Stygian Cells

Photo by Nuno Antunes on Unsplash

This is a part of my Fourth Age Witches series; you can find them all here.

“What do you mean, ‘your bones are no good here’?” Festree said, confused. “These are third-age roach skeletons, they’re worth at least a few old wyrds.” She picked up the bones to emphasize her point, showing their intricate branching structures. It had taken her nearly three days to prepare them, and these were the good ones; the rest had been thrown into a lacklustre stew as spice. Her stomach still roiled when she thought of it.

“I’ll tell you what, little witch-” The hag hacked horribly, her misshapen, furred body wracked by the effort, “-you cure me of this wretched cough, and I’ll give you what you want.” She rubbed at her throat for effect.

Festree rolled her eyes, then scooped the bones back into a pouch. “Fine.” She drew herself level with the stooped woman’s eyes. “But if I find out these wyrds are bunk, I’ll hex you with my period cramps for three moons, you old blister.”

Carlisle wrinkled their nose, but said nothing as Festree cleared a spot on the ground.

Festree drew out an old boning knife to begin the ritual, her voice low and ancient. “By the flesh and blood we both share, with the old world’s fury and the new world’s power, I bind us. I will take on illness from your body to fulfill our contract. If either of us should fail in this, the knife will know.” The knife itself was made of old-world metal and the mandible of a fourth-age Beetle Demon, and had supped on so much blood it had grown fat with it, gaining weight in more than one sense.

She drew it across her cheek with a flick, then moved it to the hag’s cheek with slow purpose. For her part, the hag said nothing, smiling greedily as the knife left a thin trail of blood along her face.

There was a tense moment in the silence: Festree staring down the hag, the knife pulsing and churning as it slowly absorbed the blood, hissing like an insect; Carlisle fidgeting with their buttons, a calm but frustrated look on their face; the ache of the wound on her cheek, dribbling down to her jaw.

Then the knife exhaled, and a sweet-smelling mist issued up from it. “Guess we were both telling the truth, hag.”

The hag nodded, her grin even wider, and she rubbed at her throat as the cough fully caught in Festree’s, causing her to double over in a fit. Carlisle rubbed at her back gingerly with one hand, opening their other palm toward the woman. Whispering in some elder tongue, runes slipped off the hag’s tongue and floated lazily – like burnt paper in the breeze, Festree noted between coughs – into Carlisle’s waiting hands, dissolving as snow on a stove.

“Right. Off with you, witches.” The hag commanded, shooing them away from her wagon. “There’s a storm on the rise and a bottle of port calling my name!” With that, the hag mounted her junk-steed and whipped its reins, cackling off into the distance in her nasally voice.

“Oh, Fes…” Carlisle clucked their tongue and knelt down over the now-prostrate Festree. “Was that really worth it, you dummy?”

The coughing had subsided a few minutes ago, but lying down felt like a blessing after that. “Well, we weren’t getting those wyrds otherwise, and I’m not going back empty handed, Carlisle.”

“I just hope they work. It wouldn’t be the first time a wyrd passed out of the world.”

Festree winced at the remark, and instinctively gripped her arm, still not fully healed from that last attempt. “I know. But we can handle it.” She laid her hand over Carlisle’s, looking them over. Their pretty blue dress was muddy around the bottom, their waistcoat singed in a few places, the holes lining up with their oversized greatcoat; even their hair still bore the curse of the last beast they’d tried to raise.

“And if we can’t…”

“I know, Fes.” Carlisle nodded, looking her over critically; it made Festree blush in frustration and a little shame. She wasn’t much better off, her coat and hat in tatters, three large gashes across her shirt and her skirt had become more of a performance piece than functional clothing. They’d been through hell, and they were on their last legs. “I believe we’ll do this.” Carlisle finished, resting their head on Festree’s.

Festree said nothing, only nodded against their forehead. She was listening to the thunder in the distance.

It smelled like burnt water.

This was the last beast in the hills they could reach, and with the festival in only four days, it was also their last shot to get a story worth sharing. The problem was, it was also the oldest skull Festree had seen this side of Inverness – or what was left of it.

“There’s still some life in these old bones.” Festree nodded, though she wasn’t sure it would be enough. “Not like we have any other options.”

“And maybe there’s a few stories left, if our host cares to share!” Carlisle smiled at her, and she felt a little of her tension dissolve.

