Just like the title says. Enjoy!
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Their guide beckoned them to follow him with fingers writhing like worms.
His whole body moved like that, boneless, fluid, the skin hanging off him in sheets. What had been a stiff gait they thought born of injury was instead some sort of illusion. It sickened and terrified both Will and Marion but still they continued on. They knew who they were going to meet, and they expected much worse than this liquid-bodied creature.
The moss clinging to the trees around them gleamed like rubies when it should have been mottled green and brown. Vines as thick as fingers recoiled from the path. At first they thought it was a trick of the mind, but no, the vines swayed away from the four of them. Snow still packed the edges of the deer trail, as wrong a shade of mucus green as the moss was red. Even the occasional burble of snowmelt running in small streams down the slopes sounded oily and wrong.
Something cracked in the darkness beyond the reach of the glowing bell crystal affixed to the tip of Marion’s walking staff. She and Will jumped, and Marion nearly tripped over a snarled root poking out of the muddy earth.
“Daddy,” Soto whined. Will carried him the last few miles up the trail, and now their child clung to his father as best he could manage with his shriveled left arm. His good eye, the one not covered in incestuous milk, flicked every which way as he stared out into the darkness.
Will shifted him, and murmured as firmly as he could manage, “It’s all right, Soto, it’s all right.”
“Yes, all right, all right,” their guide repeated, turning and waving towards the trees. “Almost there, little one.”
“Not little,” Soto said. His voice was always stuffy like he was ill. It was only through the village doctor’s care as an infant that he could breathe through his nose at all, and the surgery Soto required left his voice later scratchy and muggy.
“No, you’re very brave,” Will said, and pecked him on the cheek.
Marion stiffened at that. This had been Will’s idea after he heard the sugary words of their guide. He had been the one to push her towards this. Now she wondered if he wasn’t too soft to see it through.
The thin path vined its way through the trees as though the creatures making it had been confused as to where they were going. Little surprise there. Even without this corruption, Ter Caymore rarely seemed the same forest twice. Giants nestled in caves could clear out groves of trees in one afternoon. Kelpie, irate at the Daughter and Mother having locked them in ice for the winter, would flood the paths of human and beast alike. Other natural devastation like fire or the howling winds would destroy vast swaths of Ter Caymore, leaving the landscape alien to those familiar with it even weeks before.
Soto’s snuffling turned into wails again. Every cry from her son only made Marion’s resolve stronger. All their children bore the mark of incest in one shape or another. Evina’s eyes didn’t match and her mouth turned up on its left side. Martin grew the beginnings of a patchy beard when he was only ten, and could do no more than the simplest arithmetic. Henton, their oldest daughter, crossed her eyes until a mancer healer cured her when she was about Soto’s age now, and still spoke with a lisp, though thankfully not enough of one that it stopped the neighboring farmer from striking a deal to marry her off to his son for five head of oxen.
Soto though… Soto was their great shame, the son they could not take to the village with the rest of their children to sell their meager vegetables. To bring him was to incite whispers about Will’s first wife, long ago offered up as ash to hasten her journey to the Boughs. The village mayor attempted to convince the brother and sister not to act on their desire to wed. But for Marion, Will was the only one. The only one who defended her against their parents, themselves cousins. The only one who understood her urges. The only one who she would allow to come to her in the night. They burned for the decision in the bent and broken children they bore. And Soto? Soto was the peak of that terrible shame.
Not a healthy light, like the bell crystal, which even in this mutant gloom could not be dimmed, but a flickering, mad red and yellow swirling together like liquid, not so much rising like a flame should, but rolling.
Beyond was a simple hut built from mud and branches, anchored by two ill-formed trees bent as though desperate to be chopped down. A creature sat at its entrance, and at first, Marion thought it was an enormous dog, or perhaps a small, sickly bear. But as they neared and it rose to attention on two legs, she could see now it was not quite beast, and not quite human. Short, as short as a dog standing. Its legs bent at several different points, and its rough, leathery feet bore claws, as did the five fingers on its one remaining arm. Only the shoulder of the other arm remained, covered in rough, jagged scarring as though it had been gnawed off. The creature was naked and covered in patches of rough, bristly fur. But almost none of that registered to Marion or her husband. Instead, it was the face they both stared at, human, but all the details were wrong. Its huge eyes bulged from their sockets, only barely dimpled by a hint of color save for the sickly yellow where there should have been white. Its teeth, what few were left, hung at odd angles, and a long, dripping tongue flicked out. The ears were nonexistent save for a pair of bare nubbins, and the neck flesh hung in rings.
