Marietta's body and soul writhed in pain, as if some fiery knife were burning, piercing, slashing her. She thrashed, but there was no relief, no escaping it. Whatever it was, it was inside her.
Leave, her mind shrieked, leave.
Marietta could sense its interest, its disgust, its power. It was a thing so other, and glimpsing its foreignness in her very body was a horror usually reserved for nightmares.
Leave, she begged desperately.
It did not grant her an answer. Instead, it lingered and watched her, observing and learning. Its presence was pain itself, filling her whole person, material and immaterial, with agony.
Leave. Please. Leave.
There was no hiding and Marietta was powerless. The being had pinned her within her mind, and while alert and aware, she could not rouse her body or move. If one gazed upon Marietta, one would only see a slumbering woman.
I’m burning alive. From the inside, she realized in torment, and was filled with a sudden understanding: there would never again be liberty. This thing would abide in her until all that remained was a heap of scorched bones.
The desperation of this knowledge somehow freed her for a moment—like a fish leaping from the palms that cupped it—and she flung herself into gasping wakefulness. The pain was blinding and unendurable. She screamed, shrill and long.
It laughed, delighted. The sound resonated in every space of her mind.
No, there would never be freedom again.
Sim inhaled, his chest heaving in the thin air. The fragrances of the mountains filled his nostrils. Every sight, sound, and smell irked him and heightened his impression of foreignness.
I hate this place, he thought and scowled. His mouth felt thick with saliva from the intensity of his movements. He spit at the ground, even though he knew the land would only take offense. It did not matter really, it would always take offense. I really hate this place.
Sim refastened the clasp and string unloosening at his boot and pushed back the light brown locks obscuring his vision. He straightened his frame and took in the expanse before him.
He stood atop Berete in the terrisdan Selet. Berete may have been the highest peak in the area, but the jagged crowns of the rest did not lag far behind. Each stab of land jutted up like an enormous anemone arm—seeking, seeking. The sky arched on forever in a heavy blue that seemed opaque and tangible against the rocky grays and violets. Trees were scarce, huddling together in small clusters until the elevation dropped and the rugged terrain evened. Then, one could hardly make headway the wood pressed so thickly.
Sim sighed. His spine was forever clenched when he walked the terrisdans. Everything was too alive. It all seemed to breathe and watch him with prying eyes. There were rare moments when he experienced the true peace of solitude, but never atop these heights.
He felt the piercing cry before he heard it. It tore right down the inside of his person, from neck to navel, and left him with the smallness only a child knows. Whether it was an actual scream playing up the heights or an uncanny link with his beloved, he knew not, but it had the same effect.
He must hurry, oh how he must hurry.
He strained his weary eyes. They flitted one direction to another. This was why he had come, why he had fumbled up this cursed peak. He must find the blossom, and quickly.
The sun glinted upon the rocks, but Sim resisted the urge to shy his eyes away. He pressed his lids close together and squinted hard, changed location, and hunted anew. He raised a hand to shield some of the light. Still, nothing.
They promised, he encouraged himself, but nonetheless despondency settled into his gut. They said the trees would be here. But where?
Sim jumped along the rock, careful to avoid the scree and plummeting drops. He knew all too well that the cliffs in Selet eroded and broke under one’s feet without mercy or warning. That was the way of the land. He snorted in disgust; the land was always against him here.
As if in response to his thoughts, the step before him shuddered and cascaded down the peak with a quiet, lethal force. The air tightened and he could feel animosity flung at him like mud from a rutted wheel.
Fear gripped his heart, but not for just his own wretched hide. His eyes darted and swept the nearby mounts. They seemed so close that he could almost leap across safely, but that was the treachery of the land. Nothing was ever that simple here.
“Please, please. I beg you. Do not fight me now. Not now. For Marietta. She needs help.” His voice sounded thin and cracked before the vast wildness of the mountains and sky.
How can I even think to plead with one that hates me so? How could Selet ever have mercy?
The land about him seemed to delight in his desperation, laughing in the face of his need. The air pressed hard against him and he felt the ground speak, a slither of a whisper: “Get out.”
