A curse spreads among the people; 'blight' ravages the land. (Old Draft.)
| I found the pain oddly comforting; it blurred all thought. When the acolyte dropped me to my knees, I was shocked to see that the monastery hill had a carpet of grass: black, like the blight, but soft and alive. "I see that you have your own ability to push back the blight, where you want to."
The acolyte huffed. "This waste is forbidden. Seven men died in the inquest. No answers were found. Good riddance to them. Now, get up."
I obliged. "Where are you taking me?"
He gripped my arm, holding so tight as to leave it numb. "To my leader."
"Good. I need to speak with Gregor."
He tried to laugh, but it came out as a hacking cough. "You'll complete your business with that peasant soon enough. First, we speak to the leader."
He jerked me down to my knees. "No, you didn't. Think. Now, be a good little peasant and silent."
He led down dusty corridors to a small room. In it an easel and a dark-eyed man that looked like a full-grown image of my son. He wore the same robes as the acolytes, but he still had his youth and health, and a warmth in his aura. "Welcome, my child. Forgive Brother Barren's brutality. His work serves the greater good."
"Why have you brought me here?"
"Please, sit down. I have come far to see you, and have much I wish to discuss."
I shook my head. "I do not wish to share pleasantries. I only want to speak about my son."
He nodded. "Of course. That can be arranged, though the price will be more than you are willing to pay."
"So you'll let him go?"
"That decision is for you to make. A change of leadership is required."
"Not my concern. Give me my son."
"Carolie, my child, I told you, you can have that. But first, you must get rid of Gregor."
"What are you talking about? Murder?" I scoffed. "Are you going to give me poison, or something? I'll have none of it."
His voice went soft, deeply compassionate. "I am sorry for what will befall you. You are what, twenty? In time, you will see things my way." He gestured to Barren. "There's no point in further parley. Take her to the initiation chamber, and give her the instruction."
"I will not become one of you."
As he looked at me, I saw sadness, and a pride I could not account for. "Oh, how I wish that were true, my child."
Brother Barren dragged me, in his iron-clawed way, to a dark room with a bar on the outside. Inside was a meditation chamber, with strange, shimmering scratches on the wall.
He pulled me back, to hiss in my ear. "Soren feels hope for you, but I see you as you are. Too good for us." He threw me in the room, head first. Hands still tied, I stumbled and fell on my face.
I rolled over to a sitting position. "What have I done to earn your hatred?"
"My hatred? You disdain me with every breath." He kicked me in the teeth, knocking me back. "I will revel in your horror as you watch Gregor bleed your son to death, day after day."
"That's not going to happen."
He shrugged. "Great. That's what Soren hopes for, and frankly, I do, too. In the long run, watching you lower yourself to our level will be infinitely more satisfying."
I had never imagined such hatred; I would rather die than feel that way. "I feel sorry for you."
He hopped toward me, as if he were going to kick me again, and then thought better of it. "That's what I'm talking about. Sick, sweet, arrogance. What will it take to bring out something human in you? Some rage, some indignation?" He balled up his fists in frustration. "Those words on the wall are the key, your one hope in this. I'd read them to you, like Soren asked— but I think I'd rather watch Carl fry a few days first." He slammed the door and barred the way.
My head ached from thinking. Ironically, for the first time I could say I was no longer being 'kept in the dark' as I sat in the utter blackness of that room. The only apparent light was the twinkling green scratches on the wall, which shone like baleful stars on a terrible night.
I could recognize that they were writing, much like Verdenten's books, but more than that. They spoke to me. I could hear them as well as see them, but I did not understand. That's not right. I could not remember: something old, from before I became Carolie; from another life.
They abandoned me there. It seemed as good a time as any to open Verdenten's 'key to knowledge.' I pulled my hands. The knot was tight, too tight to get out of, but it unraveled at my wish. As his cord released me, Verdenten's spell soaked in through my wrists, with a tingling sensation on my hands and arms.
In that horrible instant I understood what Barren had been talking about. As I gazed on the starry runes, they began to fill my head. The blight was not a disease. It was the hunger of the acolytes, a curse that destroyed all as it fed. These runes described how to devour the life from anything within reach, to become death himself.