The thing was taller than a doorway and twice as wide, bearing all the cuts and growths as a hundred other skeletons across the dale. But this one looked like it had been here since the first days; maybe before that. Her fellsight didn’t show her more than the dimmest glimmer in the beast’s three eyes, but the stygian cells within it still glowed with enough life to keep them safe from the storm. Small comfort, these days.

It gave Festree a shiver to think what memories these remains might hold.

The two went through the usual rites in a flurry as the clouds pressed closer, eager to set up protection from the hot rains. Carlisle wove the last of their pixie silk into a suitable mat for them while Festree cleaned and cleansed the worst of the blightgrass from the skull’s interior. She kept some of it for later, tucked in beside the fused glass from the beach at Morar, which kept the energies from getting rowdy. Carlisle coaxed the smoking embers of their last fire back to life, their gentle fingers massaging the flame out of them. Together they set up a tarp with some rope made from kelpie guts, and wrote a blessing on it in charcoal to keep the rains at bay. Finally safe, Festree settled in around their camp stove and waited for the water to boil while Carlisle prepared some herbs.

“If our host be so kind as to shield us from the night, then we will share our supper and happiest memory with thee.” They both spoke as one, and their words carried a charge that spat and crackled in the air, hanging above them as it waited for the beast’s silent reply.

Festree breathed raggedly; that cough she’d taken from the hag wasn’t healing right. She gulped down another mouthful of the broth that now bubbled in the pot and winced as it went down, gazing up at the wyrds in the air.

These better be the right wyrds. She didn’t know how much more punishment she could take before she gave up. Carlisle kept her together, much as she did for them, but neither of them were witches beyond a spit and a prayer in their ‘clave. This was their big chance to prove themselves, or die trying.

She didn’t care for the second option.

Carlisle, as if reading her thoughts, was humming up a cantrip of protective iron with a railroad spike and some of the devil’s ginger from their trip up Suilven mountain. They wove magic so easily, it was a wonder they didn’t have a spot on the witch’s council. Festree knew a few reasons why, including Carlisle’s fathers.

But they’d stuck with Festree instead, keen to see what lie beyond the hold’s walls and barriers, and Festree had been more than happy to have the company. For her, it had been a boon; her fellsight was decent, but she had no formal training with spells and still botched her cantrips from time to time. She’d nearly set fire to the dinner a few times, but she knew she was getting better, thanks to Carlisle’s careful teaching and positive manner.

Festree was willing to perform the kinds of magic Carlisle had no taste for, including blood pacts and the odd hex. Things were different out here than in the conclave, and the familiar rules Carlisle held close had to be bent sometimes if either of them were going to survive the trip.

The wyrds above them suddenly sparked a deep red, and fell like rocks, plunking into the soup and rattling around as the temperature inside the pot skyrocketed. The soup was boiled off in a minute, and behind her the Faustian magic inside those ancient tubes began to glow intently, full and content. The deal was struck. Both witches breathed a sigh of relief, and Festree began to cough again.

A cool wind blew in as the the rains started, but their spells and tarp kept the worst of it out. Their host satisfied, they made themselves another meal and dug in, making a proper feast out of their scavenged food and herbs. Carlisle was grinning so hard it looked like they’d cracked, and it was hard not to share their enthusiasm.

Now as sated as the beast, they rested on the pixie silk mat and stared up at the skull’s underside, letting their minds wander and float free above them. “If you get lost,” Carlisle whispered, from some far-off place, “think of Grandma Tuck’s old garden. I’ll find you there.”

That was the last Festree heard from the real world as she slipped into her memories. The beast they sheltered within was due a happy memory, but it didn’t know it was going to share one with them as well. Or so she hoped.

She wove the spell in a dream-like state, half out of her body and half someplace else; the memories she walked through were full of sound and smell and emotion, but she ignored them. She was looking for the beast’s presence with her fellsight, the entire world tinged a dark blue-purple as she scoured the places between thoughts. After some false starts, she finally saw the eldritch red glow that their host had shone with, twinkling around her recent memories as Carlisle guided it through them, keeping it distracted. They’d practiced together a hundred times: Carlisle would divert the beast’s attention while Festree slipped within it, and then…well, practice was one thing, but this was the first time it had worked.

She would have to improvise.