Fury replaced terror, flooding through Sim’s veins and powering his limbs. He would never quit, never satisfy this cursed land. He scrambled down the rock face with his fingers numbly groping for holds. He was several arm spans above the ground, yet he let himself fall. His ankles burned from the impact.
He felt the race of time acutely. Selet was dangerous, but with night it would become lethal. The land was bolder against him then, or perhaps he simply grew more tremulous. Whichever it was, dread pawed at his soul.
And then, in a glorious moment, Sim spied them. Upon the next crest, Triele, in a small coppice, grew at least a dozen groyu trees. Their dark purple leaves glimmered in mocking greeting, as if they too knew it would be no easy feat to reach them.
Could they work? Would it really be that easy?
Blinded by a terrifying hope, he raced down Berete. It would be a solid two hours before he could even begin to tackle Triele, and several hours more before he would near the trees—but he must try. He could not be certain until he arrived, but the tenralilies were known to grow beneath the cool shelter of groyu. These flowers were the treasures he sought. Old lore said they could be used to create a serum of health. While he had scoffed at the fantasy-legend since youth, his whole world depended upon saving Marietta. He would fly to the moons if he must.
As he bounded, trees and bushes struck long shadows with narrow, stretching fingers. His eyes and heart jumped as he futilely sought to quell his imagination.
The last sprays of sunset played across the heavens, and at last he glimpsed the beautiful sight. Ahead, not more than a hundred strides up, grew the groyu. Brief relief loosened his knotted gut, but only for a moment. There was still much ahead.
Sim hugged the peak’s wall as he inched forward beside the steep precipice. The drop was enough to choke the breath in his throat, and the cold air stung his lungs and bit at his nose. He willed his smarting eyes forward, and, with heartbeat pounding frantically in his temples, he whispered her name to draw strength.
As he neared a wider section of path, the land shifted under him in a brief tremor. Sim launched his body forward and clung to the side of the cliff, his fingers deep in the crusted soil. His nails tore like soft moss under a boot’s heel, and his fingertips bled. But he did not cry out; he knew Selet was just beginning its games.
He shuffled forward on all fours, trembling. He did not trust his quivering limbs, nor the quaking earth. Eventually he found his way up again, pressed his thin lips together, and rubbed his poor eyes, seeking any image that could reorient him amidst the darkening cliffs. He had lost sight of the trees in the last ascent but knew they must be close.
Sim scrambled in the assumed direction of the copse. He sweat in exertion, but it only chilled in the wind and iced his insides. His fingers numbed and his back arched forward, yet he ignored all, and within minutes he knelt beneath the shadowy glade and was cradling a soft flower in his soiled hands.
The tenralily blossoms surrounded him, their fragrance a gentle waft of sweetness. They were a deep blue that looked gray in the pressing twilight. It reminded him of another time, another world, when he would walk through the gardens of his home and allow his fingertips to trail over delicate petals and green leaves that dangled from soft-scented trees.
He shook himself from the reverie and plunged his pained hands into the rigid earth. The blossom broke and fluttered aside as he burrowed deeply along the trail of root. A span of an arm down, maybe more, the spindly strand met a small, circular pod. Sim tore the root gingerly from the sphere and drew it to his heart. He choked in a stifled sob.
No, Sim ordered to himself. Keep it together.
With trembling fingers, he wrapped the bulb carefully in a soft gray cloth and moved to the other blossoms. He unearthed and stowed three additional pods in cloth and coat. These could mean hope for Marietta. Maybe. He allowed himself a soft sigh of gratitude before steeling his nerves and beginning the descent.
It was difficult work. The moons were low in their courses and still obscured by the tall crests hovering around him, yet he felt a lightness in his steps and a glow sparking up in his heart. She has a chance. My love. She has a chance.
Marietta filled his vision as he blundered through. She was his soumme, his love, his everything. She had been his for nearly five orbits and a joy every passing moment of them. Her auburn hair in the sun, her dancing gray eyes, her lovely features and golden skin. She was more than his love; she was his life.