Horrified, I closed my eyes, but still I saw them. I clamped my hands over my ears, but the instructions were already inside, whispering and echoing in my head— at least, some of them. I held my breath, for fear that I might smell the writing, as strange as that sounds.
As I hid, curled up and trembling, I began to remember or dream something that had really happened. I saw an easel, and a man's hand drawing the same marks on the canvas, as if it were my own. Swirling about me, like a tree-sized, black serpent, I recognized the dragon from Gregor's robe: a mythical creature called "the black dragon king." The voice spoke, large as a waterfall, and as powerful as an earthquake, dictating the words of the text. My hand drew the words, stroke by stroke.
This had been long ago, centuries, but I knew the hand that penned the script. I had seen it only minutes ago: the hand of Soren.
I curled up tighter, fighting the knowledge with all my might. I did not want to know how to sap the world, to render it empty, dead and dry.
Then Verdenten's words came to mind. "Knowledge is never evil," he had said, many times. "It can point the way, but such temptation, once resisted, fortifies our souls." I never understood, until now, how knowing a thing might seem evil.
I can't know what to do until I know what there is to know, I reasoned. Carl needs me now; I can't afford the luxury of ignorance. By force of will I took a deep breath, and opened my eyes, fearing that as I did so, I sacrificed everything I believed in, and became everything I despised.
I could see nothing— nothing at all— through tears that felt like my soul fleeing me in disgust. It did not matter. The dream continued, each stroke of Soren's hand burning in my mind as it landed on the canvas. It was all foreign, hopelessly complex and monstrous, but I understood this: I had to find the fangs of my soul. Once I understood what that meant, I knew they were there. They had been all along.
Carolie, her grace, the loving duchess of Westwood Keep not only did not survive that revelation, she had never existed. I had no more been that mewling, limited girl than Kissla had been a terrified washerwoman: it was only that I had believed my charade— a nicer, in every sense of the word.
At that moment, the tears felt cleansing, like those of a newborn, or the struggle of a worm exiting its cocoon as a butterfly. I could now face Gregor and Soren as equals, neither above nor below.
I sat in the initiation cell for some time, with neither food nor drink. The gnawing hunger amused and pleased me, a sole, stubborn holdout of normalcy. I did not suspect it might be anything else, nor did I heal them away.
When at last Barren arrived, his bent frame shortened several inches as I finally stood tall. I detected a hint of approval in the man's grimace. He grabbed me from behind the shoulder with his pinching grasp, and whispered in my ear. "Did I misjudge the high and mighty?" He forced me forward with all the delicacy I had come to expect.
Gregor sat slumped over in a chair, his dark hood obscuring his face. He motioned to the chair facing him. His voice struggled to produce its rasping noise. "I see you have done some reading." He did not even look up.
Barren released me and I sat down. I could see the Hunger had done to him what the Harvest had done to the landscape: reduced them to empty shells. I understood how, driven by the pangs of that curse, any man might try to devour the world. I nodded agreement.
"By now I am weary of life. I seek only to stave off the damage." He coughed, and looked at the window. "The promise of power and wisdom to a young peasant boy was too much to turn down. Oh, but how I have fallen from that low perch."
"I can help you. Let me in. The Hunger cannot be fed, but it can be healed."
"There are just two ways to relieve my suffering. I can work the Harvest, or be the Harvest. Barren has told you my plan, has he not? And Soren, what did he have to say?"
I slipped on Kissla's ring, and stood. "Don't you see? What is burned out and empty can be refilled. Where there is life, there is hope. I can take you there."
He scowled, and struggled to rise. "Parlor tricks will not deter me in this. You can do this my way, or your way. Harvest me, or I will Harvest your boy. Again and again, day after day, until the sun burns itself out of fuel and falls into the earth."
"No. That will not happen."
"Good. Soren was right to teach you the Harvest. You are strong; you will spread the cleansing blight to all corners of the earth. At last, all will know peace everlasting." He stood, though his knees shook with the effort.
I sought out my new found spiritual fangs, studied them. They were simply a connection, a more aggressive form of contact than I had used, but no more than a way to join with another life. What could be taken, could also be given.
I whispered, "You do not know what you are saying. I will teach."
"Arrogance, that is what I have lacked. I did not have the will to take what was mine. Noble blood is much more suited to our mission."
