Shadows of Shallowbrooke – Renewal of the Circle

September 21, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Please check out the Shadows of Shallowbrooke series tag for prior installments!

If we have to begin anywhere, I’d say we should start with Peter Hemphill. I need to remind you however, that although this story may start with him, the shadows that linger in Shallowbrooke did not. They resided there when Peter’s great grandfather, who were reputed to be the oldest man in town and perhaps the entire region, was nothing but an afterthought in the dim candlelight of a wedding bed. They existed even before that, long before the natives were driven to exile from their home, and strange settlers reworked and rebuilt the land. One of the villages they raised was Shallowbrooke, and even then the shadows waited patiently in the surrounding swamps, woodlands and lakes. What we speak of I cannot reveal to you, because it’s a door which remains shut, even to me. I dare not open it, because even if it’s closed, whatever’s on the other side gazes through the keyhole. Shallowbrooke was just unfortunate enough to be built in its shadow.

Let us instead focus our gaze on little Peter, who were indeed small compared to the revolving mysteries of the shadow. Peter was not a man of the world, actually barely a man at all. This was a fact he tried to deny by telling himself otherwise, yet in his heart he knew the truth. He was not in any way unique or different from all the other boys who balanced on the threshold between manhood and childhood, yet in the larger sense I suppose he was. He was the only child who hadn’t been born in Shallowbrooke, but moved there from Mournstead a couple of miles up the road.

He’d spent his adolescence trotting the summers and the winters on the village’ spooky grounds, and he was the only one who’d ever dared to ask about its twisted and obscure past. He’d only been thirteen after all, and rumors of Shallowbrooke were plenty outside its foreboding boundaries. Outsiders tended to avoid the village, a place around which travelers had a tendency to disappear, and as people always do when they’re afraid, they talked about it. Dark whispers and strange rumors, some true and some not, seemed to bloom everywhere except for within Shallowbrooke itself. This chilled young Peter, because his questions were met not only with silence, but with a sinister sense of superstitious dread. Everyone fell quiet for a while, as if in reverence to some God to which worship had been banished, and then resumed their conversation of the harvest, or the weather, or nothing at all. After some time, Peter had quit making his inquiries. Instead he had moved forward with the world, and taken up the habit of not asking when the people who volunteered for night watch disappeared or no one entered the mines because there was singing in the dark. In his mind he labeled it only as “the strangeness”, and went on to ignore it as everyone else

“What’s that, Pete?” Brian Hook asked him, one eye closed against the midday sun and the other peering at him through one swollen, sleep deprived hatch of a socket.
“Nothing,” Peter replied offhandedly and tugged his cigarette back to the left corner of his mouth. He did this with some care, as if it was a chore worth a certain amount of consideration. They’d been up since the break of dawn, thinking they were to help their fathers tend the western fields and maybe clean out the barns, but it had turned out being so much more than that. With aching backs and sore muscles, they’d come to the agreement to meet down by the brook after work, smoke a cigarette away from their benefactor’s prying eyes and maybe catch a peek of the lovely Marietta Bradle doing the laundry. She’d inherited her good looks from her mother alright, but the intelligence shining in Lucile’s eyes must have skipped a generation. Lately Marietta always put the laundry down too deep and soaked a little more than was called for, coming back up with her blonde braid dripping and the front of her shirt stuck to her breasts.

It had become something of a ritual for the boys, and even one or two men I might add, to sit on the other side of the brook and spy on the girl. Her occasional breast dipping gave room for aroused giggles and hushed laughter from the onlookers, as well as a few low whistles and sexual endearments. The possibility that she might have been aware of her witnesses all along and dipped her breasts on purpose was a thought which never crossed their minds. This afternoon however, they’d been unlucky.
“Think she’ll come down later?” Brian asked hopefully, one eye still shut against the bright golden light.
“Nah, I think Mrs. Bradle must have done it earlier.” Peter replied with the tone of a man who’s thoughts are in the far away and long gone.
“Wouldn’t mind seeing her dipping her breasts either.” Brian mouthed and plucked a tall straw from the ground which he shoved into his mouth.

