A BREATH OF DARKNESS



 

A BREATH OF DARKNESS, by Liz Colter:

 

The wind gusted up the mountain, rattling the pine cones and shaking the blue-green branches of the trees. This was no fickle spring breeze, nor even a winter gale; it was a wind that carried the feel of fangs and decay and misery.

#

The chorus of early morning birdsong ceased as suddenly as if the gods had unmade the creatures with a thought. Granny Cee paused from making her narrow bed and strained to hear beneath the unnatural silence for the cause. When the wind reached her shack, she knew.

It hammered at her rough plank door and tugged at the root cellar cover. It prodded at her small windows, shaking the wooden frames. Gusts pushed through the gap under the door and wormed into the chinks of the log walls, carrying a stench of rot into the house. Granny Cee tightened her grip on the bedcovers until her twisted knuckles ached. She knew that wind, and she knew what it meant. Her enemy’s wounds were healed and he climbed once again from the belly of the world.

The wind abated as quickly as it had commenced. Songbirds resumed their chorus, tentatively at first but soon returning to their former gusto. She finished smoothing the blankets and straightened, placing a hand over her heart, as if the physical touch could ease the pain there. It visited her occasionally these days, but this time its grip was sharper, stronger. It wasn’t the pain that worried her—everyone had their allotted time—but things were different now. She couldn’t leave this world yet. There was work to be done.

Moving to the only other room of her cabin, she coaxed the coals of last night’s fire back to life. The pain in her chest eased and then abated as she brewed tea and sat sipping it. She looked out her window at the waning garden and the autumn leaves falling in graceful, arcing sweeps. And for the first time in her long life, anger at her gods swelled within her.

Beyond her garden, headstones stood vigil over her grandparents and parents, her husband and children and grandchildren. The people living nearest to her now were in the shacks and cabins of Aroria, the community sprawled across the far side of the mountain crest, named for the sun goddess that bathed them in morning light. They had been the first to call her “Granny Cee.” Her family perished, one by one, yet the name spread to other gods-named communities on the far side of the mountain, and perhaps farther, to the villages and towns of the valleys below. Even she thought of herself by that name now, though it had been years since children had laughed and played in this home.

The deaths had been surprisingly mundane for a family marked by the gods. An eight-year-old boy falling from a roof. A mother and her two children dying of a winter fever. Every one of her blood destined to be a Guardian, but she had outlived them all.

After covering the last grave she had fallen to her knees and sent up a prayer of smoke and ash, asking the gods if they had died for a reason; if perhaps she had killed their enemy after all instead of wounding him, and her family was no longer needed. All these years later, she had her answer. The enemy lived. Her family had died senselessly, unprotected by the gods who demanded so much of them.

Granny Cee pushed away from the table. She had to go now, before he grew one day stronger, before she grew one day weaker. She would gladly fight to prevent the evil days he would bring if loosed on the world, but she no longer trusted the gods to help her; the gods who let her family die while their enemy yet lived.

Walking stiffly to the bedroom she opened the pine trunk at the foot of her bed and removed the neatly folded clothes to pull out the burlap- and twine-wrapped package hidden at the bottom. The bundle was long and narrow with an unwieldy bulge in the middle. It was heavier than she remembered.

She set the package on the bed and her fingers labored at the binding. Even sprung from its constraints, the twine held its twists and turns, so long had it kept the shape of the knot. She unfolded the burlap cloth to reveal a rough-grained rock as round as a rice ball, and a stick, as long as her arm and smooth with age. It had been the proudest day of her life when her mother passed the orb and scepter to her.

She lifted the items from the package, and the feel of them after so many years stimulated a flood of memories. Reveling in them for a long moment, eyes closed, she relived the joy of those days: her mother, her training, her battle, her family’s pride in her when she won. It still angered her that she was left to confront the enemy at her age, with no one to come behind her if she failed, but she could never forsake her duty. She was and had always been, a Guardian.

She placed the stick and the stone on the bed and repacked the clothes in her trunk, keeping out a scarf, wool stockings, and a wool cape. From the kitchen she collected flatbread and cheese, her battered tin cup, a dead coal from the fireplace that she wrapped in a cloth, and her water skin from a nail by the door. She rolled everything, including the orb and scepter, into the gray wool blanket from her bed. Using the twine, she tied the bundle, leaving a long loop as a carrying strap.

