldest, hangs from tiny shoulders to brush against the back of her knees. At the impressionable age when terror can settle its dark seed into her heart, she finds monsters move best in the shadows .
“Hattie, mommy is doing very important things right now. Why don’t you go upstairs with your brothers?” Her eyes leave her mother’s face to peer at the Father’s. A spike of fear chills her.
“Are you going to hurt Sam? Daddy says you are.” With the hand-sewn doll pressed against her chest, and those frightful eyes peering up at him, she was the epitome of innocence. Children were open pathways, unafraid of the wrong things and therefore susceptible to the influences of demons. If he failed in separating the creature from Sam, then in one fashion or another, her life was lost.
He stood, half facing her. The thin material of his shirt did little for his sickly complexion and even the softness of his milky blue eyes could not distract from the gauntness of cheeks, the sullen skin of her eyes. But, he lowers himself until their eyes are level. [b “Of course not,”] he assured very gently before she was startled away by her mother’s stern warning. Watching her go with a renewed amalgamation of emotions – duty, guilt, fear, misplaced poise- he straightens out with a groan.
“I am so sorry,” the wife apologizes, embarrassed by the disobedient nature of her children this night. Andrea bore an uncanny resemblance to his own mother, with her hardy rearing and plum stature, and though firm served as a vital complement to Josef affectionless. Having a stranger in her home to exercise one child while watching the comings and goings of the rest of the family would provide undue stress. He wouldn’t want to upset her and the babe she carries any further than necessary. “Please, continue.”
Ignass stared into the black of the night, preparing himself the strenuous task of returning to the horror of his childhood. The fertile loam a transmuted mire by the monsoon but is so easily reminiscent of the peat at his father’s farm. The memory readily supplies the location of the gable barnhouse, where the stacks of hay baked downhill so that the wind would carry its scent across the fields to neighboring cottages, the frequency in which each stray animal sought shelter in the crawlspace of the house, making abnormal sounds in the late hours of the night.
As he settles on what to share and where to begin, the valet’s hands creep across the countertop, gripping the reins and worrying them afresh. His eyes bounced between Andrea and the Father, finding the air thinning with every passing second. “’Cuse me, missus.” He waits until she fixes her gaze on him unhappily before continuing at a stutter. “I-I-I-I uh…need ta relieve myself.”
No sooner had he meekly asked for her bathing closet, did the door burst open. Rational thought assumed the force of the storm sent the worn wood rattling in it frame but the masses sprinting through were recognizable as the drenched forms of Gregory carrying Sam. Had the Father been more diligent, less sickly, he might have surmised this unnatural storm would dredge out the sordid, providing a working cover to stalk its prey. The commotion disturbs his senses. The slam of the wood, the heated undertones of the Wyler’s anger, the valet’s nervous ticks were not enough to dispel the sudden change in the air.
Weighed down with a negative charge, the fine hairs of his forearm rose. In the orange glow, he could not make out the distinct features of the boy, could not care for the constant patter of rainwater down his nose or the mud that caked his feet save for its direct relation to his own brother. The years since his internment into the Earth hadn’t made the last days of his living less profound or less terrifying. Had Josef been more firm in his belief as he were in discipline, the demon that inhabited the soulstone might have already been vanquished and this suffering spared.
Several years later, in which the ache of his twin is still felt, he must contend with the neglect and remorse. He entrenches himself further into the shadows. In all this, he listened for the child’s flighty heartbeat, for the startled breath as he lifted his shirt to confirm what he’d already gather as truth; the jet stone corrupts anything it touches, withers it away as toxins erodes skin. The capillaries and veins were engrossing its surface, manipulated into believing it was an additional apparatus.
Stalking forward, he presses his knee against the floorboard, another upon Sam Wyler’s shoulder and palpates the perimeter surrounding the admittance. The closer his hand crept towards its exposed facet, the more severe was the response; his shy recoil becomes a wild bucking, that which is controlled by a vice grip against the boy’s pressure point. “You’re hurting me,” he whimpers, a childish sound that is angled towards his parents. The Father raises his hand sharply to stay the observers and peers unperturbed into [s Tomas’] Sam’s face.
[b “You are unwelcomed here,”] though the statement is breathed softly, there is a hardness that makes his kind eyes cold. There is power in his grip. He must cast aside the vision of the boy and focus on the tormentor that lurks beneath his surface, hiding as a wolf in sheep skin.
The violent jerks halt suddenly. The boy is quiet and his face impassive, his eyes sleepy when he blinks up at him. A small vocal sound escapes him, the beginning of a question before a malign grins deforms his lips and he glares into the priest’s cataracts. [i We played together once Caaaaaldwell,] it hisses, [i you lost then and you will now.]
Well placed verbal barbs won’t quake Ignass’ resolve to destroy this demon, the foulest of names! [b “Not this time,”] he coolly disagrees, Before it can cackle and scurry off, he sweeps the boy into his arms, and holds tight.
[b "Grab the cuffs from my coat,"] he rasps, wrestling the seething boy down. He is careful to hold where the least bruises will show, where is only exerting only what can be spared. This is but a prelude in the haunting chapter in his life. The worst was yet to come.
Andrea gave the spoon a thoughtless wave, dismissing her husband from her thoughts. "Not at all. He doesn't think there's anything wrong with Sam. He'll just wave his hand and--" She waved her own as demonstration. "Throw it all away like so much garbage."
"What's wrong with Sam?" Hattie asked, doll clutched to her chest. Her soulstone hung nearly to her waist, mounted on an old chain of her mother's that she would use until maturity. She had been listening from her playroom, trying to make sense of things--but there was no sense to be made. Sam was fine! The same he'd always been. Nicer, if anything, except he didn't give her his roast beef anymore.
Andrea froze, back going ramrod-straight. She turned to face her youngest, a smile forced on her face. "Hattie, mommy is doing very important things right now. Why don't you go upstairs with your brothers?"
She glanced uncertainly at the priest, clutching her doll tighter. To her, he is monstrous, eyes white like the bull her father slaughtered for dinner after a day in the sun, blood spotting his chin, coated in huge, heavy black. "Are you going to hurt Sam? Daddy says you are."
"Hattie!" Andrea said, her tone turning stern.
Hattie hesitated, eyes locked on the priest. Andrea took a step towards her, and she started and fled, little feet beating a staccato back into the house.
"I am so sorry," Andrea said, embarrassed. "Please, continue."
Gregory stomped through the storm. The only light came from the occasional flash of lightning, always, it seemed, too close for comfort, the thunder booming almost instantaneously afterwards powerful enough to quake the very earth he stood on. He was already drenched, but one step outside and he became drenched again; inside, he had almost forgotten how awful it was, to have water running down every limb, pooling constantly in eye sockets, to have to spit it from his mouth when he wanted to breathe or snort to clear his nose. Damn that woman, for sending him back out. Damn him for obeying. Wasn't he the master of the house? Ha! You'd think she was, to look at them.
"Boy! Where'd you get to?" he shouted, temper already clipped to the limits. If that damn woman pushed him any further, if that damn boy did not materialize [i immediately,] there would be hell to pay.
"I've been driven mad," a voice said, quietly, whispering. It was Sam's voice, and yet not.
Gregory spun, but there was no one. "Damn storm," he muttered, as lightning flashed again--and revealed before him, the boy crouched in the mud, playing with something. He scoffed and strode forward, steps squeltching in the sucking mud. "Come on, boy! And stop giving your mother ideas, dammit. She already thinks--"
Lightning flashed again. The boy was gone, though the thing he'd been playing with remained.