“Hey, what’s that?” Brian called out and gestured to something floating in the water. Peter pushed his hat back on his head and gazed out over the brook, a patch of scruffy blonde hair falling down to cover his brow.
“What?” Peter asked as he was ripped from his thoughts, but it was a just a reflex. A large sheet of white cloth floated slowly along the stream, expanding as it went like a torn sail.
“Looks like someone dropped something.” Brian added with a shrug. “Was probably big-tits-and-no-brains.” He continued with a distasteful smirk. Peter lost patience with him. He balled his hand into a fist, extended the joints of his fingers and struck Brian hard on the right shoulder.
“Hey, what?!”
“You don’t need to be an ass.” Peter said, scowling at him with a judging glint of retribution in his dark eyes. Brian shrugged again.
“We ought to fish it out and return it to Mrs. Bradle.” Peter said, and Brian nodded at him, sore after being scolded.

Peter grabbed a tall twig from the underbrush and fished the cloth out of the water. He held it out in front of him before dropping it in the dirt with a sudden shriek.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Brian asked, annoyed, something which might have had something to do with his earlier scolding. Peter didn’t answer, just stared down at the cloth with his mouth open in an O and his eyes wide and staring.
“What’s wrong, Pete?” Brian asked and took a step closer, worried now as well as curious. There was no need to ask anymore, he saw it, and his own lips parted in surprised horror. Half the sheet had bloomed with blood, the crimson now faded from the extensive time under water, but it was still almost black in the center. ‘That’s where the victim bled’, Peter thought, his thoughts slow and clumsy as if dragged through mud.
“Maybe…” Brian began tentatively. “Maybe Mrs. Rathburn had her child?” He finished hopefully.
“She’s not due for another five months. If she’d had a miscarriage we’d have heard about it.” Peter said slowly, a part of him wanting to believe very badly Mary Rathburn had a miscarriage. He actually found himself wishing it so bad he was afraid he might cause it if she hadn’t. What was the alternative after all, murder? It was an insane thought, one he tucked away deep in his mind and locked away. No one would murder anyone in Shallowbrooke. They’d all been neighbors, friends and family since the beginning of time. No, it couldn’t have been murder. He would bring this cloth up to his father and ask, he would know what to do. His father always knew what to do.

Peter was essentially a kind boy, but as we’ve established he was not a man of the world. There had in fact been plenty of murders in Shallowbrooke. The village was built upon them like a memorial to death and anguish. Its bloody history reached back through thousands of years, reached through civil wars and witch hunts, through human sacrifice and cannibalism. It touched upon the ancient men’s first taste for bloodshed, continued onwards through insanity and despair, splashing the pages of its past with rivers of corpses and insane acts. The tiny speck of blood found on Lucile Bradle’s sheet was just a drop in the ocean, or in this case the brook.

None the less, something had begun to go very wrong in Shallowbrooke. Even in a town accustomed to wrongness, there was a time when everything peaked. Now that time had come again. Oh lords and ladies, bring out the scythes, because it’s harvest time. Something was preparing to bring in the crop alright, and it all began with sweet Marietta Bradle. She was not sixteen, as her mother had been when she wandered off into the forest and came upon the shadow, but two pristine years older. For us, time might have stood still, but for poor Lucile it has not. Twenty years have passed since we saw her last, and they have treated her well. She married and had Marietta barely two years after her return from the woods. Her scarred mind has mercifully clouded most of her memories, even those of the woman in the hut and the horse she left behind. Now she’s no longer sure if she walked or rode on that path, and she can just barely remember how something could have gone so horribly wrong. In the starless dungeons of the night however, she dreams about the meadow. She dreams of the dead eyes of the sheep staring endlessly upon a dark sky, their fleshy ruins infecting the air with death and stink. Most of all it is the singing of the crows she remembers. It follows her as she wakes sweaty and panting in the dim dawning hours, cawing with evil glee at the horrors of the world.
“I liked it!” She’d wake and cry with her mind still trapped within her twisted and muddled memories.
In the feverish gleam of her subconscious, the complexities of the human mind wiped away the lens, removed the illusion and showed her what it had known but not been allowed to tell. She saw the bowl with the corpse eaters, yellow and squirming, born from the carcasses of dead children. She knew then, knew in the half second she was allowed to have this uncovered knowledge, that something was inside the hut with her, something unspeakable that said;
“Did you like the mushroom stew?” And its voice was dead, toneless and hideous, but worst of all; it wasn’t entirely lacking humor. Somewhere underneath the black sewers of cruel lies and sinister tunes, a giggle lay buried.
She’d stay that way, sitting up in bed with the tears streaming down her cheeks, no longer any idea what she’d dreamed or why she was crying. Her husband would stir beside her. Sometimes he woke up to comfort her, but more often than not she was alone with her terror. If we move forward a bit, because as much as I’d like to tell you differently, there really is nothing we can do for Lucile. She’s alone, and we have to let her move on with the world. Instead we look upon her daughter, Marietta, who is not her mother’s spitting image but close enough for government work. She has inherited the often flushed round cheeks her father brought to the mix, and while her eyes are brilliant blue like Lucile’s, her hair is curly and tarnished gold instead of bright blonde. She has a slow walk, as if she’s always careful where to put her feet, and she regards the world with an inquisitive shyness. Despite what Brian Hook might believe Marietta is in no way stupid. Her intelligence is a quick greased lightning, honed by her curiosity and completed by her passion for school work. If any of the boys and men who enjoyed watching her from the other side of the brook had done a little thinking of their own, they would have seen there was something terribly wrong with the girl. It was not an old thing either, for she had begun to change just in the past month.