The walk would be arduous; from the shoulders of the great mountain down to its hips on the ridge below, and down another ridge to its knees. No people lived on this side to aid her, and she would require all her strength to arrive sharp enough to win this battle of wills yet again.

Thimbleberries had just come ripe and would be plentiful along the path; they would do for blood for the ritual. For the rest—if the gods would still help her and her old eyes could spot the tokens— there would be clues along the way to help her defeat her enemy.

Granny Cee lifted the strap of the bedroll over her head and stepped outside into the dusty autumn sunlight. She opened the gate to the hen yard and released the chickens from the coop, propping the gate open with a stick.

“You take care of the girls while I’m gone,” she told Blackie as he high-stepped past her. She didn’t bother to tell the rooster that she might not come back; already his dark head was buried in the yellowing grass, hunting centipedes and grubs.

She started down the path, past her home and garden and meadow, and beyond everything that was comfortable and safe. Brushing a hand over her mother’s headstone as she passed the graveyard, she made a silent promise to do her family proud—again—and smothered the doubt that it might be a promise she was no longer capable of fulfilling.

Mount Talous, named for the god of warriors, rose high above the valley floor. Granny Cee navigated the steep deer and bear trails, as familiar to her as her own garden, though it had been long years since she last descended this mountain. Nostalgia drove her to fill her water skin at the spot on the creek where she and Lila and Lila’s young daughter, Baia, had stopped, so long ago. It had been her granddaughter’s first journey to the home of the enemy; the first and last of what should have been years of training.

Near dusk, when she could no longer ignore the pain in her joints, she stopped for the night. She lowered herself to the ground with a grunt, too tired even to eat. Spreading her blanket, she rolled onto her back and looked up at the night sky. Tired as she was, sleep wouldn’t come. She had failed to find any tokens today and worry gnawed at her like a wolf on an old bone, telling her she had missed them.

The gods rotated above her in the constellations of their various forms, but perhaps they were hollow representations. Perhaps the deities had died out, just as Granny Cee’s own family had done. In her anger at them, she half wished it so—at least then she could understand her children’s deaths—but she couldn’t sustain the wish. She needed their help. Without clues to defeat her enemy she would be on her own, and he would not fall prey twice to the tricks that had been used on him in the past.

#

Granny Cee woke just before dawn, having slept little. She rocked onto her swollen knees, using the branches of a tree to pull herself upright. Perching on a boulder, she ate a little of the flatbread and cheese while the night sky gave birth to a new day, then rolled her belongings back into the blanket and set off again.

As the day progressed toward noon, her eyes swept the ground, the boulders and the branches more urgently for any sign of tokens, still finding none. If she lost this battle, her enemy would be free, and once free, he would grow. He would engender a new Age of Darkness, as he had in the time before the Guardians, and the world would suffer greatly. Even in the full sun of the day, the thought chilled her enough to pebble the skin on her forearms.

By early afternoon she came at last to the lowest ridge of the great mountain. From the bend in the trail where she stood, she could see the narrow valley floor far below. To the left the mountainside flattened into a little meadow. The bowl of tall grass was green and welcoming, but the dark cave in the rocky bluff at the far side of the meadow stood waiting, its black mouth gaping.

If she feared him, he would have little challenge from her, and if her gods had abandoned her—or died—then she must be stronger still. She worked her fingers under the twine that cut into her shoulder, adjusted her bedroll, and stepped off the trail. As she picked her way carefully down the knoll toward the meadow something thudded at her feet. The orb had slipped from her bedroll; it bounced once and rolled, coming to rest at the base of a pine halfway down the slope.

She gauged the incline she would have to negotiate to retrieve the stone and side-stepped her way to the pine, reaching out to grasp a branch of the tree for balance. Ducking under the bough, she held tightly to the branch but it swayed with her weight, causing her to sway as well. Her fingers lost their grip and she tumbled forward. She landed among the twigs and pine needles, and their sharp tips stabbed into her skin through her dress.

She spat a curse and, with every joint protesting, pushed backward to her hands and knees then reached out to grab the orb. Resting a moment in the awkward position, a glint of metal caught her eye, a reflected flash from behind the trunk of the tree. She froze and dared to hope. Bracing on one arm, she reached around the rough trunk and pulled the pointy nose of the object toward her. It was a small bellows. The leather was cracked from exposure and the brass rivets and trim had rusted to a blackened orange. One spot of banding had escaped the rust enough to wink at her in the sun. If it was a token it was a strange one, but her gods had always been oblique.