"Mother of God," he muttered, reaching for the knife he carried in his pocket--mostly for whittling, to pass the time, but it would have to do against whatever thing lurked in this storm.
"His light seeks me out, but it cannot find me," not-Sam's voice hissed. "It pierces and tears, but it cannot--find--me."
"Sam?" Gregory called, uncertain.
"So he sets his beasts upon me. And all beasts are his!"
Lightning flashed. He was upon the thing--a calf, the youngest in the herd. It must have come loose during the storm and panicked; he knelt beside it and felt its mouth for breath. Nothing. Gregory frowned, ran his hands down the calf's neck. He didn't have to reach far. The calf's neck had been given a full turn, so that its head faced the right direction once more--but its neck was mangled, flesh twisted, skin torn where it had been twisted too far.
"Except those that lurk in dark places," the voice murmured, almost thoughtfully, to itself.
It could not be Sam's voice, Gregory decided, but it was some creature of the mists, using the storm to press out into the realm of light, where usually the sun would have banished it. He touched his soulstone, then lifted it. He had some ability at magic, when he was a child, enough to impress the ladies with pretty light shows; but ultimately his elements had been too impure to pursue the arts, and he had all but abandoned them; save one spell, the simplest application of the element he had in most purity: light.
"Begone, trickster!" he shouted into the raging storm, and raised his soulstone, pouring his will and energy into it. It glowed with a faint light, growing steadily brighter. In the pitch-black of the storm, it revealed a shape, vague, crouched at the edge of the light. It skittered back on all six legs, light glinting off an insectiod shell on a creature large enough to be a dog; as it retreated, it hissed, teakettle-loud, unblinking eyes seared by the light.
The voice was right behind him. Gregory jumped, spinning to shine the light on his son, covered in mud. The boy flinched back on reflex, hands raised to shield his dark-adjusted eyes from the sudden light.
"Sam! Quickly, inside. There are demons here, in the dark!" He turned back to the bug, only to find it gone. The implications chilled him surer and deeper than the icy rain; it could be anywhere at all. One hand on Sam's back to hasten him along, the other raising his soulstone behind them, he leads Sam towards the house at an awkward halfway run. The teakettle hiss sounded again, louder, closer, and his pace redoubled until he was the one pushing Sam towards the door. Something lunged at them, and he snatched up Sam just in time for the demon to pass beneath. Chitin crunched against the solid wood of the house, and he slammed the door open, carrying Sam as though he were many years younger, and sprinted inside, slamming the door again behind him.
Andrea stared at him, horrified, as he set Sam on the floor, his bare feet leaving prints worse than his boots. "What on earth?" she demanded.
He glared at her. The first thing through the door, and he's greeted with accusations? "A demon," he explained, stomping the mud off his boots. "Big one," he added unnecessarily, as the wall shuddered again under its assault. "Must have crawled out of somewhere deep in the mist. Nearly took us both in the dark."
Sam shivered and nodded, and Andrea's eyes widened. "You're hurt!" she exclaimed. Blood was smeared over his palms, his face; it spotted his shirt, soaked deep into the homespun fabric from a place under his ribcage. "Oh, dear God..."
He looked down on himself as though he were only noticing it for the first time, and Andrea felt a stab of dread, ice in her stomach. "Oh," he said, and lifted his shirt to show a dark red scar on the blooded spot--a dark red scar, and the black soulstone, embedded deep into his flesh. Black spread out from the stone, infusing into his veins; it looked gangrenous, dead, the flesh around it bloodless and impossibly pale except for where the black bled through.
In Andrea’s silence, there is more than enough spoken. The interior of the home has become overwrought; the husband stops his task mid-step, his beady eyes hovering over his wife’s shoulder as he listens on bated breaths. The valet places the reins upon the table, beside the plate that has been so graciously offered over, and quietly eats the rusk, wishing that he took had been offered tea with a dollop of honey. Hospitality is due the cardinal; the travel was half -day from the ICR by train, the rest – two days, by carriage. Monchi arrived to the platform, prep in his step and the first waves of anxiety making his shutter prominent – it was not an impediment, unless he was nervous and could not remember how to form words – when he greeted the stark priest. Very little words had been exchanged then, and fewer in the between, considering the Father’s unspoken discomfort as he coughed and wheezed and addled through scripture for relief. But, the boy could not help but feel insignificant, shrinking himself in the seat as he did away with the garish wheat.
His eyes arrived to the husband, who idly worked the knots from his shoelaces but kept his disproving eyes upon the wife, then traveled up the hunchback of the Andrea, clutching the wooden spoon to her chest. The quiet is interrupted by the sharp cackle of thunder. Lightning flashed through the murk but could not dispel the dark, even for a moment.
The Father is patient, his touch light and his interest rapt. Another verbal disparage spills out but it is dutifully ignored. “Where was I? The cows. Right.” He listens impassively, occasionally stirring in his seat to relieve the hot, dull ache of his joints, or to draw in a breath to his aggrieved lungs as she details the horrific account.
[i [b “Tomas – did you not hear me?”] Short of breath and doubled-over from the exertion, the boy curses the disease robbing him of life. Without name or much knowledge, there are no tonics to cure him of the ache that riddles his bones incapable of moving.]
[i “100-footed,” his brothers mutters cheerfully, in the pitch of a tune angling his hand to hawkish study the centipede twining steadily down the length of his arm. “100-foot for the limp foot.”]
[i Tomas, of course, jabbed at his brother, though the quality of his tone does not suggest an insult. With a flutter of his lashes, he glares at his brother, and huffs. The sensation of being suspending and drawn converges feet away from him – at the feet of his brother. [b “I'm gathering the eggs,”] Caldwell tells haughtily, folding arms across his chest, [b “and you're playing. With bugs. If father sees you...”]]
[i “He'll what?” The question is foreign coming from the boy's mouth. In all the light diffusing eerily into the fog It is dark and taunting, accompanied by a corner smirk that leads him to be devious. “… kill me?”]
[i [b “Why would you say that?”]]
[i “Say what?” He asks innocently, his gaze still captured by the centipede.]
[i [b “That father will kill you.”]]
[i “It was a joke,” but his face is very serious for a child prone to harmless shenanigans.]
[i Caldwell twisted his mouth in displeasure but gave serious thought to letting it go. The weeks leading to the harvest were always the hardest; if he caught them frolicking with bugs and flouting their chores, they’d be on the receiving end of his belt. As much as he enjoyed being a co-conspirator, he had a tender bottom and enough welts to have learned his lesson.]
[i But something bothered him still. The flaxen lanugo of his arm responded to the charged atmosphere and it set his stomach in knots. He wanted to ask Tomas if it was him that he heard an entire field away, calling his name like it was a secular hymn, but the question wouldn’t come; he was suddenly terrified of the answer.]
[i [b “Come on,”] he urges his brother, [b “Ma will be expecting us soon.”]]
[i Tomas wouldn’t move, perched precariously, the water still dripping from his shorts. Caldwell’s frown deepened. Maja Bowen’s was five miles up the road, the closest swimming hole to the Koenraad farm, and much too dangerous for his brother to walk alone. So where could he have gone swimming in all this fog?]
