I need to keep a diary. My new position in this town requires a certain appearance of calm and confidence, but if I do not share my feelings with someone – even if it is only this inert bundle of papers – then I may truly go mad.
Where to begin…
The Forgiveness Festival. Things were already strange. In previous years the ceremony has been a lightweight affair, sometimes with a few tears or tantrums. This year, though… Havelock burying Widow Markham, and the old woman’s apparent activity within the coffin. Could he really have battered her to death with his shovel? Surely he must have been mistaken. Maybe there were rats in the coffin, or… I don’t know, something.
His bizarre confession seemed to taint the whole event. Blys the weaver took exception to a poor traveller who came to participate in our ritual, saying he was an elf. Ridiculous, of course. Elves are a myth, though I must admit there is something very odd about that tall, pale stranger.
Far worse was to come, however. As Father Bert – poor, sweet Father Bert – began to deliver the final blessing, he began to choke and wheeze. The hall was suddenly filled with the most hideous whispers, like twigs scratching on a window shutter. “We do not forgive! We do not forgive!” they rasped in a hissing cacophony, and the air turned strange. I struggle to describe it. It was like the air had become heavy and thick, as on the most humid days of high summer, but without the warmth. On the contrary, it was suddenly very cold.
That was when I realised that I, too, was struggling to breathe, and there was a terrible pressure on my throat. I heard that voice, his voice, taunting me, telling me that no, I was not forgiven, that no petty ritual dedicated to a false god could cleanse the filth from my soul, and that he would always hate me for… No. I refuse to think about it.
For a moment, I was lost to myself. There was only blind terror, pain and suffocation, and – seemingly a hundred miles away – the shouts and screams of the community I have tried so hard to serve. Perhaps that was what brought me back to my senses. They are simple folk and not without flaws, but the people of Chuton have been good to me. I knew I had to help them.
That was when I saw what was trying to squeeze the life from me: my own shadow. Some occult force had lifted it from the floor and given it mass and independence and malignant intent, and its black, soft-edged hands were clutched around my neck. An involuntary scream could barely escape my compressed throat, coming out as a crow-like creak. In blind terror I struck at that black, shapeless face with my fists, feeling nothing resisting my blows. It was like punching the air.
Somehow, it had the desired: the crushing grip on my throat loosened then fell away, and the dark form broke apart like mist in the morning sun. I was free.
Looking around, I saw that many of my flock had also fought off their weird attackers, but some still struggled. Somebody – was it Alaric? – had fallen to his knees, and his shadow seemed to have gained more mass, more darkness, as if it became stronger as he weakened. Before I could think I loaded a stone into my sling and let it fly, and it flew straight through the thing’s face without slowing – I heard it strike the wall behind – but it seemed to injure it. The shadowy attacker burst into black tendrils and was gone, just like mine. I think I may have lost my composure for a moment, perhaps shouted something I should have kept private, something stirred up by the ugly lies the thing had been whispering into my ear, but my memory is hazy.
Many things suddenly happened at once. Somebody shouted “Smash it!” An orc voice, perhaps? There was a sharp crack and the tinkle of pottery on flagstones. The horrible oppressive weight of the air lifted, like a soap bubble bursting. The few remaining shadows shrieked and boiled away into the air.
Apparently, it was over.
In the aftermath, I learned more of what had happened. Some unknown attacker had hidden ritualistic fetishes around the edges of the hall. They were revolting objects: clay beer tankards filled with grave soil and bones, rotting vegetable matter, ugly purple vines, and sheets of vellum made from the skin of who knows what. Somehow, they had caused the appearance of those horrible shadows.
There was a lot of panicked shouting, but we managed to piece together the significance of each ingredient. The tankards were from the Rusty Crown, a pub on the eastern side of town, and the grave dirt was obviously from the cemetery to our north. The vines came from a spot northwest of town in the forest near the standing stones of the old gods, and the vellum from the library to the southwest.