Unable to stand on the steep slope she was forced to crawl, dragging the orb and the little bellows with her. Once she reached level ground, she struggled to her feet, replaced the orb in her pack, and examined the bellows more closely. Failing to divine any clues from the thing, she slipped the bellows into her bedroll with the other items and continued on into the meadow, limping slightly.

She kept a close eye out for any other tokens, for always there had been more than one, but as she neared the cave she had to admit that if there were others, she had missed them. More disturbing still was the possibility that her orb had dropped by chance and she had happened on some old piece of trash by coincidence.

Granny Cee crossed the meadow and reached the cave. As before, no light penetrated that cavity, not even at the entrance. The horrible blackness of her enemy’s soul bubbled up from somewhere deep in the earth, cloaking the cave in shadow darker than a moonless night.

She set her bedroll on the ground and ignored the fear of failure running like ice through her veins. Steeling her mind and her nerves for the contest, she turned her back to the cave, worked at the knots in her pack with her gnarled fingers, and spread her blanket before the entrance. Making certain a corner of the blanket hid the bellows, she sat cross-legged as best her knees and hips could manage.

She began to arrange the rest of her items around her. Hugging the scepter and the orb to her chest briefly, she placed them between herself and the cave as symbols of her authority. Next she lifted the cup of berries she had gathered along the way, poured them into one hand, and squeezed her fist until the red juice dripped into the dirt, symbolizing her blood spilled for the land. She refilled the cup with water from her skin and poured it out in a line on the dirt between herself and the cave. Lastly, she unwrapped the charred wood from the cloth and set it to one side of the damp earth.

The four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—were now bound by blood as witnesses. She took a breath to begin the contest but her enemy spoke first.

“You have changed, Cecelia,” he said in a deep, mellifluous voice. The stench of rotted flesh drifted out with the words, though she saw nothing but the blackness of the cave. “My, how you have changed.”

His words were knives of dark power, stabbing at her to find a way in to devour her essence. He chose well for a first volley; his power-laden suggestion giving life to the fears and doubts she harbored about her age.

“We all change,” she replied, willing confidence into her voice. “But my authority over you doesn’t weaken with age,” she said. “I am free to walk the world, and you are nothing more than a caged animal.” She imbued the words with every ounce of power she possessed and felt them strike solidly, as if they had been a physical blow.

The balance between them shifted slightly, and her power pushed against the blackness in the cave. Knowing that she could still hurt him made her want to laugh out loud. Her body had changed but her spirit was still strong.

“I do not change,” he said. “I am eternal, while you are merely mortal.”

“Oh, but you do. You most certainly do. When I left you last time you were very small indeed.” She remembered him as he was at the end of their previous contest, nothing more than a speck of darkness within the cave, and she imbued her words with that memory as she hurled them at him.

His long imprisonment was the crux of his torment. The last time she had chiseled at that until there was nothing left of him but a seed of his darkness. Like her ancestors, though, she had been unable to destroy him utterly and he had renewed.

“And now I am very large again,” he countered, losing no more ground to her.

“Not so large as all that.” Granny Cee shifted on her blanket. The ache in her hips and knees made her restless. “You are still confined to this cave.”

“For now,” he said.

“Forever,” she replied. “I will bind you as my grandfather did, or I will trap you as my mother did, or I will make you small as I once did, but you will not leave this cave, and you will not ever roam the world.”

“I had expected one of your children to answer my challenge, Cecelia,” he said, conversationally, as if she had not spoken. “You are so old and so frail, why did you not send one of them instead? Sacrificing yourself will not save them. When I have defeated you, I will seek out your children and your grandchildren first. I will eat their souls and make their hearts as black as my own.”

Those words, at least, could do her no harm. She smiled at the realization that he was unaware of their deaths, and took strength from that as well, hurling it at him. “You only hoped for them because you’re afraid to deal with me again. You remember how easily I defeated you before.”

The words struck only a glancing blow, and the voice on the wind chuckled. “Afraid of an old woman who can hardly sit still for the pain in her joints? Afraid of someone standing at Death’s door waiting to be let in? Dear Cecelia, what is there left to be afraid of?”