[i Placing his hand on his cold, stiff shoulder, he tugged to gain his brother’s attention. His head turns sharply with a smoldering look; it is of a stranger, and more alarming still, is the coal-black soulstone fused to Tomas’ chest. When he could manage to raise his eyes again, the tail of the centipede swung wildly at his brother’s face before being swallowed whole.]
[i That very night, the low bleats of the sheep had been silenced – for the first time in his nine years – and by morning, the only remains were displaced limbs and the patches of blood-stained wool scattered about.]
“So tell me Father: was I right to call you?”
[b “Wish that it weren’t,”] he says somberly, his gaze direct, [b “keep your children with you tonight.”] He stands, the sound of his bones groaning audibly but the cardinal finds no shame. [b “I wish to share something with you,”] he says very quietly, ambling to the window at an uneven gait. Pulling back a corner of curtain, he peers into the night. [b “I may frightened you is my fear. But truth is a necessary occupation. Shall we wait for your husband to return?”]
Andrea nodded, reassured by the priest's words. Clasping the wooden spoon in both hands, held across her chest and tight to her body in a defensive pose, she heaved a deep breath, readying herself to speak. It was hard for her, hard to speak about her son like this, but...but for the sake of her family, for the sake of the one yet unborn, she had to. She let the breath out, and it shuddered; her eyes closed as she gathered herself and mastered her emotions. She was afraid, terrified. But she had to speak.
But what to say? How could she convince them, when it was in the little things, the way he held himself when he walked, his strange choice of words, the way he no longer panicked at the sound of thunder and enjoyed her roast when he'd convinced his siblings to eat his portion for as long as he'd had younger siblings? There were two events that stood out in her mind; she gathered themand prepared her story.
Gregory glared at her as an alternative to rolling his eyes. Always with the theatrics! Always the damsel in distress, the victim who needed to be rescued. And now she was using it to attack their son. How long before she turned it against him, painted herself the piteous victim of an unkind husband, and dragged his name through mud? Bad enough she was doing it to their son. He hesitated by the door. He wanted to hear this, to make sure she didn't weave them fairy tales to hoist his son upon.
"The first sign,"she said, and it came out quietly; her voice grew stronger as she spoke, that of one who confesses. "The first sign was when he lost his soulstone." She shook her head. "He came home all covered in blood, a hole in his shirt, and this--thing--embedded in his chest. It looked like a soulstone, but it was darker than any soulstone I've ever seen." She shivered at the memory; it had been no mere soulstone. Darkness had roiled inside, swirling as though alive, and the longer she looked, the more certain she had felt that someone--something--was looking back. And then Sam had covered the stone with his hand, an almost apologetic smile on his lips--but the movement had been possessive, like a child hugging his favorite toy--except Sam was beyond the age of toys, and he'd always been willing to share. "And the hole," she continued, "was on both sides of his shirt. As though he'd been impaled. I...ran to his side, checked him for injuries--nothing. And then I chided him for ruining a good shirt. I said, "Sam Wyler, do you know how long it took me to make this shirt?" And he looked at me, confused, then looked down at his shirt, and it was as though he were only just noticing."
Gregory sighed. "I was slaughtering the old bull that day. There was plenty of spare blood about. And you know boys. Always getting into trouble."
Andrea shot him a glare. "And then there were the cows, more recently."
"Oh, the cows [i again,]" Gregory said. "Do you know how many cows we've lost to the mists?"
"They were far from the mists. And Sam was there," she replied sharply. "Go on! Weren't you going to go fetch the boy? Fetch him!"
Gregory gave the priest one last look that he hoped was warning enough, then stomped out into the storm.
"Where was I?" Andrea asked, then nodded. "The cows. Right. They were...ripped apart. Torn into pieces, as though they were paper. And Sam was sitting in the middle of them, soaked in blood to his elbows, a look on his face like he's not sure whether to laugh or cry." Her memory coughed up the image for her; the bloody pieces, unrecognizable, scattered like poppies in the field, a mess of pieces and blood leaving a clear trail in the well-trodden grass. And at the end of that trail, her son, his eyes glinting with what could only be called madness, tears dribbling down his chin one minute, cheeks contorted to cry, the next a smile spreading over his face, laughter gurgling out through the tears into an odd, choking sound. "Or rather--he was,," she amended, "laughing and crying. Only.. not the way you or I might. Like there were two different people inside, fighting over who got to express themselves."
She pressed a hand to her own soulstone for comfort, felt it throb back with a warm certainty. "That was when I was certain--when I wrote you. But it all started with that damn stone! I didn't know what had happened to his old one, and you know they aren't cheap, but even so I tried to take this one off--" her voice choked for the first time, and she shook her head wordlessly. "It was fused into his chest, Father. He bled when I pulled. Screamed. Cried. I...I couldn't do it," she said, casting her eyes down.
"And it's a million little things as well, but you'd never notice those unless you knew him," she finished, banishing her memories, her voice regaining its usual strength. "So tell me, Father: was I right to call you?"
The wife’s hospitality is a welcome return to his own childhood, when freedom was to found in running the verdant farmland and in tilling peat. Josef Koenraad, his father, had been a man hardened by the lot of life. He awoke each morning at five, with a scowl that grew deeper with every passing year, and seated himself at the table for his prayers. In the background, coffee would percolate and waft through the house, eliciting his children to rise with him; by half-past, the twins would sleepily eat a loaf of bread smeared with goat butter and raspberry jam and wash it down with milk. By a quarter to six, they were washed, dressed and eager to work.
The chores were unequally between them, draw from the interior of a feeding pail with broken handle. Often, Ignass was made to haul water, gather the eggs, and gather dried kindling while his brother would milk, feed the livestock, and harnessing the horse. His father would oversee the tilting and sewing, in the midst of repairing and checking the health of the animals. By seven, their mother was busy washing and mending the worn clothes, making soap from the animal fat, and canning vegetables; vividly, he remembered her, perpetually pregnant and stopped over the hot wood stove, whilst he ducked in for a snack in between chores.
By twilight, their clothes were soaked with perspiration and they were too exhausted to bat mosquitoes away. They sat quietly at the kitchen table, suffering through dry chicken breasts and poorly seasoned potatoes before bed; if they were lucky, they were out by the time their heads hit the pillow. His father, on the other hand, would sit at the kitchen table late into the night, staring into the darkness as though expecting a guest; in the end, his only satisfaction was found in the fruits of his labor and in the bottom of his bourbon.
“There we go,” he could almost see the hay-colored strands of her hair caught in the corner of her mouth, could smell the warmth of her kitchen from the sweat against her throat. “That ought to help with that caught of yours, yes? Nothing like some hot tea and honey for a bad cough.”
Listening to Andrea’s bustle, the priest could only amiably accept her offering. Testing its temperature against the seeking palm of his hand, he gingerly takes a sip and finds the taste pleasant against his taste buds. The pungent taste of licorice and tart rose hips was softened by the clover honey. “Yes,” he agrees, splitting the biscuit in half and offering the plate to the driver. Monchi, who could only catch the infrequent movements of Andrea from his limited view of the kitchen doorway, kept his eyes on any and everything [i but] the child. His fingers continued to worry the reins, pulling and twisting the leather unduly, before he is distracted by the coldness of Ignass’ bony fingers. [b “Your nerves will calm when your stomach is settled. Eat.]” Turning in his chair again, to the wife, he smiles and genuinely thanks her. [b “Your hospitality is much appreciated. I remember the difficulty of living on the land- quails was not our fortune but everyone must have the pleasure once. I will send some when I return- oh, well, once we recover the transport.”]