It didn’t begin with the voices. If anything, I’d say it began with the dreams. Business such as this always begins in dreams, and the ones Marietta had during those chilly autumn nights were truly something extraordinary. They were as a matter of fact not really dreams at all, but more like messages. I won’t tell you from where, I don’t dare to go down that path, but I can tell you what they said. She dreamt of a large oak, centered in a clearing littered with human bones. Mossy vines danced in the wind, and the wood creaked solemnly in the gusts of cold air. She was not alone either. There was a girl there, young and beautiful, at the peak of her physical perfection and blooming with vitality. Her hair was bright blonde, straight and beautiful as it flickered in the wind. Lucile spoke in her older voice, the one of the mother rather than the girl, and she said;
“You should have gotten my face, love. The younger should always surpass the beauty of the older, don’t you think? You should have been prettier than I am.” In her sleep Marietta nodded slowly. Her lips parted and a gust of sleepy words escaped between them.
“Yes, mother… I should have inherited your face.”

The dream came back, not only once a week or every now and then, but every night. She thought about it during the days, thought about how right her mother was, how she should have inherited that face. Eventually she began to make plans. Maybe her mother’s face could still belong to her? The voices that came with the dream told her so.
It was a beautiful voice, but in the beginning it had frightened her. It was melodic and kind, but there was darkness underneath it, something terrible she didn’t want to think about. It was the voice that told her to drench her breasts and give the boys a good look. It told her it was all she was worth after all, that she was just a whore like her mother. Lucile thought she had gotten away, the voice said, but no one ever gets away. It also told her that Marietta deserved her mother’s face, and as she drenched the front of her shirt in the slowly trailing brook, she really couldn’t agree more. So on her way home, her basket of laundry cradled in her arms, she passed Leslie Doogle, the blacksmith, and ordered a pair of shears. She was going to cut something which was tough but very delicate, she told Leslie. She was going to cut something which needed a great deal of care and precision. So Leslie, grinning at the lovely young girl whose mother he’d once been in love with, made her the sharpest shears ever made in his shop. Two days later he had it delivered to her home. Had he known she was going to use it to cut off her mother’s face, he might have been somewhat reluctant to fulfill his work.

Marietta’s father was dead. Not in just any way either, but had ironically enough disappeared in the mines just like her grandfather. As such, there was no one to stop her the night she decided to inherit her mother’s face. She crept up to Lucile’s bed and placed a hand on her cheek. Her lips curved upwards from the love and tenderness woken by her mother’s resting form, and as the woman on the bed opened her eyes, Marietta slit her throat. She struggled to sit up, a horrifying gurgle of blood rising like bile in her massacred airways, but her daughter held her down. Still smiling Marietta whispered;
“Hush now, mother. It’s alright; it’s all going to be alright.” Her hand caressed Lucile’s cheek, now lined where it used to be smooth, but still possessed by a curious youthful beauty. Her life gushed from her throat in heart curdling gasps for breath and soaked the white sheet Peter and Brian would later scoop out of the brook.
“You know I deserve your face, mother.” Marietta whispered, her smile growing wider. “You’ll see its all for the best. I love you.” She then kissed her forehead, and Lucile wept as the world first grew dark, and then vanished all together.

Marietta hummed softly as she got to work. She would possess what always should have been hers, and she was sure her mother truly approved. If she’d wept for anything, it must have been joy. The shears were indeed sharp, fitting perfectly in her right hand, and it cut through the skin like wet tissue paper. However, even though Marietta was a proficient tailor, she was not a surgeon. Getting the face off a human being is not something you can accomplish very well with a pair of shears. It didn’t matter to her however, who had fallen so deep into insanity that her mind marveled at the twisted, distorted piece of flesh she eventually pried from her mother’s corpse. She walked over to Lucile’s bedroom mirror and sat down with the face mask in her lap. She got needle and thread from the top drawer and sewed a thin strap of leather to each side of the shredded skin. She then slid the mask over her face, not even noticing the thin trails of blood running from the freshly cut tissue and across her chin.

