Beneath the Tree
The earth shook.
Quaking, shuddering, tearing. He could feel the power seep from the cracks, emanating from the weeping, protesting foundations.
You should stop. You don’t understand; you cannot comprehend what you raise.
He ignored the whispered warnings, ignored everything except the rising energy, the lingering stench of decay and shadows clinging to the stagnant air around him. It became difficult to breathe, difficult to continue the muttered incantations that stained his tongue and clacked against his teeth.
We weep for your ignorance, wizard. We weep for your fate.
He could barely keep his ground as large rents cracked the earth open. As if massive claws scratched the world, he watched viscous liquid ooze from beneath him, around the gnarled, twisted excuse for a tree, and knew that it was blood. Blood from those he'd murdered, risen in response to the demon that waited beneath the tree.
His hands clenched around the porcelain rose, digging it into his skin as the power reached out toward it. The thorns clung to his palm, ripping lines that bled into the rivulets that marred the glass stem. Each drop echoed around him, clenching against his chest like it’s own massive heartbeat.
He could hear screaming on the rising wind, the sounds of those he’d killed to raise the demon. The women, the children….all rose in cacophonous chorus to the sky. It was strangely beautiful how each pained cry complemented the other, rising and falling to his muttered song in an unrecognizable guttural language.
His hand convulsed, and the rose stem snapped.
Complete. Perfect. The old man looked at the scarred hillside where the wizened, contorted tree rose in signal. He could only see the tears in the earth that originated from the grave and the blood that saturated the ground, but there was no wind, no sound, no power that called in such a terrible voice he wanted to weep.
There was nothing.
He gave a hoarse, defeated yell, dropping to his knees. The ground was wet—soft—and it soaked into his pants.
“I was promised power! Promised!” He beat at the ground with one hand, the snapped rose statue in another. “You owe me for all I fed you!”
The tree shook as if in answer and he looked at it. Looked at the high roots that swept upward and out in curling tendrils, at the point of each branch that oozed viscous liquid. The branches groaned and swayed in a nonexistent wind, casting sickly shadows across his face. His breath caught in his throat, his angry words dying before they could pass from his cracked lips. The air was full of the smell of sweet decay that reminded him of dried roses.
In the depths of the tree, something moved.
His eyes narrowed, trying to catch what shook the roots, where no light could reach.
I’ve been called to answer. The voice that spoke resonated within his mind, carried along the sickly sweet stench of decay. He looked at the pieces of the rose figurine in his hand and watched the bright colors smeared with his blood begin to darken. Slowly, the colors leached from the innocent glass, dripping from his hand and to the ground. He dropped the figurine, trying to wipe the color away from his hand.
What emerged from beneath the tree seemed too broken to move, too misshapen, too…He couldn’t finish the thought.
The skin was smooth, oily and reflective, reminiscent of the shell of a beetle. Small faces laid imprinted against the skin, as if pressed against the pane of window. The hands were tiny, with claws that seemed too long to belong to such a dainty, gangly arm. The legs hunched, spreading to spines that seemed to connect and gave the illusion of serpents. The only color was the pale blue eyes, a color too perfect to exist.
It crawled on its knees to him, moving in contortions that he couldn’t help but watch. He could see the cruel semblance of curves, and his eyes trailed the body to look for the beauty he’d been promised.
The demon leaned forward and stroked a claw down the side of his face. A large gash opened—stinging and bleeding profusely into his beard. He struggled not to cry out. A smile adorned the illusion of a face on the demon as she watched his pain dance behind his eyes.
“I was promised power, demon, if I raised you. I was promised a queen, a beauty…” He didn’t finish his sentence as she tilted her head.
“Promised beauty? Such quaint entices, old man. Do you hear those that suffered for me call to you?”
He could hear the screams rise again in the air, this time twisted into the semblance of his name.
“I raised you; you are mine to command.”
She laughed, the sound mocking, cruel like the call of ravens. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
I will give you what you promised, but did you truly understand what you desired? She raked a hand down his chest, tearing his shirt away. You will feel pleasure indescribable,"a cloy whisper that clung and burrowed into his mind, "pain beyond comprehension. Your soul will reside in me in power as I take this world as my own.
“No…” the horrified word was cut off as she forced his mouth against his. Her arms, her claws, drew him closer until he could feel every part of her body. She kissed him, deeply and completely and despite his protestations, his body gave in to her will.
The last thing he saw was her eyes—perfect, pale and blue—above him while the screams rode the air.
Anora walked through the woods, her head hung low, the basket clutched firmly in her hands. Months of prayer to bring a child to this world, and all in vain.
The cold months of winter pressed in on the world, and she knew it was only a matter of time before her husband gave up on her. The priests had told him it was her fault; her faith was not strong enough.
Tears leaked from her eyes, unbidden and ignored. Did she not pray every night? Did she not stay on her knees until they were scraped and bloody? She’d given her body to her husband nightly, praying that it was this night, this time that she bore a child.
The crying broke through her thoughts and she looked up, her eyes narrowing to see past the shadows of the path. The bare trees did nothing to let her see where the sound came from.
After a moment of hesitation, she stepped from the path, following the sound to the top of a hill cleared of all trees except one--a poor, broken excuse of a willow that had long since died. The hill seemed a recent victim of a storm, with large mounds of freshly turned dirt. The tree had been half ripped from the earth and for a moment, Anora was appalled at the pathetic sight of its death. Until she noticed what lay beneath the dead edge of broken roots. A swaddled blanket—alone and abandoned.
The poor babe, she thought, disgusted at the thought that someone would abandon such a miracle. She bent over the bundle, pulling the blanket away to reveal a naked girl infant, with midnight hair and perfect, pale blue eyes.
Anora smiled, sent a silent prayer to God, and picked the child up.
“My husband will be so happy,” she whispered.
The wind picked up, causing Anora to shiver and she drew her new child to her chest to protect her, not catching the ancient, knowing smile that now adorned the baby's face.
In the shadows, the blue eyes glinted.
Word Count 1,305