Sim blinked, realizing suddenly that he was at the base of Triele. The now-bright orbs of the night beamed down and turned both land and rock an eerie gray. He had been unaware of his surroundings and found his stomach flop as he took in the harsh, giant mounts of Berete, Calae, Undiae, and Feree that loomed over him. Sim cautiously turned north and prayed he would be out of the terrisdan and into the lugazzi in a few hours. He had little reason to be optimistic. Selet had disliked him from the start, but when he had taken Marietta, the dislike had transformed into an incomparable hatred.
And this trespass? Who have I to blame now?
Sim’s head dipped in shame, but he fought to rationalize.
I have no choice. None.
A cold unrest poured into him at a new thought. The Three see me...
He shook his head. Have I taken their gods now? he pondered with a sneer. Maybe, when they come to curse me, they can tell me why I was brought here.
Sim could not determine this simple fact. Orbits ago, he had been stolen from his small home on Alatrice. He had entered a cave and barely taken two steps before finding the passage behind him barred. The entrance had morphed to solid stone. The only way out was forward, through the tunnel. It had been a trap, but he had never been able to discern its purpose.
He had attempted to find meaning in this alien land but had been left without understanding. Why was he forced to remain in this strange world? Massada was so other. And while some terrisdans treated his presence with little more than indifference, something about him rubbed the land of Selet raw. Once he had found Marietta, it had soured to complete intolerance.
Marietta had lived in a town curled up in a crook of the river, a young woman of twenty-eight orbits. She had never traveled, had been happy settled there in the comfort of the known, eking out her living by fishing and gardening. She was undeniably loved by Selet, and Sim’s capture of her heart had bitterly stung the land. Marietta may have looked back wistfully, but the two moved to the neutral lands of the lugazzi to begin a fresh life together. Staying was no option. They both knew Selet would never allow Sim to remain.
How beautiful that life had been! Every day he had taken her into his arms and cradled her in gratitude. Massada had never been his home, but Marietta was. His longing for Alatrice ceased the moment she had become his. The only place in all the worlds was right there beside her, comforting her, taking care of her, loving her. Marietta was his bride and would forever be so.
Sim paused to drink from his small water sack. He had barely permitted a moment’s rest before now, so the cool water slid deliciously down his cottony tongue and throat. The moons, Stronta and Veri, were now high, and their light cloaked Massada in wondrous beauty. He skipped any awed mutterings, pushed his sack back into his pack, and urged his heels faster.
Marietta, his head pounded. Marietta.
The trees along the base of the peaks tugged at his clothing and scratched his face and limbs. He was not even in the thick of the forest, but the wood still fought him. He tripped repeatedly over stone and log and became mottled in mud and bruises. His knees were black from both soil and blood, but he did not—no, could not—stop. All that was before him was to continue on and pray that light would pierce the sky quickly to aid him against the felonious land.
Selet, he thought. I hate this cursed place.
It was nearly dawn when he broke through the last barricade of trees, with one final peak—Inelt—to bypass before reaching the lugazzi. Sim’s heart thundered, but he refused to stop.
The sky abruptly burned pink as the morning crept forward. His entire body quivered in chill and exertion.
Move, he ordered his rebelling muscles. Move.
Sim drove his body into a grassy, gray field that stretched around Inelt. It wrapped the base of the peak like a fetid shawl and reeked of decay and night. Dew from the chest-high ashen blades drenched his clothing, but he noted the damp and the stink in a detached way. He was practically numb in the monotonous purpose that compelled him.
But then something stung him back to his senses, and even made him pause in stride. The tall gray grasses swayed in the dawn’s breezes as if they were an orchestra following a conductor’s baton. Back they brushed, forward they dipped. There was a beauty, a cadence to it all, but it left him with an uncanny tingle on his neck.
I’m like a wounded antelope limping into a crouching pride.
He stared dumbly and waited, his spine still prickling. Adrenaline pushed his eyes left and right in a darting dance, and his fingers twitched in the cold. There was something disturbingly askew, even if his dulled mind could not wholly grasp it. He waited, but the anxiety refused to abate; there would be no reasoning with fear this morning. Sim sighed and shifted course to the peak. If he could not circumvent the bluff, he must ascend.