The corrosive power of those words hit her like a sledgehammer, crashing through her defenses at her weakest point. Her will fragmented slightly, and her adversary strengthened in response.

Regardless of the wound she had caused him, fatigue battered at her already. In her youth, this contest had gone on for a day and a night, but the walk here had drained her and she no longer possessed the endurance for a long fight.

She reached out furtively and touched the bellows under the blanket for reassurance. Small reassurance it was, too. If it even was a token, she still had no idea what it meant. Perhaps she was to build a fire, but she could think of no way that fire could harm him. A second token might have allowed her to understand.

“I’ll not be caged much longer,” he said. “You fear me now more than you ever have.” He lanced the words at her, chipping her will a little more.

“I do not fear what is not worth fearing. My orb and my scepter remind you of the power I hold.”

He chuckled again, though it sounded forced. “I can prove your weakness,” he said. He blew a great gust at her. She lifted her arms, raising the water from the sand in a curtain of rain that fell upward to block the dust, but she was too slow to catch it all. It swirled from the ground to choke her. His fetid breath made her gag.

“Why fight any longer Cecelia?” he said.  “Why endure anymore when the result will be the same in the end?”

The enemy lunged a little further into her mind. She felt him filling it, reaching for the back of her skull, ready to descend down her throat and devour her soul. Her fear allowed him to push harder. Her chest began to ache with familiar pain. It was difficult to catch her breath.

“No. Not now!” she thought. She struggled to contain the fear he would surely feel, giving him another tool to defeat her.  Her hand clutched the shape of the bellows under the blanket. Was she supposed to use wind against wind? Was she to blow him to the back of the cave, or fan him to some emotion that would destroy him? She didn’t understand, and she needed to desperately.

His power clawed farther into her and, for the first time in all the long history of her family, it seemed that the enemy would win. Perhaps she should just surrender and end it now. She was the last of her line, and when she was gone he would escape eventually.

The bellows grew warm under the blanket. Her skin tingled with gooseflesh. An idea formed, and she wondered if the gods had given her an answer or if she merely imagined a false solution out of desperation. The pain in her chest squeezed her heart in a hard fist.

“You’re right,” she agreed. “You are stronger than I am now. If this is how it is to be, then let us end it quickly.” To show her sincerity, she opened to him. The terror she felt was genuine.

The wind roared with delight and triumph. His power grew in strength proportional to her defeat. She allowed defeat to fill all her thoughts and she breathed in his rank essence.

And breathed in.

And breathed in.

She inhaled him into her body, like she was a great bellows opening. He went eagerly at first, and then more slowly. There was a tug as her enemy resisted suddenly, realizing that he was not taking her—she was taking him. He tried to back out but his fear only added to her strength.

Granny Cee pulled at him as powerfully as the vortex of a great cyclone. She inhaled with the lungs of every ancestor in her long line, with a strength and capacity that could only have come from the gods. She took her enemy’s essence not into her mind or her soul, but deep into her center. So deep that he could never escape.

She wouldn’t have to hold him for long. The second token was clear to her now. It had been with her all along. She rejoiced in her mortality and the pain that gripped her heart. Her time on this earth was at an end, and when she died, he would die with her.

Granny Cee inhaled the last bit of him down and smiled.

She sat for awhile listening to the hum of bees searching for the last nectar of the season and to the autumn breeze stirring the grass. She watched a green caterpillar hump fearlessly into the mouth of the cave. A mixture of light and shadow from the afternoon sun played across the entrance, and even the depths of the cave held no menace now.

When she felt rested enough she got to her feet, slowly, painfully, thinking of her family. If they had lived, one of the younger ones would have come instead. One not standing at Death’s door, as her enemy had said of her. It was a great comfort to know at last why the gods had not let her keep them. She bent to roll her belongings into the blanket, the pain in her chest like a knife. It was unlikely she would ever see home again, but one way or another, her destination lay that direction. Lifting the strap of her bedroll over her head, she began the long walk up the steep mountain.

______________________________________________________

Liz Colter lives in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where she offsets working in the mundane world by creating speculative worlds of her own. Her stories have appeared in Writers of the Future, Volume 30, Fae anthology from World Weaver Press, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, among others. A full list of her publications and news of her writing can be found at http://lizcolter.weebly.com/


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