That left the compost, a mass of stinking rot studded with chunks of rotten potato. There was only one place it could have come from: the Bailey family farm, a short way out of town to the south-east. When the name was said out loud, I struggled to catch my breath. There was no monstrous shadow this time, just a terrible sense of foreboding and shame. I hadn’t even realised that the Baileys, despite being devout followers of the New God, had not come to the Forgiveness Festival. I asked around, it seemed that nobody had seen them for days.
It didn’t occur to me at the time to check on Father Bert, and I feel ashamed even though I know I could have done nothing. It would be hours before I discovered that my friend and mentor was lying in a dark corner of the hall, lifeless and still. I was so frightened for the Baileys that I didn’t think to check on those who were actually present in the town hall.
I need to get on with the story or I may never finish it. Blys the weaver had immediately leapt to accuse the strange visitor of causing the attack, and with no authority at all had slapped irons on the poor man, shouting about “elf magic”. Where she got iron manacles from I have no idea.
Somehow, in all of my arguing with her that she had no legal right to arrest an innocent traveller, we all got bundled together. I was determined to check on the Baileys, and the odd pair of Blys and the supposed elf were sort of carried along in my wake. We were joined by Branka the dwarven farrier and Terry, an orc and dyer, and weirdly perhaps the closest Blys has to a friend in this town.
We stopped to gather weapons along the way, arming ourselves with scissors and shears and knives at Blys’s house and hammers at Branka’s. The dwarf was very reluctant to let me borrow a small iron-headed tack hammer, as if she she thought I might steal it, but she relented when I vowed to return it to her. She was in a highly emotional state, muttering incessantly about demons and the need to destroy them all. Terry, however, was agreeable company. He is uncomplicated, but friendly, though he has a tendency not to think through the consequences of his actions. Oh, poor Terry.
It was a tense journey as we crept along the east road toward the farm, a fat honey-coloured harvest moon drawing out disconcertingly long, dark shadows before us. Blys and the stranger bickered the whole way, but eventually she agreed to remove his shackles, if only to have an extra pair of hands if things should turn ugly. Soon enough we passed Widow Markham’s now-empty house, and there was the Bailey farm, ringed by its low dry-stone wall.
We approached under the shade of a copse of trees, thankful to lose sight of our shadows for a moment. As we came closer, a hideous stench assaulted our noses. The vegetable garden outside the wall, where Eamon Bailey and his two muscular sons Bob and Ben raised their award-winning potatoes, was exuding an incredible stink. It was somewhat like the reek of rotten windfall fruit in an orchard during the last warm day of autumn, but mixed with something far worse.
Some of the others wanted to investigate, but I simply couldn’t make myself draw any closer, and I am sorry to say that my earlier supper and several mugs worth of mead made a hasty exit from my body. Branka seemed similarly overcome, so we turned away from the rancid garden and looked over the wall.
It took me a moment to register what I was seeing. Everything that normally grew in the garden, including Velda Bailey’s lovely petunias, was gone. The entire house yard seemed to have been erased, replaced with a dark blankness, but then I peered closer and realised it was moving. The barren ground was heaving and rolling, as if something terrible was slithering lazily around underneath it, like snakes under a blanket. The stink was here too, but not as strongly as in the vegetable patch.
That was when I saw them. A faint light was coming from one of the windows of the farmhouse, and straining my eyes I could see two family members – Ben and Eamon, I think – apparently eating dinner. Goosebumps prickled my arms, though I could not have said why. All I knew was that something was very, very wrong.
At that moment the other three returned, babbling something about a slimy pit and talking worms. Poor Terry had been pushed too far, it seemed: he kept declaring that “Worms aren’t supposed to say that!” and “Those were bad worms!”
I told them about seeing the family inside, and also about the horribly roiling ground of the house yard, and we unanimously agreed to walk around the property (away from the vegetable patch, naturally) and knock on the back door. Terry, bless his simple soul, tapped lightly, shouted “Hello!” and then kicked the door in, cleanly off its hinges and onto the floor. I would have laughed at that, but then I saw the Baileys and my throat was sealed shut in horror.