He scrambled up the rocky face using both hands and feet. As his eyes roved back to the ashy grasses, he frantically pushed his body higher along the craggy ascent. The slope was brutally steep and he moved fast, not prudently. He felt his mortality in every bone. Death whispered to him from those fields.
After several grueling hours, Sim managed to drag himself over the crown of Inelt and feast his eyes upon the sight ahead. Once he cleared the mount, it was only a matrole, maybe two, to the lugazzi. The lovely, neutral lands spread out from Lake Ziel like an oasis of life. His heart lifted in hope. Just a few matroles and he would be free of Selet, possibly forever.
Soon, and so close.
What then? What’ll Marietta say when she learns you stole them?
“Hush,” he muttered to himself. “It’s done.”
He dropped to his backside and, with heels and hands at a slant, began to descend the mountain’s flank. It sloped down sharply, and he battled at every passing minute to not become one with the tumble of scree and rubble that spilled down because of his movements. The wind whistled piercingly in his ear, and his chest—still soaked through—became a bed of ice. He feared losing his core heat, but there was no way that he could stop to dry and build a fire.
Death dogs my heels, Sim thought grimly.
“But I am faster,” he mumbled, and he spurred himself on.
When Sim had progressed about halfway down the face, the land crumbled beneath him without even a whisper. Dirt, limbs, and rock fell below into a cavern of darkness. He heard the awful crack of bone and felt a gruesome pain before writhing into unconsciousness.
When Sim awoke, he could not move. The sun shone down into his cold hole and cruelly revealed the fate of his night’s travels: this was more than likely the pit in which he would die. And with his death, Marietta would be lost forever.
I’ve failed her, he thought, and wept.
Garriel mopped the brow of the ashen woman, clucking her tongue in frustration. In her thirty-two orbits as a nurse, she had never seen such a mysterious decline in health. She had acted as midwife, herbalist, and bone-setter for the local community since she had reached womanhood and had grown to consider herself knowledgeable, yet nothing could have prepared her for the bizarre circumstances of Marietta.
Marietta had been a vibrant, healthy woman, with a smile ever upon her lips, offering hospitality to all, pulling her soumme in for a kiss—regardless of the company. Now, she lay delirious and thrashing, with chestnut-red locks clinging sickly to pale cheeks and neck. The skin around her fingernails was as black as mold. She mumbled madness under a sour breath, and her gray eyes, listless and unseeing, had begun to lose their color: streaks of black filled her irises like oil in a pool. She had not eaten for days, and her skin had begun to shrink up tightly around her bones. She gave off the stink of muscle devouring itself. Death had hung his hat and was loathe to take his exit alone.
Garriel arched her body forward to hear; a low voice issued from the frail creature.
“In a hole. You must send seal. You must. A hole. In the mountain. The mountain has a hole. A hole. But the fields are gray. He knew and so the hole ate him...” Marietta continued to mutter deliriously, and Garriel straightened.
Such a pity, the nurse thought. She was beautiful indeed--a woman of benere.
Was? The morbidity of Garriel’s thoughts iced her spine, and she hugged her thick frame with doughy arms. If only Sim could return in time. She cannot have much left. Why did he go on this foolish hunt?
Marietta thrashed in the bed, agitated and restless. “Sim! Get Sim! The hole. He knew. The hole ate him anyway.” Her arms danced wildly, and her screams grew more pronounced.
Garriel hushed her and drew close with a cup. “Drink this, Mari. Drink.” Her voice was soothing as she spooned the warm liquid and drew it to Marietta’s full lips, which were becoming even now.
An astonishingly strong hand flicked up and gripped Garriel’s arm, steely gray-black eyes finding her own. Broth slopped onto the sheets, and Garriel gasped; Marietta looked almost like herself in that moment.
“Is this the milk of the tenralily? Selet allowed it? It isn’t just a tale?” she asked. “You sent seal? What of the hole and the gray?”
Garriel stared stupidly at the woman, but in another moment Marietta’s eyes rolled lazily back, and she screamed before collapsing into her salty bedclothes.