“Such a pity about your carriage. Gregory is forever losing wheels to that muck, aren’t you, Gregory.” The husband did not respond verbally, and so the priest was left to turn his head into the man’s direction as though to politely acknowledge his participation in the conversation.
[b “Then we must count on your expertise to advise us.”] He shifts in his seat, uncomfortable by the spacing of the wooden chair back. His bones protest verbally. He is forced to favor the left side to alleviate the dull ache slicing into his lower back and finds his tongue squirming like a fish out of water inside his parched mouth. [b “We will wait out the rain. There is still the quandary of a purchasing a horse, or recovering our own –”]
“Oh, no, we wouldn’t send you out in the rain.” Though her assurances were saccharine, he could not be impressed that it was not a burden. “There’s a guest room down the hall; Gregory can show you to it. But certainly, stay a little while. We don’t often get dignitaries around these parts.”
The father, at last, manages to speak. “My name is Gregory Wyler. This is my wife Andrea; you were conversing with her, I believe. My son Sam is there; he’s the one you’ve come to see.”
The priest inclines his head but does not dare move and upset his body more. Recovery from his recent bout of Tuberculosis proved to be difficult, particular when traveling in a region where the air was wet with sea. He had the impression, that while his hosts were courtesy, it was due to his designation rather from gentility, and so he took care to not upset the concerned family.
[b “A pleasure,”] is his response, [b “but I am afraid I must decline. We cannot invade you. You have been gracious. We can find our way.”] Pulling a handkerchief from his breast pocket, he must give himself to the violent coughs that stains his lips red and makes it difficult to breath. His lungs ache, still filled with fluids, before he recovers and presses his hand against the table. With the silence afforded him through his struggle, he can almost hear the displeasure bobbing in Gregory’s throat when he swallows, the disapproving tempo of his wife’s right above a softer, arrhythmic one. There was Monchi’s, who galloped like a thousand frightened horses, and Sam’s …level, perfectly calm.
“Father,” and though Gregory turned, so did the priest, not mistaken the direction address. “Why have you come? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
The implosion of the resulting disagreement was something Ignass could only observe quietly. Annoyance at the valet’s lack of accountability dissipates in light of his use; whereas the Father must rely on the frequencies of tone and heart-rate to navigate where it might go, he can see the veins in Andrea’s neck swell with her distress, in par to her husband’s hapless look, the darkness in Sam’s eyes before he storms out into the night.
He does not move nor acknowledge the event in his features. Instead, clutching his bloodied handkerchief in his fist, he takes small bites of his biscuit and does not drink until he is finished. Crumbles have fallen upon the creases of his shirt and would tumble to the floor once he stands. The tea is much sweeter at the bottom, where some of the honey has settled, and bits of licorice root has stuck in its syrup.
The mother is distrait, the sound of her breaths coming in soft, panicked wheezes. He doubted the others could hear. [b “My ma did the same,”] he soothes her, perking in the chair now that the father and son are gone. Blindly, he sets his cup down and dabs his mouth of the stark banner of blood smeared along his chin. Indeed, he was often at the receiving end of her spoon – through no fault of his own, being the twin of a devious boy – or his father’s belt. Affection was seen to spoil the child, and so discipline was doled out with mercy. [b “Believed it was next to godliness. He will be back in time.”] He pauses, turning his head as though hearing something – before turning his milky eyes back to Andrea, reaching across the distance to place his hand upon hers. [b “From what I understand of your letter, the local rector could not assist you. He did not believe your son posed any danger, but there is another child, yes? What has happened to believe he is possessed?”]
"Certainly, take a seat," Andrea said, gesturing. "Gregory, the Father's jacket?" She patted her stomach by way of explanation, shooting her husband a quick glare when he didn't hop to immediately. Not much longer for this one, and all the more important that they got the boy figured out beforehand. If only Gregory were right! But she knew he wasn't, knew it intuitively. He would never understand, Gregory wouldn't; but a mother knew when her child was...[i wrong.]
She bustled around the kitchen, distracting herself fetching a biscuit and tea for their guest, dipping into their reserves of honey to drop a dollop into his cup. "There we go," she said, setting them before him. "That ought to help with that cough of yours, yes? Nothing like some hot tea and honey for a bad cough."
His accent was slightly off-putting, but Andrea didn't let it distract her. She'd rather not have a foreigner attend to her son, but better someone than no one. "Such a pity about your carriage. Gregory is forever losing wheels to that muck, aren't you, Gregory?"
He nodded gravely, still not comfortable with these strangers in his house, here to pull some mumbo-jumbo on his son--likely kill the boy as not, but at least it would make Andrea happy. He wondered if he shouldn't flee with the boy, save his life from these charlatans, but pressed his lips together and stood still instead. Andrea's wrath would be a thing to behold. And what if they didn't hurt Sam after all? No point worrying about might-have-beens.
Lightning flashed in the windows and a second later the thunder followed, crackling and grumbling to its full roaring strength as any thunder so close did. Gregory looked up, startled, and saw Andrea do a little jump, but Sam stood still. [i Jump, damn you!] Gregory thought, irritated at his son for having let this little charade progress so far. If only the boy would act normal for a spell, Andrea would forget her silly ideas!
"Oh, no, we wouldn't send you out in the rain," Andrea assured the Father, giving the valet a moment's irritated glance that he'd dared to speak. "There's a guest room down the hall; Gregory can show you to it. But certainly, stay a little while. We don't often get dignitaries around these parts."
Gregory nodded, taking his glared cue to introduce them. "My name is Gregory Wyler. This is my wife, Andrea; you were conversing with her, I believe. My son Sam is there; he's the one you're come to see," he finished awkwardly. He couldn't protest the Father's presence to his face, he wouldn't dare; but there was a certain stiffness to his manner that suggested he did not appreciate the man's presence.
"Father," Sam said, and Gregory turned, but the boy's eyes were on the priest. "Why have you come? I've done nothing wrong."
"Sam!" Andrea snapped reproachfully. "Mind yourself when you speak to your elders and betters."
Sam twisted his lips annoyedly. "He is neither, mother. Now let me speak. He came for me, didn't he? So why won't you let us talk?"
Childishly, he slapped his hands to his mouth afterward, as though he had said the words by mistake. "No, I didn't...My apologies, mother," he started, but Andrea had already reached for her wooden spoon. It rapped across his head before either had time to consider what they were doing.
A second after, Andrea snatched her hand back, embarrassed to have punished him in front of her guests, fearful of what this son who was not her son might do. Sam glared at her, tears in the corners of his eyes, then spun on his heel and ran, not into the house but out into the storm. Gregory reached for the boy but missed, and then the door slammed shut behind him, the thud of wood-on-wood made louder by a simultaneous clap of thunder.
"Sam!" Andrea shouted, and rushed to the door, fearful of what might happen to her son out in the storm, but the boy was already out of sight. "Gregory!" she snapped, rounding on her husband. He jumped up and reached for his boots. Sam's stood by the door yet; the boy had fled barefoot into the storm's wrath.
The vibration of moving bodies disrupt the hum of the boy’s flighty heartbeat. The priest turned his eyes towards the father, giving him the slightest incline of the head, a partially unformed smile tug at the corner of his lips. It is an attempt at a pleasant, unbothered expression and is very, nearly accomplished. [b “May we sit?”] He turns towards the parents, grappling the inquiry to the startling quiet air. A part from the swelling of the floorboards and the throaty sigh of the window shutters, the descent of the beastly storm is but humming backdrop to the insulated house.