The entire scene was illuminated by a sickly green glow, much like the faint lights that sometimes appear above graves. All five of the Baileys were there, seated around the dinner table: Velda and Eamon sat across from each other, and beside them were Bob and Ben. At the foot of the table, closest to the door, was dear little Stacy. Poor, innocent, simple Stacy. Oh, dear God, Stacy…
They were eating themselves. Their chests and stomachs had… oh God… they had burst open. Inside was rotten and filthy, a festering mulch of intestines and compost and monstrous potatoes tangled with roots that quivered and reached and grasped. Gobs of… something… were dripping out of their gaping torsos onto the table, and then would stab into them with their forks, bring the squirming clumps of rot to their slack, oozing mouths, and…
It was an intentional blasphemy, I know. The New God’s eternal nature is symbolised by Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail – I have that very symbol around my neck as I write this – and here was the same concept, perverted into unholiness. Something, some evil malignancy with a warped intelligence and cruel sense of humour, had created that hideous tableaux to mock us and our beliefs.
For a moment I was lost again. The world swam and hovered, and I suppose I must have come close to fainting. When my senses returned, I was horrified to see that Branka and Blys had stepped inside the room, and Terry was muttering “Burn it! Burn it!” as he struck flint and steel onto the damp thatch of the roof. The “elf” wisely remained outside with me, and had drawn a longbow from inside its travelling cloak.
Branka struck Ben Bailey from behind with her staff, splitting his rotting body in two, turning it into a grotesque V shape. Blys shouted about an object in the fireplace and I saw her strike something with her hammer. The green glow vanished in an instant, and there was a horrific crunching sound as the four remaining Baileys twisted their bodies to stare at Blys. They each reached out a hand, their dribbling, foetid mouths gaped wide, and they howled or screeched or some other sound I do not know the word for. All I know is that it was one of the worst things I have ever heard.
Despite their poor tortured bodies being almost torn apart, the four of them staggered to their feet and began moving toward Blys, clumsy but clearly filled with murderous intent. Whatever she had done, it had made them angry. The thing that had once been Velda lunged at Blys, and something wonderful happened: the pale stranger, the so-called “elf”, placed his slender body between Blys and her attacker. She had given him nothing but suspicion, and he put himself in harm’s way to protect her. When the horror of that night threatens to overwhelm my memories, that is what I try to focus on: a stranger to our town who had been greeted with suspicion and hostility, risking his life to protect somebody who hated him.
It cost him, too: the Velda-thing tore at his pale skin with her filth-encrusted nails, drawing a gush of dark blood. Sickeningly, the potato roots inside Velda’s chest cavity reacted to the fresh blood, sending out hungry tendrils that reached for the wounded elf. Before they could make contact, Branka smashed the shambling corpse with her staff, and Velda finally found her rest.
Movement drew my attention to the right, where little Stacy was reaching her twisted hands toward the heroic stranger. She was behind him, and I couldn’t find my voice. Acting on instinct, I did the only thing I could: I swung my sling and sent a rock flying at the stinking, stumbling thing that had once been the sweet but clumsy little girl who had spilled her drink into the Mayor’s lap at the Yule feast.
My aim was true. Stacy’s head burst open and a flood of blackened gore splashed out as her body, now truly lifeless, tumbled to the filthy floorboards.
Oh Stacy, I’m so very sorry. You deserved better. They all deserved better.
The sharp smell of smoke made me look around. Terry had finally gotten the roof alight, and it was catching more quickly than I expected sodden thatch would, so quickly that I worried for my companions inside the house. The so-called elf was closest, so I leaned through the doorway and grasped his cloak, yanking him backwards to safety. I called out to Terry to rescue the others from the rapidly thickening smoke.
Through the haze and wavering orange light, I saw once last thing inside that accursed house. Eamon Bailey was standing over the corpse of his wife, staring down at her with confused eyes. For a moment, I saw unmistakeable recognition there, followed by grief. The ruined parody of a man who had once been a member of my congregation looked up in confusion, and I could see viscous slime dribbling from his eyes. It… he… was crying for his dead wife.