The mancer of Ter Caymore kept abominations. The bile building in the back of Marion’s throat threatened to spill out, and behind her, Will muttered, “Yakiv, save our souls.”
Their guide whirled as easily as a tornado on his sloughed heels. “We are here,” he said, his eyes gleaming.
Soto’s tears dried. He stared at the abomination, then slowly reached a hand out towards it, as though he wanted to pet it. Father, Mother, and Daughter above, but that would have solved so many problems if the beast killed him. But Will clutched Soto harder, taking a stumbling step backwards until a voice cut through the angry crackle of the fire.
“What do you want?”
Her voice bore no anger, no curiosity. Instead, she sounded weary, and given the late hour, perhaps they had interrupted the mancer’s sleep. Marion swallowed hard. Best not to piss on the shoes of those who could draw out the Resonance, their mother taught Will and Marion, and she instinctively bowed low, sweeping her tricky leg out and grimacing when the old throb in her knee hummed.
“I did not ask you to bow. I asked you what is it you want?”
A pair of blood-orange eyes gleamed in the darkness of the hut before a woman stepped out. Her dress of badly-sewn rags and thick leaves did little to conceal her body. Her sex and one of her nipples were clearly visible through several holes and missing patches. The same could be said for the rest of her. Dried blood crusted near several fresh scabs and scars probably brought about from wandering among the brambles and branches of the woods. She didn’t seem to notice the cuts, or care about the twigs and leaves stuck in her long, graying hair. The eyes were the only truly terrifying part of her visage, but given how human their guide had appeared at first glance, this woman could be hiding her freakish nature under the surface.
“I brought them, I brought them, can I rest now?” their guide pleaded, ending in a whine of desperation.
“You may rest. Come when I call you again.”
The guide burst into tears moments before he simply burst. His skin ripped apart, and thousands upon thousands of fat red bugs covered in tiny, jagged prongs dropped to the gray earth. The bugs burrowed and disappeared like rainfall on parched soil, and Will yelped his fear. Marion was too terrified to say or do anything.
Will found his voice first, and asked, “You… are Emisha?”
“I am,” the woman said. She flicked her fingers and the abomination came to her. She scratched it atop a series of scarred ridges on its head.
Marion swallowed hard. “Your guide, he told us things. How you help those who need it. Always for a cost.”
Emisha stared at Soto, one of her hands curling and uncurling. “He told you the truth.”
The child gurgled, “Baby baby baby,” at the abomination, and the thing’s tongue lolled out to his mad giggles.
Emisha strolled to him and reached out for his milky eye. She pried it open despite his batting hand and her teeth gleamed like broken mirror glass. “Someone tasted fruits they shouldn’t have.”
“Foot!” Soto said, trying to say fruit.
“Our farm,” Marion said, trying to ignore that. “The crops are sickly and we been barely getting enough copper to feed the family.”
“Soil’s bad,” Will agreed. “Oxen’s getting sick. Unless things turn around, we won’t last till Father retreats again for the winter.”
Emisha took Soto’s bad arm and squeezed it. He gave a squawk of pain and indignation, and she ignored him. “And he’s your offering.”
The choice that had seemed like such a relief just hours ago now roiled in Marion’s belly, and she wanted nothing more than to run with Will and her child into the forest. But the same thoughts that led her to listen to the guide with growing need in her heart emerged again. Changing Soto’s cloth diapers every day. Trying to spoon feed him gruel, the only thing he would eat. Wiping down the drainage from his nose and his eye constantly, lest he get yet another infection.
Free. They could be free.
“Yes,” she said, and Will echoed her a second later, his voice trembling.
“Put him down,” Emisha said.
Will hesitated one last time, and Soto grabbed at his ear. He pulled his son away from his favorite toy and stared him in the eyes. “I love you, Soto,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. But you’ll be helping your sisters and your brother.”
“Evie!” Soto said, grinning when he heard “sisters.”
“Yes,” Will said, and kissed his boy’s forehead. He held up his five fingers, splayed out wide in the sign of the Boughs, and whispered, “Forgive us.”
Marion mimicked the sign too. She was not as religious as her husband and did not believe the spirit went anywhere after death, let alone to the arms of the great trees of the afterlife, but in case she was wrong and her son waited for them after their time, she did not want to risk making her journey decades or even centuries longer.