I reached out my hand, and the violet tendrils flung out at him, burrowing deep into him, seeking out the cold, black ulcer and sealing it as I willed the burning sweetness to flow into him, as it should have from the beginning.
Instinctively, he flung his own tendrils at me, greedily nursing himself to health. Time flew backward. His shoulders rose and softened as the flesh returned. Grey hair sprouted and turned black. His skin tightened and darkened. His lips filled and showed a hint of a smile.
When we released our fey embrace, I saw a man I did not recognize: young, strong, and good. No longer did I feel the chill in his presence.
"I have been a fool. The arrogance I saw in you was that of truth, so far above my despair." He raised his hands as if to offer a hug, but not so high. "How can I thank you?"
"We must undo this blight and restore your acolytes."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk," came Barren's voice behind me. Barren had wheeled my son in, strapped to a wheel barrow. "I was right about you. You think this changes anything? False hope only torments a man." Barren strode toward Gregor, black tendrils licking at the renewed man, reducing him.
Gregor moaned horribly, losing all the strength I had granted, before he produced a dagger. All the black tendrils set upon the blade like a lightning rod. Barren's look of hatred twisted into anguish, and he began to pull away. The more he pulled, the stronger the tendrils seemed.
When Gregor stabbed, Brother Barren collapsed in a pile of blighted dust.
At that, Gregor found the nearest seat, and collapsed backward into it, sheathing his dagger. "I am sorry, your grace. I have not lived up to your hopes; have returned to Soren's teachings. You still have the choice before you."
Soren's voice joined us. "Just as well," he said, looking at the pile of dust that was Barren. "It was selfish of me to preserve him. My purpose is to end suffering, not to propagate it."
Not nearly as prone to indignation as I had been the day before, I cocked an eyebrow. "Stop teaching the Harvest. That would end it."
"Ah, the naiveté of youth, my child," he said, touching me on the shoulder.
I winced from the damage Barren had done.
His mouth fell open in surprise. "You didn't heal yourself? I thought surely..." He touched me with his spirit, soothing and rebuilding my damaged muscles and flesh.
"I don't understand you. If you can reach the source, why do you need the Harvest?"
He laughed, rueful. "'Everybody gets better.' That's what you say, isn't it? It's what I said, for so many years. But don't you see? It doesn't last forever. All you can do is prolong their suffering."
"So instead, you spread death and horror?"
He held up a handful of Barren's remains. "Can't you feel the relief? Can you say he's not better off, plain better?"
As much as I disliked Barren, this horrified me. How could anyone call that an improvement? "But he is dead!"
Soren looked up at me, pleading me to understand, then shook his head sadly. He turned, to see Drensen behind him, sword drawn. With a single stroke, Drensen slew Soren.
I ran to Drensen, grabbed him in my arms, overwhelmed with relief. "You came for me!"
Gregor approached my son, wrapped him in violet tendrils of power.
Drensen pulled the back of my shirt, threw me off, and swung at Gregor before I even registered Gregor's action. Too late, the sword struck an empty robe as Gregor's dagger clattered to the ground: the old man had poured the last of his essence into my son.
Still overwhelmed and reckless, I rushed to my son’s side, only to be barred by Drensen's outstretched arm.
"My son! You can't still want me away from him."
"I advise caution now. He may be dangerous."
"The blight lies dead at your feet, and, hello! -this is my son we're talking about. How can you think anything bad of him?"
"Not him, Gregor. No telling what the old sorcerer had in mind. Spellcraft lore suggests that we should take care."
I blanched. Why had the old man sacrificed himself? I stuttered. "Ah, I didn't think of- of that. Why didn't I think of that?" It was my turn to collapse weakly into the chair.
Drensen smirked, an understanding, gently-mocking look. "My fault. Until now, you've never dealt with any spirit darker than a bottle of whiskey."
All I could do was nod and try not to think.
He picked me up to hug me, and I welcomed it, dumbly noting that my boy had escaped his bonds and was running wildly around the room. "Now you've had your taste of the family business. How do you like it?"
"Milord, I think I've never liked anything less."
"Good. That's a good start."
Continue with the *unfinished* next chapter... "Chapter 2: Supply Lines"
Or read about the events leading to Kissla's disastrous love life: LGBT "My Fairy-tale Godfather"