Droplets of water pluck from the unruly strands of hair and from beneath the thricesewn hem of his overcoat. Shrugging himself out of it, the thin Rayon material of his shirt moves like a sheet across a phantom on his chest. The color of his skin indicates the last flush of passing illness and is confirmed by the rattling cough he tucks into his closed fist. Enough nights without sleep or much substance has weaken him. [b “Pardon,”] he says once he draws in pulls enough air into lungs, [b “the wet hurts so.”] It is clear by the awkward phrasing of his words that he is not entirely accustomed to the language; he does speak it well enough to frequently appear educated. It is in the way he possesses it. [b “We lost the carriage to the marsh.”]
“Fog and rain everywhere.” The valet confirms, his knuckles white from where they worried the leather reins. “Wind didn’t help.” He has since learned to disguise his obvious discomfort as curiosity, bouncing his eyes across the decorations of the quaint home. The hardwood floors were soiled by their unceremoniously entry, and the wood did not appear weathered enough to suffer the undue dripping from the guests. He ventures a look at the husband first – short and lean, he squints over at his wife, and though he manages to remain involved with the polite conversation, it is clear that he is uncomfortable. The wife, a woman portly and pregnant, reminds him of his own mother, of the glower that would never fall away from her face and the bruised knuckles he suffered at the hands of the wooden spoon always held in the hand resting on her hip. He thinks to settle on the boy – Sam, for this is the only individual whose name he heard - for a while, but quickly clinches on the fire crackling in the hearth. It was not merely the storm circling overhead that disquieted the homely boy, but the eerie atmosphere that entrenched the Wyler farm. “Maybe we could rest for the night?” His eyes wouldn’t settle for long, and he chanced looking at the husband, fearing the wife would be foul for him even looking at her. “Lost all our food when the wheels hit the tar. Besides, too bad too do anything tonight, right, I-er, Father?”
The aforementioned man raises tired eyes, bouncing his leg up and down. The range of the vibration allowed him to more accurately determine who stood where in proximity to him more than his poor sight. Glaucoma, as the condition will late be called, does not strip him of his sight, not completely. Images are poorly translated and captured, in the light; this is untrue he is concealed back into the dark.
[b “We do not wish to intrude,”] he responds directly to Monchi, terrible name it was, and folds his soaking coat across his lap. [b “We can find accommodations. I wished to introduce myself. I’m Father Ignass Koenraad, cardinal immediate to the Pope.”] He stretches his legs out, accounting for the members of the house and sighs. The warmth felt good for all his aches. [b “If your kindness allows us to enjoy your warmth and conversation a while, I do feel obliged.”]
The man who crossed the threshold was not quite the figure Gregory had been expecting. This man was thin, near sickly in appearance, his eyes milky-red with cataracts. Uncertain of how to act around the strange man, Gregory stepped back to allow him admittance to their house, nodding in slight deference at the man's request.
"If it weren't for the storm, we could offer you the old stable, but I'm afraid it'll be mighty damp at the moment."
The valet who slipped in behind the man was offered no such nod; he was left, sopping wet, in the entryway. There was a stool for his comfort, and a rickety old hat rack beside it for his hood.
"Let me take your hat and jacket, Father Ignass," Andrea offered, as Gregory led their guest into the kitchen. No comment was made about his boots, even as he tracked mud across her shining floors. She'd communicated with him by letter, facilitated by the church; if she was surprised to finally meet him, she showed no sign of it on her face. Her husband, with less time to waste and less interest in the written word, had only gotten a brief outline of the resume the church had communicated to her. "Thank you so very much for coming out to our humble home. Would you like some tea? Coffee, perhaps? There're biscuits in the oven if you're hungry, it'll only be a moment. Here, please--take a seat." She pulled back a chair at the kitchen table; anything to make him comfortable.
"There is the attic, I suppose," Gregory considered thoughtfully--for a certain value of privacy, anyways. They'd hear most of the goings-on through the ceilings. "Bit drafty, though."
"For what?" Andrea asked politely, deferring to her husband so long as the guest was here.
"Our priest wants a private place," Gregory explained.
"Then the attic should do just fine," she asserted. "No sense sending him to that broken-down stable in this mess."
From the hallway came the quiet patter of bare feet on wood floors, and birth Gregory and Andrea turned. Sam walked into the kitchen, but paused when he sensed their eyes on him.
"What's wrong, mom?" he asked, eyeing the priest apprehensively.
"Nothing's wrong, Sam," Andrea replied, in a forced-calm voice. "Father Ignass is here to chat with you, so why don't you go with him?"
"Why?" Sam asked. There was only curiosity in his voice, neither fear nor worry in the alto tones. "I did nothing wrong, did I?"
"Of course not," Andrea assured him, voice sickly-sweet. "You're just going to chat a little, that's all."
Sam nodded, eyes inscrutable. He turned to the priest with a smile and extended a hand. "Hello, Father Ignass. I'm Sam Wyler. I'm glad to see you're doing well."
"No, Sam, it's "it's nice to meet you"," his father corrected, glancing at Andrea. It was just A dumb mistake, but he was sure she'd read into it.
"Oh, right," Sam replied, a vapid smile on his face.
[i “We can never accept him into our fold,” the interjection, while strongly suggested, comes through the heavy oak of Chancellor Thornton’s home office, where two men are locked in heated discussion. The yenta is a boy with abnormal but solemn features; the red tunic with its splint neck, half sleeves trimmed in white pattern, complements acutely his dark hair and ivory skin. At birth, his eyes were an attractive shade of blue, at times made gray by the overcast skies, bright with the sweet marvel of life belonging only to babes. At seven, he began to complain often of eye pain and halos around people; each attack came swiftly and with nearly no warning. His eyes were dilated and made ruddy by intrusive lights like the sun and before long became argent, marking his deteriorating vision. He was not alone in his suffering. His brother, Tomas, nearly indistinguishable from him except for the incomplete hair lip he bore, lost his sight first. Caldwell, as he was called as a boy, had a slight limp in his left leg made worse by damp weather.]
[i Inside the study, the Chancellor's large eyebrows rose to his steely hairline, his features steady with doubt. “It is to my – and I chance to say, the town's--understanding that the clergy trains the minds of wayward boys. We don't want a gaggle with them, untaught about the dangers of deserting the Faith.” This man is husky, body strong with muscle in his age, and broad. As such, when his hand raised and slammed the desk in a show of force, it makes a sound that startles Caldwell seated in the hall. The boom of his voice is mistakable to thunder. “The ghouls are enough. Without the soulstone our lives are forfeit to the Damned.”]
[i What is occurring within and around this boy is unnatural. Tomas lost his sight by the age of nine, Caldwell with him, until the faithful night... ]
[i “ca-LD!” Tomas’ melodramatic voice slice the slice into ribbons, and the three crows huddled together on a single branch, caw like death omens in the sea of fog. The boy, crouched so that the wet back of his swimming truck makes a slick zipping sound with every motions, balances on his bare toes, watching the slow traipse of a centipede across the sunken skull of a fox. Fur still clings to the scalp in tuffs and where there was sinew, is replaced by the writhing bulk of maggots like lively white matter; unhindered, the arthropod wades the tide towards its destination North.]