Soto tottered towards the fire, going to it as instinctually as a moth. He held his good hand out. Emisha knelt beside him, and turned his face towards hers. Finally, their child seemed to recognize the strangeness of the situation, and his humor vanished.
“Yes,” Emisha said, pressing her thumbs to Soto’s temples. “Yes. I will help. I accept your terms. Your son for the health of your farm.”
Marion gasped her gratitude and closed her eyes. Will raised a hand to his breast and said nothing, but drew a deep, shuddering breath.
“I will let you both live, when I am through with his metamorphosis,” Emisha said calmly.
“His what?” Marion asked, one eyelid parting just enough that she could see the woman through a slit.
Soto and the mancer stared into each other’s eyes, and she drove her thumbs harder and harder into the boy’s temples. He whimpered, and as Emisha kept up the pressure, he cried out, “Mo… Mommy?”
Tendrils of the Resonance shot from Emisha’s fingers into the boy’s skull and he shrieked. There was no build-up. His pain was instantaneous and his scream even louder than the time Will broke his arm when he wouldn’t stop bawling.
“What’s happening?” Will shouted. He darted for Marion and grabbed her arm, too terrified to try to run to his son.
“Please, let it be fast, whatever you’re doing,” Marion begged, falling to her knees.
Emisha glanced at them both, her eyes narrowed. The abomination behind her gnashed its teeth, and as the ropes of magic blasted into their son’s skull, Marion finally understood, and she retched up a thin string of putrid yellow bile, getting it all over herself.
“No,” she gasped.
From the darkness at the edge of the forest, something crunched, and a man-sized figure emerged. Its back was bent and covered in finger-length spines. His face was wrong, all wrong, mashed together like a wood puzzle. In his hands was the remains of a meaty bone, stinking of rot. No. He wasn’t gripping it. It was buried in his hand, another part of him gone horrifically wrong. Another creature stepped out almost right behind Marion and Will and they clung together as a gaunt Handar slouched a full two feet taller than them, its stomach flayed and whipping open and closed on a collection of eyeballs and teeth. A winged creature didn’t so much drop from the branches of the trees as fall. Surely its misshapen body was too broken for flight.
Ignoring them, Emisha said, “The transformation never takes the same amount of time. If you would like to stay and watch, you may.”
Marion shot to her feet. “You… you…”
“I shall keep to my end of the bargain. Your soil shall be rich and forever easy to till. In time, such vegetables will grow there that they will become the envy of the nation.”
Marion turned and grabbed her husband’s arm. His lips tried to form words but none escaped his throat. She tugged him towards the forest. Will turned back once, his arm outstretched as though to take Soto’s hand one last time, but then the moment was gone, and they fled.
Emisha returned her attention to the boy as her abominations settled in around her. Magic once flowed through her like wine from the lip of a pitcher. She danced with the Resonance and it danced with her. But when she fell in the Glass Tower so long ago, her connection to the Resonance twisted and changed. Now it coursed over and through the jagged remains of her mind, grinding its way out of her to fulfill her one solitary command in this world. Corrupt. Corrupt. Corrupt.
She whimpered as the child whimpered, feeling every second of what she was doing to him. Through her, he felt her madness, the breath of a million worlds, and his mind, what little of it there was, shattered as hers had. The sorrow did not stop her. She would never stop, not until she walked through the Boughs and was returned to the Resonance.
How long she spent twisting the child she had no idea, but when she was done, he was unrecognizable. His first few steps were awkward, but he adapted quickly. There was little of the boy left. All that remained was monstrous, and despite the sickness in Emisha’s mind, her heart sang out to him, calling him with the same broken tune as her magic. He shuffled around, his new arm sliding across the forest floor, doing his seeing for him since his one good eye was now mostly obscured by the regrowth of his skull.
He was hideous.
He was beautiful.
Her hands twisted as she murmured the words, and the Resonance flowed through her. The abominations came to her, all of them within the pull of the fire. There were others in her thrall, but they hunted elsewhere. These would go southeast and haunt the fishing villages and farmlands.
Emisha would stick to her word. The boy’s family would live. She did not wish for revenge for the abomination. In fact, she could not think in any coherent fashion. Her conscious mind fled her when she began to change the child, as it always did. The horror of everything she wrought was too big, too overwhelming, so rationality fled when she worked, and might not crawl back for days and days.
The smallest abomination rubbed against her fingers, ready and at attention. She licked her lips, wondering how much death this newest creation would bring. It did not please her. It terrified her.
“Hunt,” Emisha said, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.