“Shhhhhh. Don’t fear, Mari. I’m right here.”
“It is inside me. I can’t make it leave. Why won’t it leave?”
“Hush, Mari. Hush.”
“Take it out. Please. I didn’t realize when it asked to come in what it was. Make it leave.”
“But Sim?” Marietta persisted. Her eyes flicked back in another moment of lucidity.
“Take this, child.” Again she offered the spoonful of warm medicine.
Marietta refused. “Is this from Sim? The milk?” Her eyes darkened further, and she moaned.
“Yes, yes,” Garriel lied. “Sim is resting in the next room. He brought this for you. We made the tenralily milk.” The words burned in the nurse’s chest, and guilt flushed her cheeks. Am I so base that I utter lies to a woman in her coffin?
The mollified Marietta relaxed and closed her eyes, finally allowing the broth to pass her lips. Her body eased into the sheets as the drugs began to act upon both nerves and pain.
Before the narcotic had fully taken effect, though, Marietta’s lips pulled back over her teeth into a snarl, and her eyes snapped open and bore darkly into Garriel. The dark pools had nearly overtaken the gray. “Your lies are poison. And now we’re all dead.”
She spat up into Garriel’s face. Garriel wiped the hot, putrid mucus from her stunned features and stared stupefied at her fingers.
But she’s crazy. The sickness has taken her sense... She needs the medicine. She’s out of her mind.
Three, help me...
Garriel ignored her fretting stomach and spooned more into Marietta’s mouth. She doesn’t know what she says.
The narcotic took hold. Marietta’s limbs sagged in sleep, and her face drooped to the side, finally resting. Her calmed breaths rose up and down in her thin chest.
The movement and new lull served to allay Garriel’s doubts.
Sim will return soon, she reassured herself. He will be back for her.
Sim called out in the breeze to her, to his Marietta. It sounded more like a strangled whisper than words. “My dear, I am here. I am here. I know you can hear me. I am here. Send seal, send help. I am trapped on Inelt. My legs are both broken. I have your tenralily pods. I have your health! Save me, and I will save you too.” He kissed the air and prayed with his whole being that she could hear him.
She can hear me. I know she can. She can.
He unclenched his jaw—the pain of his legs was nearly unbearable—and yelled again. There must be life outside of this cursed land somewhere. Wolves, humans, juile, anyone.
Selet rumbled. Its anger was hot beneath him, but clearly mixed within it was a gloating laugh. It jolted terror through his person.
A slithering sigh came up from the hard soil: You should have left.
Sim screamed, knowing his end would come soon.
Garriel unfolded the black lace sheet upon the motionless bed. Dawn shone in with a yellow, unfeeling light as she gently pulled the delicate fabric over stiff legs, blackened fingernails, cold chest.
Before shrouding the face, the nurse bent down with a tender kiss. Her tears fell upon the smooth skin, and she shook as she stifled her grief.
The face was gaunt and white as milk, yet the now fully black eyes peered accusingly at her. She remembered how her brother had tried to scare her when they were children: “The dead know. They know and remember.” Garriel swallowed and hastily closed the eyelids. She swept the dark fabric up and covered the wavy auburn hair. She crept back and lowered herself down to both knees before the bed and black lace.
“Your life was bountiful, may death’s reins only lead you to greater heights.”
She rose, hugging her own body. Her limbs felt cold, despite the warm seasonal air. The boy in the other room wailed, hungry. She washed and rushed in, scooping him into a close cradle. It was a comfort to hold him in the storm of death, but her palate was dry and bitter; he was motherless and his father was without a soumme.
“Darse, Darse, Darse. Shhhhhhh,” She rocked and drew a bottle to his delicate lips. He choked back and cried, piercing the air with cries for his mother’s breast.
“No more, dear one. No more. She’s gone.” Her sobs racked her as she walked the room trying to soothe him to sleep. “No more.”