[i Nature possessed a duality that he did not understand- and as his curious eyes slanted across the undulating backside of the poisonous creature and the ones beneath, like a childish deity, he felt overwhelming flush with the desire to assert himself in this hierarchy by letting each 177 pair of legs wander down his throat. Hand hovered above, he reached—]
[i Simultaneously, across the everglade, the younger Koenraad twin dutifully retrieves eggs from the rustic turkey hutch. The task is made difficult by his aggrieved gait and tiny form, requiring him to cradle both hands beneath the ova lest he drop it. The fowls do not produce as often, fretting about near the latch at the pen. His great grandfather of nearly nine generations build it -they say, then the fog kept to the sea and one could see the sun filtering through on the horizons- though its wood tarnished to an ashen color, weathered by water damage and rot nearest the ground. In the coming days, father, Tomas and he would spend the quiet hours of dawn replacing it section at a time.]
[i The air inside the worn shack is stale and heavy with hay and feces – it hurts his chest. But it thins suddenly and the blonde hairs of his arms raise as if there was atoms of lightning surrounding him. He stares, his startling eyes a shade most similar to ferric ferrocyanide – this is Prussian blue, for hands who have been stained by paints – marveling at the peculiar sight. His name, slithers through blades of grass and the minute breaks in the coop, stopping him in his tracks; this voice, if it [i could] be called that, was low and inviting, a draw in his consciousness that had him so in tune to its calling. A turkey hurries by, a fury of feathers and claw, and it is the only warning before the rest of the flock come charging in, huddled under his warmth for protection while they anguished in their tongue.]
[i [b “Tomas,”] he calls as he emerges, having to shield his eyes from the glare of light among fog. Panic beads sweat beneath his skin, making the long material of his meager chiton cling. His calls multiple from a sporadic one to three in a breath, his lost wandering breaks into a clumsy run. When he arrives upon his brother, he has a centipede wound across his palm and index finger, raised to his parted lips. [b “Tomas – did you not hear me?”] Short of breath and doubled-over from the exertion, the boy curses the disease robbing him of life. Without name or much knowledge, there are no tonics to cure him of the ache that riddles his bones incapable of moving.]
[i “100-footed,” his brothers mutters cheerfully, in the pitch of a tune angling his hand to hawkish study the centipede twining steadily down the length of his arm. “100-foot for the limp foot.”]
[i Tomas, of course, jagged at his brother, though the quality of his tone does not suggest an insult. With a flutter of his lashes, he glares at his brother, and huffs. The sensation of being suspending and drawn converges feet away from him – at the feet of his brother. [b “I'm gathering the eggs,”] Caldwell tells haughtily, folding arms across his chest, [b “and you're playing. With bugs. If father sees you...”]]
[i “He'll what?” The question is foreign coming from the boy's mouth. In all the light diffusing eerily into the fog It is dark and taunting, accompanied by a corner smirk that leads him to be devious. “… kill me?”]
In this shift of scene: there is a silhouette emerging from the condensation, the six-footed giant with its almost militant strides, appears unbothered by the precipitation transforming peat land into morass. The horse drawn hamson cab required to transport the possess found itself slipping across the mud and careening into a deposit of tar, hidden low in the fenland; the valet had been useless, balancing on the stool before jumping to safety at the soft grass. Ignass cut the horse loose and it took off into the distance, leaving the two men stranded with little clarity on [i where] they were in the midst of a violent storm.
They pressed North, the valet making a conscious effort to slow his pace for the cleric, eyes low to the ground in shame. “I only took this job to help me father.” He filled the silence with his impractical remarks, offering his life story as though it were compensation for his inferiority. “He let me drive the carriage once, when I was a boy, but he was by me side, holding the reins. I j-just mean ta say, thank you for letting me drive you, it’s an honor, if it…you know…”
His companion remains silent. The wind whips at his overcoat and pelts on his sobering features.
At his side, the man fretted and fretted until they came upon the farmhouse. Ignass is not entirely blind, in dim light he can make out the smooth surfaces of furniture and the contours of faces. Between fog and the fat drops of rain dripping from the tip of his nose, he can the eye of the storm appears centered above the Wyler home.
“Ain’t no way I’m going in there.” With his pale green eyes, the valet pressed the leather reins to his chest and shook his head. “Not wit’ no possessed boy.” But the world around them were painted in grayscale and there was nothing to be found but cert Death if he continued on- and they both knew it.
The priest’s unearthly eyes feathered across him, dismissing the footman’s concerns without a word, and closed the remaining distance. Beyond the wood of the home, he could sense the boy’s presence. Murky and violent, he would need to exercise caution in dealing with this creature.
The knock is sharp against the door and leaves no room to mistake the reason for his presence. The door pulls once, twice, before a man opens. “Welcome,” he says, illuminated by the warm light inside his home. “Please, come in.”
Ignass nods quaintly, standing just inside the doorway, and the valet with him. [b “Mister,”] he greets and the baritone of his voice is succinct, [b “Mrs. Wyler. Is there somewhere I may take the boy privately?”]
"Harriet, pick up your dolls! Hurry, he'll be here any minute!"
Andrea Wyler is a tall woman, tall and portly, round with child. In her youth, she was considered beautiful, but those days have passed. Now her face is round with fat, jowls heavy, cheeks reddened by sun and lined prematurely with wrinkles, a scowl near-permanently set into her mouth, eyes squinted against a sun that is rarely present. She had her choice of the town boys, back in the days when her name was Andrea Tate, but she was very much in love with a man, a man named Gregory Wyler; no matter what her mother told her about hard work on the farm or her father warned her against living so close to the fog, she wouldn't hear a word--she was in love. And now, their sixth child on the way, the squint and the scowl suggest she no longer knows that she made the right decision. She leaned back and rubbed her lower back, sighing. It would be good if the child were a boy; more hands to help out on the farm.
Harriet scuttled past, her blond hair like corn silk drifting in the wind; at three years old, she is the youngest of the Wyler children, though not for much longer. Secretly, she hopes for a little sister; as the only girl of five, she's already learned to fight for her food at the dinner table, and that brothers aren't much good at playing tea. She was in the middle of playing tea at the moment, in fact, and it was very much rude of her mother to interrupt her--but her mother's ladle is in her hand, and her backside remembers its smart, so she gathered her dolls up and hurried them back to her room. It was just her room, for the moment; if she had a sister, she'd have to share it. But it would be a small price to pay, she decided, settling down with her dolls once more. She glanced back at her mother, just visible through the open door, but it seemed her mother had already forgotten about her. With a sly giggle, she started pouring tea again. It seemed she'd escaped the chores that inevitably replaced tea-time this time.
The front door slammed shut, and she heard the familiar sound of her father stamping the mud off his boots. "It's looking to be a bruiser," he announced, slopping down wet jacket and hat.
"What did I tell you about those boots! Muckin' up this house when I've just spent all day cleaning!" Mrs. Wyler complained, hurrying over to the door. Though the complaint is familiar, this time there is an unusually nervous edge to it. "And the priest is coming today," she added in a low voice, glancing back at Harriet.
"Don't know if he'll come, in this weather," Gregory Wyler muttered, shaking his head. Unlike his wife, he is short and wiry, though he has the same sunburn and deep wrinkles. She loomed over him, heavy and huge with child, and he wondered quietly where this monster had arisen from, what it had done with his delicate, beautiful Andrea. Once she had been the flower he returned to, the angel that kept him going no matter how awful the weather got, or how poor the crops were. And now he feared to come home, spent Saturdays "with the boys" getting drunk alone in the local pub. What had happened? What had gone wrong? Cowed and questioning, he takes out his frustration on his sons, administering corporeal punishment for the slightest wrongs, controlling their lives with an iron fist to make up for being unable to control his own.
