As winter began a few weeks earlier than it was supposed to, an entire people’s Vestals and Augurs heralded their hearts and mind against the Tide. So many years after the last war and the the end of open hostilities between mankind and the Old Country, most towns and villages had the luck to have their own protector. Some places had to make do with stocks of holy water, and their mist curtains would get dangerously thin as the season progressed.
But especially large cities, no matter if excavated from the blasted remains of the Ere-world or rebuilt from scratch after survivors fled the scene, possessed enough powerful Vestals to stave off the Tide, at least for the few months required for rivers to unfreeze rivers and push Beasts, Eerie and Fae back.
Therefore, by winter the entire scorched, twisted land that had once been the North-East of a small nation called Italy filled with invisible feelers and figments from young and less-young women, each of them casting their protective net into the sky, holding onto each other and repelling the most dangerous Fae from choosing their town for a snack during their advance. It was a hard and tiring job, as with the Tide came the influence of the heart of the forest which greatly dulled their sight. If in any other season a Vestal might look into the myriad paths of the future as if through a clean glass window, by winter that glass turned appropriately frosted.
Therefore, it was to be expected that even as each Vestal lay in her pool of hot water, looking up with vitreous eyes, trying to protect their charges and the air vibrated with the energy of their powers, the world of men grew ever smaller.
And many dark places that had insofar seen the light of the sun and a whiff of the world mankind once possessed grew to a new unkind life, creaking and spreading through the infected terrain, from root to root and branch to branch. Sap and resin collected into tiny beating hearts and from there new horrors would hatch in time, as ready as ever to scatter and multiply.
In one of such places, an area north of the seemingly well-protected and prepared town of Belacqua, lay a rough patch of dark hills, still peppered with the remains of red-roofed houses and a few skeletal truss towers, their metal and industrial intent keeping them somewhat safe year after year. As the snow accumulated and hid everything under its white blanket, the deepest bowels of these hills did not accept the clean coating of winter, remaining black like tar. In the deepest of these a large creature slumbered about. It sloshed its bloated body this way and that like a drunken ship on a sea of withered grass and powdered bones. Torqued spikes of tendons sprouted from the sticky ground, bowing at its passage. The Eerie’s face opened in three, showing a lamprey-like mouth covered with the faces of the many smaller Eerie it had devoured to grow to this size and power.
It had come to those hills and their black valleys by the previous summer, looking for more food after it left a desert in its wake. It had grown like a tick on a healthy arm, swelling to a hulking size, and it was now the undisputed king of these lands, sitting atop of a half-digested pile of corpses.
The proud head proceeded down to the lowest pit, snacking on the red growths where it deemed them worth its time.
It had felt the call of the Tide and would soon be able to leave those in search for better pastures, but there was a certain place it had always steered away from, and now an animal curiosity pulled it closer, as if before leaving for good, it wanted to make sure to have actually ruled that land.
The final slope was a low pond full to the brim with black sludge, the same kind that powered its cursed flesh and ran through its misshapen veins, but it had a strange scent, one it had caught before. Stranger still, there was something else mixed in, the burning cold of the water its prey sometimes tried to spray it with. Painful, yes, but hardly an issue. It had munched on the mages of old and nowadays nobody on its turf even dared to approach the old Eerie.
It drew in a long, breathy sniff. Yes. It was definitely the same smell, but nothing else. In fact, if Eerie could feel anything akin to shame, it would have probably done so: the big secret of the hills nothing else had been than a big stupid pond full of ooze.
And in its center, a dozen of metal spears. They disappeared through the tar and they sent off waves of the same constrictive heat-freeze that came from everything man-made, the same resistance to the rule of the Forest, the same painful bite.
But they were just a pile of useless metal.
Hardly worth its time.
Letting out a low roar that might have been passed as a chuckle, the Eerie lifted its muzzle from the pond.
Then it stopped.
Something else was coming.
The small lake of tar bubbled and rippled. A few paces ahead, something small and lean rose from the pond. It looked like a human, a female, with long black hair and burning coals where its eyes would have supposed to be. It seemingly hung upside down, with its legs stitched together and its arms around its torso, dripping black ooze.
“… ooove?” It yowled, in a hopeful cry.
The Eerie snorted and leaned forward. Such a tiny thing was but a little snack, but it would help on its way south.
It opened its mouths.
And with a splash another maw broke through the surface, surrounded by a pair of knife-like chelicerae; it grabbed the Eerie’s legs and it pulled it in. The predator-turned-prey screeched and tried to bite back, but its fangs found no purchase. The chelicerae bit deep into its cursed flesh, hooking it further down the depths. It wriggled and lamented its fate, but with a few heartbeats only the upper part of its body remained above the line of liquid. And with one last gurgling, panicked scream it disappeared completely beneath the tar.
The circle of spears in the centre wavered, as if something attached to it settled into a more comfortable position.
A few more ripples broke the water for a while. Some bubbles rose.
Bit by bit, everything turned deathly still.
Only the hanging body kept above water. The stalk it was attached to moved it up, so that the eyes in the gaunt once-woman face could take into the falling snow and the call of winter.
It did not seem particularly swayed by it. The heartbeat of the Forest only held so much sway over the thing that slept beneath the lake.
It sniffed, searching the air for a particular smell. Or some other kind of vibration, some kind of trace. Maybe the one belonging to the same hand that had speared it through with so many weapons, leaving it anchored to the ground.
As snow came to die onto the pond, only its long dead tongue came out to get a better taste, waiting for the sign it had been waiting for, in its slumbering, idiotic sleep while it waited for its wounds to recover, month after month.
At last, the thing’s tongue vibrated, catching something in the air. When it had been first disturbed, it had quickly awoken, though its hopes had been quickly dashed by the presence of just another Eerie. A quick wake-up snack was well-received though.
It’d help to regain its full strength even quicker.
“… ooooohve,” the woman-thing’s mouth strained. “… oohve. Maahy ooohve.”
It now knew where to go. Surprisingly enough, not to the same old town full of stinging water and biting metal where it usually expected to find him.
No, this winter luck was on its side and he was now much closer. And slow-moving. In the forest.
“Oooohve.” It said, with a taste of finality. The body hanging from the stalk disappeared beneath the tar.
And the spears creating that crown metal in the center of the pond began to move towards the shore.
Pic by San
Author’s Notes: sometimes I like to mix things up. I decided for a different kind of approach for this chapter, as we are leaving our usual characters and exploring the world for a bite*. I know this kind of narrative choice is often frowned upon as ‘infodump’, but while I try to display the world organically through character’s interactions, thoughts and actions, these quick forays into an omniscient narrator are some of my favorite to read and write, so I decided to once again throw ‘rules’ out of the window and try it up. Whoever guesses the identity of today’s monster gets a kiss from yours truly. Thanks for reading.*: I meant ‘for a bit’ but I kept that in because it was just too appropriate.