My final glimpse before the burning roof collapsed was of Eamon punching his twisted claw-like hand up through his throat and into his brain. In the end, he died on his own terms. Then he burned.
Five strange companions stood in sombre silence and watched the little farmhouse being consumed by the flames, reminding me of the fiery graves of the warrior kings of old. I grasped the symbol of my faith in my right hand and prayed the best I could. “Let them rest,” I said. “I don’t know if anyone is really there, if anybody can hear this prayer, but please, if you can hear me, let them rest. They were good people, hardworking and kind. They did not deserve this fate. Let them rest.”
I’m not sure I even believe there is anything out there to hear our prayers, but somehow I felt heard. I knew a kind of peace as we watched the fire burn down, ready for something else to happen. When we were sure nothing was going to emerge from the glowing embers, we wordlessly turned to leave.
With the power in the house dispersed, the other horrors around the farm had also retreated. While some of the smell lingered, the vegetable patch had collapsed inward, forming a dark pit. Similarly, the weirdly alive dirt of the house yard was now still. Confident our work was done, we returned to the town hall.
The other four groups had encountered similar horrors as those we found at the farm – they told chilling tales of flying books that drank blood, the corpses of halflings pickled in barrels of liquor, and even stranger things – but we were no closer to solving the mystery of who had caused all this terror. The mayor started to organise us, make plans for what to do next, but he was suddenly drowned out by a terrible voice.
For the second time that night, shadows had come alive in that hall, but this time they gathered together in a single place. The gravedigger’s shadow had grown to monstrous proportions, and now it towered above us all, an immense figure blacker than a moonless night. It mocked us, laughed at our efforts to undo its evil schemes, and credited our successes to luck. All our forgiveness would come to naught, it laughed, and our beloved town would fall to ruin.
Many of the townsfolk ran in terror, and I wished I could join them. Everything in me was aching to scramble blindly from that hall, but I had made a promise to watch over these people, and may I be damned by all the gods old and new for such a foolish vow. But still, I stood my ground.
I was heartened to see that others were also refusing to run. The mechanical lion that acts as a self-appointed nightwatchman in Chuton was inspirational, shouting out its defiance and leaping to attack. It was struck a terrible blow by the shadowy giant, and we all groaned in despair, but a moment later we were cheering as the brave lion struggled to its feet and roared.
Its incredible courage moved me to act, but what could harm such a terrible being? Then it occurred to me: light banishes shadows. I grabbed a burning torch from its bracket on the wall and threw it with all my might, putting every ounce of my will behind it. My aim was true, and yet… I was wrong. Light does not merely dispel shadows. It also creates them. As the flame was swallowed up in the beast’s misty form, I was certain that it had become even darker and sharply defined. Foolish girl, I thought to myself in a voice that sounded suspiciously like my mother’s. You’ve only gone and made it stronger!
And yet, it had given me an idea. If there were no lights at all, could the creature of shadow exist at all?
“Put out the lights!” I shouted to everyone around me, and I started pulling torches from the wall and stamping them out. It probably had no effect, but it felt good to be doing something, to be fighting against this corruption in my own small way.
I was so intent on my task that I missed everything else that occurred. I heard later that the mad street preacher who bellowed his prophecies of doom in the market square had been killed. A priest and a preacher. I refuse to believe that was coincidence. Poor Terry, too, fell while bravely trying to assist the gravedigger. He was a kind soul, and I hope he finds peace. Many others were injured, some close to the point of death.
However, all of us united were too strong for the interloper. In the end it was Blys, of all people, who struck the final blow. The demon’s shadowy form began to blur and fall apart, and rivulets of liquid shadow ran across the floor like the blood sluices in a slaughterhouse. Even so, its evil work was not yet done.
“You think you’ve won?” it screamed, it’s voice coming from everywhere and nowhere. “You have sealed your own doom, you fools! This village is cursed! This world is cursed!”