"He'd better come. Their services aren't cheap," Andrea said, scowl deepening. "That boy of yours...was he out with you?"
Gregory shrugged. "Lost track of him in the storm. He'll be right behind."
"Are you mad? I told you to keep an eye on him! What if he runs away before the priest arrives? Or worse, gets into the cattle pen again? You know what happened the last time--" Andrea fell silent, looking back over her shoulder at Harriet, just visible through the cracked door playing obliviously in her room.
"Andrea," Gregory sighed with the heavy voice of one who has already lost an argument. "All boys get a little strange at this age. There's no reason to call a priest..."
"Do they slaughter half a dozen cows with their bare hands? There's something wrong with that boy," Andrea snapped. "Losing his soulstone, finding that awful new one...What if he does turn out to be possessed? Murders us all in our sleep?"
[i God, please,] Gregory thought, eying Andrea. And then Harriet squealed happily in the room beyond, and guilt plunged into his stomach like ice water. Harriet...the children. He couldn't even imagine--
"We never proved it was him--" Gregory began weakly, and then the door behind him creaked open, letting in the sound of pouring rain. Both fell silent, tensing--a dark-haired boy stepped in, and both relaxed.
"Frederick Wyler, what did I tell you about muddy boots!" Andrea exclaimed, and the boy froze. At nine, he was second-youngest, and still secretly resented Harriet for replacing him; a quiet glee had consumed him recently upon realizing that, as Harriet had replaced him, she herself would be replaced by the new child. Revenge in its sweetest form.
"Sorry, mom," Fred replied, kicking off his boots before hurrying back into his room. Andrea sighed, glaring at the offensive boots, but said nothing.
"Like I said," Gregory started, quieter, but Andrea cut him off.
"And who else would it be? What else would it be? It all leads back to him, Greg--and there's no harm in bringing a priest to the house. If it isn't Sam, he'll know what it is. And with the baby on the way..." She crossed her arms, a sure sign the conversation was over.
Gregory shook his head silently and took a seat at the table, sitting heavily. "Don't complain to me when you've wasted all this money for nothing," he muttered quietly.
Andrea turned toward him, eyes blazing--the door opened, and the third-youngest, third-eldest son stepped inside. Towheaded as Harriet, Sam's pale hair seemed almost silver when soaked and stuck to his head like this. He shook off the rain and carefully removed both boots before stepping inside in holey socks, depositing his boots on the rack by the door. "Good evening," he said, as he passed towards the back of the room.
"Sam," Andrea said, and he froze in the hallway, back facing her. "Why don't you stay out here with us for a minute?"
"But mooom," he complained, turning slowly, shoulders slumped. "Can't I get changed? I'm soaking!"
For a moment, Andrea had her doubts. Maybe he'd just finally learned some manners. Maybe it really was just a phase.
And those cows had ripped themselves to pieces and splattered their blood all across his clothes. That had just been a coincidence.
"Change, but quickly," she replied sternly. "There's something we have to talk about."
"Okay," he said, and ran back into the room he shared with Fred.
Andrea and Gregory sat in silence for a moment before a knock came from their front door. Both swiveled; in the front of the house, it was inconvenient enough that only visitors ever used it.
"That'll be him," Andrea said quietly.
Gregory rose and walked slowly to the door as a man shambles to his death. A second before he opened it, he straightened up, took a deep breath--and smiled. It had been so long that he'd nearly forgotten how. He had to give the door a good yank to get it open; it was stuck shut, as usual. The wood had never fit right. "Welcome," he said to the stranger standing at their door. In the dark of the storm and the pouring rain, it was difficult to make out their face. Lightning flashed, and he gestured them inside. "Please, come in."
[font "Georgia" Crickets begin to sing, though fall hushed when words slice their melodies.]
[font "Georgia" “There is no sun here,” said a man from 30 Walbridge Road in speaking to a neighbor. A bald, portly man at 5’ 8” stood with his arm inclined on his fence post and black, beady eyes squinting into the distance; from the ocean beyond the forest, fog began skulking from the throng of foliage where his barn stood nearly 30 yards away, being swallowed whole. The horses, munching on sunbaked hay, neighed loudly, anxiously trotting to and fro in the stalls.]
[font "Georgia" His wife, a woman by the name of Joanne, joins him shortly with a salver of crumpets and cookies and lemon bars, of which she spent the unlighted hours of the morn baking. Slender as a reed, the Austrian flanks to her husband’s side, upturned face framed by a fringe of short blonde hair, chopped unprofessionally, in the sweltering kitchen between roasts, when she feels the urge.]
[font "Georgia" The neighbor at 29 Walbridge Road, called only Knobby, malnourished in only his face, chews thoughtfully on the tuff of sweet tobacco and scratches at his chin. “Shooo ain’t.” With long brown hair, his muddy eyes slant across the fence to the nimble profile of Joanne, with her long naked neck, sighs and hums, completely aware of his lustful gaze upon her. Puckered flesh raised on his hand, improperly healed scar tissue, when his gaze falls to it to avoid leering further.]
[font "Georgia" Borne to four generations of farmers, they assume the mantle given onto them; as the men before them, they divide the 4.2 acres of land by the hedge-bush ever-red loropetalum wedged between their fences. If you must know, the husband is a closeted homosexual, his wife spikes his whiskey with foxglove nightly, and the downtrodden Knobby has a preference for children.]
[font "Georgia" Along this undulating hill, there are houses numbered 10 – 40, sectioned neatly along a five mile course – plotting an assortment of mundane trades. Houses 12, 17, 21, 29, and 30 are farmers, houses 11, 14, 16, 23, and 37 are wood carpenters, traveling all along the coastline for work, houses 15, 19, 22, 28, and 35 are bakers, with the rest collective divided between millers, herders, blacksmiths and spinsters. The houses beyond these are called Damned, and no one ventures to them.]
[font "Georgia" A cold, wet wind stirs at the mulch - months and months of leaves crushed underfoot – announcing the lean stranger at the end of the lane. Dressed impeccably with a crisp, collared button down and Oxfords that seemed to avoid mud like water slides off oil, the double-breasts wool overcoat flaps at the embellish brocade vest, though the wind does not disturb the top-hat he dons. Each of these characters carry unsavory secrets, though huddled together in the nipping wind, chary eyes are the only thing that moves; even breaths are halted in a faux rendition of American Gothic. They are made more nervous by his dawdling, languid strides.]
[font "Georgia" The stranger nods and from beneath the brim of the hat, the furrow of his brows are made intensified; with eyes like the still waters of long-abandoned wells, they steel inside are unmistakable. No pleasant words come to benumbed minds, staring horrified as he leans into the howling wind and pauses just before their bush. He rubs at the silver-face of the watch in his pocket, before reaching his hand out to pluck a crimson blossom.]
[font "Georgia" “Don’t you be doing that!” The husband’s cheeks are reddened, like the blushing of a woman’s bust. “You just take yourself on back down the road now.”]