That night Sim quivered like a dying wick. His skin was icy to the touch and his body weak. Guilt had nudged and gnawed at his insides until his soul had all but collapsed within him. He was unaccustomed to crying, yet here in the secret darkness of his own tomb, he sobbed and heaved uninhibited
Sim finally understood and accepted his folly, and the shame clothed him with deeper grief.
If she knew what I have done...
And all because of those old crones’ stories.
Sim extracted the gray parcel from his coat and peered at it with both loathing and desire. His hand lingered hesitantly, but suddenly he surrendered. He unwrapped the cloth and tilted his palm into a slide. The pods fell beside the heap of his crushed body with soft thuds. They rolled gently away.
“Selet... I...” he whispered. “I stole from you. I did it for Marietta... but it was still wrong. I’m sorry...” His voice felt changed, as though it were no longer his own. “I chased after a lie… I wish I’d stayed with her during her last moments. I’ve lost her now, surely.”
He lay back and drank of regret and self-loathing.
The hole, while still unpleasant, began to change. It no longer stifled him with the tightening walls of fury, but seemed to ease back and even widen. The ground warmed slightly under his body, and his skin soaked it up greedily.
Is it just my own peace returning? Or is Selet changing?
The ground itself answered him, and although he had been swallowed in violence, he was disgorged in gentleness. The soil multiplied and mounded beneath him like the surface atop a mole tunnel, and it carried his body up until he was level with the path. Selet stretched out before him again, and he could see the lugazzi with streaming eyes. The stars shone down in loveliness; the moons, in glory. He inhaled the sweet air drifting from Ziel’s breezes.
As clearly as his own voice, Selet hissed, “Take a tenralily. One. And leave. Never return. Ever.”
His jaw opened in awe, and closed as a new hope sprung alive within his chest. The land would never love him, but he was free. A pod rolled to his broken limbs, and he clutched it beneath white knuckles.
“It won’t work,” Selet said with derision. “Nothing can stop malitas.”
Sim ignored the jab and bowed his head and whispered in Massadan fashion, “Your mercy is my bounty.”
“I will send aid shortly,” the terrisdan whirred. “Then get out.”
Sim clung to the tiny hope. She has a chance. Maybe.
What a fool, this woman, the spirit thought, hovering over Garriel as she clung to the child in the nursery. I think I shall still have some fun. There is much amusement for me here.
It returned to the bedroom and re-entered Marietta’s cooled body. The sensation was strange, but somehow appealing. It no longer had to tear through her soul for control. All that fought back now were stiff limbs.
Yes, I will do this next time. Oh, how I hated her squirming.
The spirit tugged the black lace from its face with a swift movement. It lowered itself from the bed with catlike grace and padded lightly across the room to a small chest of drawers. With hands beginning to blacken, it gripped the small knife that lay on its worn surface. A cold, evil smile spread upon its lips, but its eyes remained lifeless and black. It could smell the early reek of the body decomposing. It was revolting, but humor served to outweigh the fleshly discomforts.
I could do this often. Indeed. She taught me enough while alive.
It opened the penknife and began to etch upon the floor boards. The motions were new, but it seemed to find a rhythm, as if the woman’s original skills had seeped into the intruder when they had shared one flesh and life. It soon completed its task.
It grasped the black lace from the bed and pulled until the cloth cascaded down to cover the flesh.
The spirit released its hold on the dead woman, whose skin grew blacker with every passing moment, and lifted up above her body.
Pleasure bubbled in its core. I think that should do.
It lingered in wait, pondering. As if the fabled tenralilies could stop me! Nothing could end the fire I bring.
I will destroy the flowers, it thought smugly. I want to crush every hope these bugs have. Even the imagined ones.
Several hours elapsed before Garriel returned. She laid Darse down and reluctantly moved to the bedchamber to tend to the corpse.
I’ll at least pull her outside. The stench’ll be too much by morning, the nurse thought.
When Garriel entered, however, the lifeless body lay on the floor. Cold ran through her veins. Her pulse quickened, but she leaned forward to peer upon the strange sight more closely. She noticed a small knife sticking up boldly from the floorboards like a dart in a bull’s-eye. And then her breath left her.
Etched into the floor was a single word: LIAR.