Festree felt her self slide into the eerily cold slime of the beast’s projection, her stomach a churning mess as she fought down pseudo-nausea, her cough creeping into her throat; if she threw up now, she might choke in the real world.

Down, down into the beast’s mind she fell, the world spun into a horrifying frame without reference as she saw cities brought to ruin – screaming faces howling names uncountable in the chaos – all through the veil of her sight. Her throat was itching again, and she swallowed, hard. She wasn’t going to cough. She wasn’t going to cough.

The memories whirled past again, a blur, and now she saw its home: some shifting, abysmal corner of that other plane, one only seen in nightmares and visions. It wasn’t something you could prepare yourself to see, and she had to maintain her composure to keep from retching in shock. None of these memories would do for the festival; she’d have to go deeper, and fast, or Carlisle was likely to wind up locked in here with her.

The passage of time felt disproportionate, but at last, she started to sense that something good was nearby. Festree dug through the tissue connecting the memories, fingers dipping into streams of sensory input like cold rivers full of pain and rage, truly alien. Where was it, she could Taste it, it was like the smell of burning pitch and rusted metal-

There! She intoned, holding her demon-slick hand against her mouth to stifle a cough. She was out of time, but here it was. The moment this beast was pulled into her world.

The memory-scape roared around her, and she dove headfirst into the image ahead, screaming and coughing as her mind filled with all that made it up: the fear, the confusion, the heavy chanting and whirr of machines. It became as her own memory, latching into her head; she could feel that forbidden magic dragging her down, down…

FES!” Carlisle screeched, and Festree woke with a start as they slapped her. The wound on her cheek stung, and she wanted to be angry, but Carlisle looked scared. Never a good sign.

“We need to go,” Festree said dully, more confirmation than question. The noise of that memory was loud. “How long was I-“

NOW, Fes!” Carlisle yelled, and she realized why they were shouting: the noise of the memory gave way to a clap of thunder, the rattling of bones knitting together. The tarp that had kept them safe in the rains was gone, and the skull was coming alive around them, joints clicking into place with a gruesome efficiency. Festree’s head was still buzzing but she let herself be led outside, stumbling down the rise as the creature struggled to right itself. She idly remembered she had left their camping gear behind, but Carlisle’s hand was firm and unrelenting, and minutes later they were both in the dale again, stomping hard along the muddy ground.

Festree finally managed to slow Carlisle’s mad jaunt, her wheezing cough making her sound decades older. “Enough, enough…” She begged wearily, “we’re out of its sight.” Gazing back at the thing, she saw it howling in the hot rains, its head barely balanced atop crumbling vertebrae. “Dumb thing can’t even move without legs…”

She could hear Carlisle’s heavy breathing behind her, and she turned slowly, appraising them. “Car?” She ventured softly.

Carlisle’s fists were balled up hard, and they were shaking despite the heat of the rains.

“Carlisle?” Festree spoke a little louder, moving closer.

“We…” Their breath caught, “did we get anything, Fes?” It was a question of exasperation, of sheer exhaustion.

Festree nodded grimly, the stolen memory still rolling around her brain like oil over water. “Yeah,” She swept them up in her arms and squeezed happily, the last few weeks of travel and struggle all washing out of her. “We got something.”

Their trip back was blissfully uneventful, and Festree’s cough had gone down considerably with Carlisle’s knowledge of herbs. As evening grew, the conclave rose out of the mire ahead, and the mages standing guard were hungry for juicy gossip about the outside world from the two weary witches. But Carlisle was firm. “No previews.” They smiled with all the poise and calm of an elder, despite the mud. “You’ll get our story at the festival tonight.”

There were whispers and shouted welcomes as they strolled towards the sacred festival grounds, all tattered clothes and dirty faces and toothy grins, Carlisle’s bristly mane just barely starting to resemble hair again. The last witch had finished her story atop that holy rock of quartz, and the elders were moving up to finish the evening’s festivities. One of them caught sight of Festree and Carlisle, and her gasp was enough to quiet the audience, all eyes turning on the two. Festree, full of brass and berry wine, simply continued walking and climbed atop the smooth, jagged chunk of crystal, Carlisle at her side.

The audience, the elders, the ragged line of ‘clavespeople that had followed them – they all watched with rapt attention, a single held breath.

“Let me tell you-” Festree began, then coughed slightly, grinning. Carlisle chuckled. “-a tale of the first-age beasts, and how the old world sought to chain them.”

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