[font "Georgia" Twirling the petal betwixt fingers, he savors its fragrance. [i [+red “Looking at the grinding stones, Kabir laments…”]]]
[font "Georgia" “Leslie!” The wife admonishes, white-knuckles clutching her platter. Thin lips pressed together when her wild, cornflower eyes flutter demurely upon him. “Let the man be on his way.”]
[font "Georgia" The dulcet quality to the voice continues, licentiously. [i [+red “In the duel of wheels, nothing stays intact…”]]]
[font "Georgia" Knobby said nothing, one hand fisted in his suspenders and the other draped along his cordon of fence, eying the stranger intently.]
[font "Georgia" Leslie waddled towards the fence, mouth pulled tight. He is not the imposing figure he tries to cut himself into. “I’m [i not] going to tell you again.”]
[font "Georgia" [i [+red “Searching for the wicked, met not a single one…”]]]
[font "Georgia" “Joanne, go get my sword.” With a hard gaze, the portly farmer crosses his arm over his chest, where in his left bosom, his soulstone glints a pale amber – as his wife, as his neighbor – searching for the telling shine of his own. But there is none to be found, only ashen eyes without much color or kindness.]
[font "Georgia" The stranger falls silent at this. The blossom in his hand withers. For this time, his pale face has been shrouded by the shade of his hat and the approach of twilight, though now, when he lifts it, the vertebrae of his spine snap sickly. Beholding the horror of the half-eaten jaw, exposing teeth from the bruised red muscle beneath skin, the milk gaze travels in the socket, grinning maniacally. The lips are blue, chewed upon vermillion that spits maggots at each word. [i [+red “When searched myself, ‘I’ found the wicked one...”]]]
[font "Georgia" At 30 Walbridge Road, when night has fallen and the horses cry from their stalls, a stranger pulls a monogrammed handkerchief from his breast-pocket, adroitly wipes the blood stains from his gnarled mouth, and sets it upon the ever-red blossoms. The crickets stir, bidding farewell to the man as he returns to 1 Walbridge Road.]
The fog was thin that day. Sam walked along the fence, looking for the break; a cow had wandered free, which meant somewhere along their miles of fences there was a hole, a broken fencepost or a rotten section of fence where the cow had squeezed through. Normally he wasn't allowed so close to the fog; some of their fences were eclipsed by it, on days when it was particularly thick, the fog lying thick and impenetrable over the edge of their farm. But his brothers were in town, buying new wire for the fence, and his father was watching over Missy, the prize heifer; she was due to give birth any hour now, and as it was her first calf, he was particularly worried she might have complications. His mother was inside, tending to the little ones, well along with her sixth child, and so it fell to Sam to walk along the fence. And today was a beautiful day, too, the fog receded further than anyone had ever seen it before.
Sam glanced over at the broad plains that were usually covered by fog. This was about as far out as the fences went, but there was nothing special about the lands beyond. They were barren, bare rock and earth laid out before the sun, but there were no monsters, no traps or pitfalls like he'd always been told. Just flat, boring land.
And in the distance...
Sam stopped and squinted, raising his hand to shade his eyes. Was that...a tower? It was huge, huger than anything he'd ever seen before, even that one time they'd gone into the capitol to see the baby king and had seen the castle. It was white, a shade or five paler than the ever-present pale gray fog. Compared to the tower that loomed in the distance, the castle was about as tall as his mother's favorite stool. And it was wide, too, so wide he doubted their fences would fit around it, if they had been laid end-to-end. He'd never seen that before, not even looming above the fog.
He started out along the plain, feet thudding dully on the rock. And then he stopped, and looked back. What was he doing? He had to find the break on the fence.
That was when he noticed the stone.
It was jet black, a polished round stone about the size of his palm. He clenched his hand around his own soulstone, an unpolished shard of pale amber crystal; somehow, intuitively, he knew it was a soulstone. And a black one, at that, one darker and larger than he'd ever seen before. Black soulstones were rare, equally rare as clear soulstones. As large as it was...Sam shook his head. With the money from that, they could buy a whole new set of fences. Or even better, he could leave this dumb farm behind forever and buy an apprenticeship in the city!
He glanced at the fence, then back at the gem. It was only a hundred yards out; he could reach that and be back before anyone realized he was gone. If there were monsters, they'd never reach him in that time. He heaved a deep breath, then raced for the gem.
Halfway between the gem and the fence, he suddenly felt eyes on him. His whole skin shivered with unseen sight, with unfelt sensation. There was something out there, something watching him. His eyes darted around him; it felt like the fog was closing in, reaching out tendrils to ensnare him. The air was thick, dense with water and something else. He heaved a breath and nearly drowned; his arms and feet were heavy, each movement weighed down as though something were pulling him back toward the farm. He tripped and collapsed, stretching his arm out. The stone--if only he could reach the stone. His fingers clenched at the dirt, inching him forward, toes pushing at the earth. The sensation of unseen creatures grew stronger; they were looming over him and drooling, their arms inches above his body. If only he could reach the stone--if only--
His fingers closed around the stone, and suddenly the weight was gone. He took a deep breath and clenched it to his chest, sitting up. He was safe, he was safe--
Something thudded nearby. Sam's head swiveled; he could see nothing but the fog, but the fog was now predatory, somehow, swirling and swiveling towards him, reaching out dark tendrils just as he'd feared it was earlier. Thunder cracked, and the sky fell dark. He could see the sunlight receding quickly from him as the clouds gathered, fleeing from the fog as though the sun itself feared it would be snuffed out.
[i Run,] a voice said, and Sam jumped to his feet and complied, panting each breath, his feet seeming to carry him far too slowly. He felt the heavy footfall of something unseen shudder through the earth and was bounced into the air by the recoil. He tripped and hit the ground hard, skinning his knee, but he climbed right back up and kept running, feet and arms pumping hard. Sam glanced back just in time to see a huge hand coming at him out of the fog, thick and wet with fog-damp, moss growing on its palm--
He was thrown bodily through the air. The fence loomed up before him and now the fenceposts seemed sharp, in a way they never had before. He raised his hands to catch himself but it was no use. Sam landed chest-first on a fencepost, the wood splintering and cracking as it cut its way through his body--or maybe that was his body, splintering and cracking before the fencepost. He gasped in a breath and felt no oxygen enter his lungs--gasped again, gasped again--
[i Let me help you,] a voice whispered, as Sam's eyes drooped and his hands lost their grip. The soulstone dropped from his fingers, but it didn't fall; instead it hovered, dark twining energy crackling between it and his chest. "Please," he mouthed, without the air to speak the word. The stone seemed to flash in the last glimmer of sunlight, reflecting the monster looming over him--and then all went dark.
Sam stood up, stretching out his shirt to examine it. There was a huge hole in the middle, jagged-edged and lined with splinters. His stomach lurched; his mother was going to kill him for that. Thunder cracked, and he started back for the farm, giving the clouds a last glance; they were heavy and dark, ready to break at any moment. If he got caught in the rain he'd never hear the end of it!
Through the hole in his shirt, the black soulstone was just visible, fused into the flesh of his chest. It gleamed dark, sick purple in the twisted light of the mounted storm, reflecting only the worst parts of the color wheel. Behind him, just visible for a moment before the fog swallowed it up, pieces of shattered gray stone littered the empty plain, some of them covered in moss; a single fencepost was painted red, fresh blood still dripping down it. Lying crushed on the hard earth beside the fenceposts were the amber shards of his soulstone, stomped into oblivion.
And then it was gone, obliterated from vision by the fog.
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