She yelped in surprised joy as she gazed upon her reflection in the mirror. The result was a twisted, distorted and horrifyingly malformed piece of skin which slightly resembled a face, but wasn’t anywhere close to Lucile’s likeness. It mostly looked like a bloody piece of leather which had been stretched too wide and was about to give in. Marietta loved it however, and the ugly yet beautiful voice in her mind approved greatly.
“There!” It said, and the malicious darkness behind its words had grown stronger, more dominant. “Now you’re truly beautiful!” Marietta couldn’t agree more, and she couldn’t remember a time in her life when she’d been happier.

Two days later, when Peter had shown the blood stained sheet to his father, and he in turn had taken it to the village priest, most of the town stood gathered in front of the Blue Badger in. It was a tavern which had once been somewhat prosperous, but had decayed and lost most of its clientele over the last fifteen or twenty years. The nature of Shallowbrooke being what it was, most merchants chose the longer route along the coast instead of the more direct road through the woods of “that place” as it was called by outsiders. Travels to the capital were never easy, but not many dared put the strange rumors of Shallowbrooke to the test. Despite this, some did, and many of these “some” disappeared as a result. Fifteen years ago many had still been brave enough to try, but one and a half decade was a long time of disappearances, and eventually traffic had ceased completely.

John Edgecombe, a devout and dutiful priest of Aeren’s church, held the cloth up for all the people to see. The red flower of blood which had bloomed at its center had faded even more in the passing days, but no one mistook it for something other than what it was. Low gasps and murmurs floated upon the air and fell silent as the priest began to speak. He was not a man used to be interrupted or even contradicted, and when he spoke people always listened. He was the closest thing to a leader the village had ever known. So how could anyone ever have suspected that he, the purest and the spiritually strongest man in the township, had begun to go insane?

“Who knows of this!?” He chanted like the village crier rather than the priest he was. “Something has run afoul in our village! Someone has been murdered!” He yelled, his voice rising with each syllable as if to pose a question. Peter, who stood next to the old priest, peered somewhat unsettled in his direction. Sure, there was a lot of blood, but was murder really the first assumption to make? Well, it was the first thought he’d had himself after all, and if there was that special someone who always knew best, it was Priest Edgecombe.
“Scathe! That ancient serpent, the timeless enemy of our beloved lord Aeren, is loose in this village! She slithers among you like a snake made of stone, spitting her blasphemies and whispers in your ears!” He was very loud now, his wide eyes sparkling with some intense feverish light, and Peter wondered for the first time if there wasn’t something wrong with him. He swallowed the thought. If anyone was protected by the higher powers, it was certainly priest Edgecombe. If he wasn’t safe, someone so close to the one true God, then whoever else would be?

It was raining. The sky had abandoned its brilliant blue skin and covered itself in a coat of filthy grey clouds. It opened its sorrow and wept upon the world with large, bloated tears. The rain splattered upon the roofs of the wooden buildings, the sheepskin farmer’s hats and the rawhide working trousers of those gathered. No one heard the tiny footsteps approaching from the rear, but as they saw her they parted like the sea before a religious legend from another world. Their faces twisted into horrified masks of terror, and their mouths parted in awe of the horror they witnessed.

Marietta strode silently through the crowd, the remains of her mother’s decaying face strapped to her own, smeared with drying blood and surrounded by the unmistakable stink of rotting flesh. Without a body’s natural remoistening capabilities, the once beautiful skin of Lucile Bradle had wrinkled and dried to an ugly husk. It was a sight I cannot properly relay to you. Just believe me when I say it was horrible beyond belief, and it struck the sad fate of Shallowbrooke’s inhabitants with a fresh bout of nightly terrors.

Priest Edgecombe silenced at once. With an expression of reproach as someone stole his momentum, and the more understandable reaction of shocked terror, he seized Peter’s arm in a painful grip with one gnarly hand. Peter who was still holding the blood soaked sheet didn’t notice. He was too busy staring at the new star of the evening.
“Am I not beautiful?” Marietta exclaimed, her eyes now lit by the lunatic which had come to dwell within her. She cackled wildly as she made a pirouette upon the wet soil, the heels of her boots digging into the mud.
“I inherited my mother’s face!” She chanted wildly as she spun around in front of the crowd. “I inherited my mother’s face! I inherited my mother’s face!” On and on she went for what seemed like several hours. No one else said anything at all, simply watched the lunatic girl as she spun around, cackling wildly at the sky with the face of her mother rotting upon her own.

