What was going on? Rossa focused on whatever sound was coming from upstairs, and all she heard was the soft creaking of floorboard, slow and quite irregular, as if her grandma was dancing on the spot.
She gulped, trying to push down the black fear that was clawing at her heart.
“Grandma?” She croaked, her voice coming out like a raspy gasp. She felt like she was sliding down a slippery slope and she wanted out, she wanted out now, she couldn’t really be happening. Not to her. Not now. The world was supposed to still make sense after all.
Her grandma was probably trying to rest for a bit.
She could ignore it. She could stay here until the lightbulbs burned and she’d never have to face what was going upstairs.
But nothing was going on upstairs!
“Grandma?” She attempted again, trying to keep her voice a little firmer. “Are you alright?”
No answer, just more of that weird creaking noise. She followed it as the steps moved to the right and backwards to where her bed was and she heard it moan under her weight.
Everything was alright. She was just going to bed. She was an old woman and she was already losing her hearing, so she probably just did not catch her voice and now needed to lay down for a bit.
That was the most logical explanation. Nothing bad was happening.
But just in case, just in case, she’d take a look at the instructions held in the book. She repeated the words until she had them in her memory as stark as the prayers to the Spirits. To cut her skin, she found an old pair of scissors waiting next to the machinery in the basement.
She placed it upon her arm and mimed the spiral motion that was supposed to draw out her blood and protect her from the things in the forest.
Which were still in the forest, no matter what she had done. She closed the book and put it back into its place, together with the others, for when she went upstairs and she’d talk to her grandma, she’d get upset if she hadn’t shown the proper respect to her things. Wouldn’t she?
Rossa began to walk upstairs, her knuckles going pale on the hand that seized the cold rail. She pushed the door open and glanced at her grandma’s house.
The sun still peeked through the blinders, but now the rays seemed to shiver and boil, as if light had to bend through an invisible mirror. Her grandma’s breathing lingered in the air, and it sounded just about the same.
Just about the same, really.
Rossa shut the door behind her, peeking into the bedroom. Grandma lay on her bed, her back turned.
“Grandma?” She called, for the third time.
“Yes, dear?” She replied. It sounded like she got a sore throat.
“I put everything back into place. I wanted to know if you needed anything else.”
The old woman coughed. Her back shook and it seemed like she was crying.
“Is everything alright? You scared me at first… I don’t know if I did anything wrong, I-”
“Come closer, little one. My ears are getting tired already.”
Little one? She never called her little one.
Gulping again, Rossa glanced at the scissors in her hand and took a step towards the bed.
“You did not do anything wrong,” she reassured her, but still with that raspy tone, like a raven. “And you can put that iron down, dearie. I can feel it from here. What were young going to do with that?”
“Grandma, have you…” by now her heartbeat was so fast and loud she was having a hard time listening to her own words. “… do you have a sore throat? Your voice is so raspy.”
“It must be from all that chanting.”
Her eyes moved to the patch of skin visible beneath her grey hair. Rossa’s breath stopped.
“Y-Your skin is blistering black.”
“I let the bed bugs bite. I let them all in and they bit and bit and bit and bit… feasting.”
Rossa raised the scissors. She put the metal against her arm, repeating the movement in her head.
Bitter tears prickled at her eyes.
“Grandma… are you still with me?”
“Forever and ever, little one. Forever and ever…” her neck turned. It creaked and shuddered like a twisting branch, showing where the skin of her grandma has turned to black charred blisters, where her eyes were now burning embers of hungry gold, where her teeth had grown to be as thin and sharp as needles, and the twisted horns now peeking through her falling grey hair.
Rossa opened her mouth in a mute scream.
The scissors fell from her hand into the floor, useless, forgotten.
She shook her head, stepping back towards the door, as the thing that was wearing grandma’s skin like a robe sat on the floor, her body twisted like a ragdoll.
“Ah, what’s the matter, little one? Didn’t you want to let me in? Well, now we can talk looking each other in the eyes, can’t we?”
The voice cut right through what remained of her sanity. With a shriek that pierced her own ears, Rossa turned and ran, followed by the echoes of the voice’s coarse laughter, biting and scratching against her heart like a murder of vindictive crows.
She ran towards the door, her red cloak getting caught in the wooden splinters and ripping like paper. But she did not even turn to assess the damage.
“Mom,” she gasped, running like a scared deer, each step reverberating through her chest like thunder. “Dad,” she pleaded, tears running down her cheeks. She ran and stumbled, but she did not fall off the road. Of, she needed to reach her village, but how would she tell her mother what she had done?
Grandma… grandma was…
… a delicacy, said the voice to her ears.
“Away!” She shouted back, waving her hand around her head as if she could cut through air.
The voice laughed, mocking her.
And as for the rest, I have to give you once again my deepest thanks. You showed me the way in, and I showed it to the others.
Others? What others?
She did not know and did not want to know!
“Mom! Dad! Please!” She cried and shrieked and ran, never turning back, until her heart burned in her chest and her lungs felt like a chafing rake.
She’d reach her village and she’d tell them the truth. How much of a foolish she had been, and what she had caused, and how sorry she was, and how she’d do anything, anything to save…
She did not get to even finish that thought.
She turned the last curve and she saw the village turning up in flames and screams. Dark misshapen forms ran all over, some of them already made crimson by blood. On the ground lay the remnants of Ferravia’s inhabitants. Others hung like macabre flags from the charred bodies of the Eerie, slithering past the walls, hitting the village that had believed itself safe thanks to summer and her grandma’s protection.
Many of the grotesque masses of charred flesh and bone were already fuming from the close proximity to the steelwork and the remnants of the Ereworld, but even as their cursed flesh was sizzling and boiling, their hunger did not abate. They plunged deeper into town, and for every one that fell to an arrow, a bullet or iron, three took its place.
“Mom…” Rossa took one last step, then her strength utterly abandoned her and she fell on her knees, watching her village being devoured.
Author’s Notes: I am not completely confident with this scene. I felt like it might have needed a little more pathos but I also wanted to keep it coincise. This Arcana, Justice, is one of my favourite. Those among you who know Tarots will recognize that I am using the traditional numeration and putting it as the eight as opposed to Strength.
This is because the shift in positioning came from the Rider-Waite deck, for reasons I strongly oppose. Narratively speaking, Justice has to come before Strength, and this is the reason why Rossa meets with the real consequences of her actions here.
Thanks for reading.