As the last of the scraps of blackness dissolved into nothing and its mocking voice echoed into silence, we heard the tolling of bells. Every church for miles around, maybe every church in the world, was ringing its bells. Just church bells, as I had heard a hundred times before, and yet my heart felt frozen in my chest with dread.
That was a week ago. No explanation has been forthcoming about the bells. Travellers carrying news from other towns all told the same story: the bells rang of their own accord, with nobody pulling the ropes. It lasted for only minutes, but everybody was shaken by the strangeness of it. Yet life is continuing, as it does.
I have moved from the deacon’s hut to the priest’s house, determined to carry on Father Bert’s work as best I can. Tradition holds that a female minister in this role take the title of Mother, but I feel that what my flock needs in such uncertain times is a sister, so that is what I now call myself: Sister Hüvje. Aside from the formalities of title, little has changed. I move through the village, offering encouragement or comfort or wisdom, as seems appropriate, and the people seem to have accepted their new priest well enough.
What they do not know is that I have changed. I am not the same woman I was a week ago, and I feel I must be going mad.
I am having a terrible dream, the same one every night. In it, I am back at the Bailey’s farm, standing outside the door and looking into the farmhouse. Eamon is there, a ruined dead thing, standing over the broken shape of his wife. He is staring and crying, just as he did that night, but then he crouches down clumsily, bringing his twisted, slack face down toward her. He looks ready to kiss his wife, or perhaps bite her, but instead he does the impossible: his jaw gapes wipe, and his own feet slip inside that dark maw.
He should fall, but instead he floats above the filthy floorboards, and his feet slide deeper into his throat. I can see his neck bulging horrifically as his ankles and then his calves slither inside, and surely it has to burst open – it cannot stretch any more than this.
Eamon’s body has formed a perverse ring, hanging in the air at head height, and now there is a deep, resonant hum and a faint golden light coming from somewhere, maybe everywhere. The ring of dead flesh is now spinning like a wagon wheel and I can see that the light is coming from inside it. The sound is getting louder and louder until I feel my head must burst open from the power of it, and the golden light has become blinding.
Then there is silence, and total stillness. I stand in darkness, and before me there is only a shining ring of gold, floating in the air. A great eye opens within the ring, and it looks inside me, past cloth and skin and flesh, deeper into me than anyone has ever cared to look, and I know that it truly sees me, everything I am.
A voice, thrumming with power, speaks…
…and I awake screaming, my bedclothes soaked in sweat. Often the scream is wordless, but two nights ago I heard myself cry out “Stacy!”. Last night, to my horror, I shouted another name, one I haven’t spoken in years. The effect, though, is that I am terribly tired. All that gets me out of bed each morning is that sense of duty I feel to these people, but in my heart I am utterly spent.
There is more, and it may be the worst of it. That first night, the first time the nightmare ripped me from sleep, I awoke with my hands clutched to my throat. The bruises where my shadow had tried to strangle me had been very painful, and I had fallen asleep stroking the raised welts with my fingertips.
The pain was now gone. I lit a candle and examined my throat in Father Bert’s tiny looking glass. My throat, mottled purple when I had fallen asleep, was pale and smooth again.
Later, I visited Branka to return the hammer I had borrowed. She was limping from the deep wounds that the Baileys had inflicted on her, and I placed my hand on her burly shoulder in sympathy. I don’t know why I did it, but I muttered a short benediction, and the farrier gasped. The scabbed gash on her arm had vanished, replaced by a faint pink scar. Before she could ask me what I had done, I mumbled a brusque goodbye and stumbled outside, hurrying back to my house and hiding inside.
There is a power in me now. I did not ask for it and I don’t know what it is, but worst of all I do not know who is granting it to me. Holy ones heal, it is true, but so do witches and druids. What is the spring from which this power flows? I do not know, and it frightens me.
I cannot tell anyone any of this and so it is you, dear diary, in whom I confide. I do not know what the future holds, and while I wear a bright smile when I mingle with my flock, it is as false and as brittle as a porcelain mask. I live in constant fear. There is worse to come, I know it.