“Take her away…” Priest Edgecombe exclaimed silently, his voice strained and hoarse from fright as well as dried up from his previous shouting. “Take her way and lock her up… She’ll be hanged by the morrow. No sermon.” He then turned and strode off down the high road as the guard grasped Marietta’s arms and legs, ignoring her confused cries of outrage. Only Leslie the blacksmith wept. He wept silently, without sobs or bouts of hysteria. His tears ran down his cheeks in trailing rivers of sorrow, knowing now why she’d bought the shears.

The days after Marietta’s grotesque performance, dawned vital and undisturbed. Each day’s sky slipped onto the black heavens in a brilliant birth of bright gold and feverish crimson. It then shed it for the deep blue of peace and good dreams. The lakes and swamps around the outskirts swept the village and the woodlands in a thin webbing of woven mist. It hovered above the ground in the way the elderly called “fairy dance”, embraced the township and its inhabitants in a false sense of peace and calm comfort. Everything seemed to have been undone by the world, as if it had forced hell to open its mouth and reclaim what it had set loose. Yet the corpse of a young girl swayed lightly in the wind from the branch of a willow outside of town. Her eyes had resigned to a milky white, now staring endlessly at the calm sky like two useless marbles. Her skin had grown pale, her lips a bruised and filthy blue reminiscent of winter and harsh upbringings. A slug slid across the landscape of her smooth face, and the tip of her tongue had fallen out between her lips in a blistered black contrast to the grey of her cheeks. The rope creaked in mellow agony as the corpse swung from side to side. Soon the crows would gather upon the rotting flesh and fill their bellies, singing the tune which had hounded Lucile as she was ripped from her nightmare by the cruel points of newly sharpened shears.

Something had gone horribly wrong in Shallowbrooke. Deep beneath the coiling, dark shadows of this world and the twisted slither of the next, something ancient had opened an eye. Within the tall grass of the western fields all life had fallen still. The birds of the woods had departed for brighter lands, and the wolves sat covering in the blackness of the night. The door had opened, if only very slightly, and harvest time had come again.

Credit To: Catcid

Shadows of Shallowbrooke – The Singing of Crows

November 25, 2015 at 12:00 AM

There is nothing quite as unsettling as being lost. It’s an oppressive feeling where the world seems to stare down from the sky, maliciously following your sad progress like a kid with a magnifying glass.

For Lucile Bradle it was her first encounter with hell on earth. She was sixteen years old, bright and pretty in a way which kept her harassed by the somewhat younger boys. She was the sweet one who knew all about being polite, worked hard and occasionally brought home a wounded animal she’d found on the road. In other words, she was the girl everyone loved just slightly more than the other brats around the village.

Each year of the harvest, which was around mid-summer in Cardenholme, the village of Shallowbrooke organized a small feast. It was especially looked forward to by the young ones, as it wasn’t the kind where the adults ended up drinking themselves senseless; falling asleep in their food while the maid and the farmhand snuck off in the forest. It was a pleasant evening where the children could stay up for as long as they wished; join in on barn dancing, games and play until dawn slowly drenched the world in light.

The day after the harvest however, a hunt was put together for good sport. Not many in the village had access to either pistols or rifles as Shallowbrooke was remote and depended on other sources of income than game. But there were a few, and those who owned them were madly proud of them too. Lucile of course had never been one for hunting. But in the dying hours of the day, as the sun drenched the thick crowns of the trees in its feverish red light, the thought of riding through the woods with the warm summer breeze in her hair and the smell of nature in her nose just couldn’t be resisted.

Shallowbrooke has its secrets, however. It is a homey township with few outsiders, secluded and ever unchanging in its silent slumber. It flows fresh green in the summer, buzzes with life and children’s laughter as the farmers toil on the generous fields. In fall it’s bright gold, the leaves casting their dying radiance across the woodlands, and the brooke snakes its way through the underbrush, casting prisms of reflected light as it sparkles in the sun.

The people here live, love and work together. Everyone knows their neighbor and gossip in good humor about the new baby or the blacksmith’s pretty daughter. It’s an idyllic life of isolation which timelessly rolls by in sweat, smiles and love.

But no one gossip about the caravan which never arrived or the hunters who traveled into the woods and never returned. As darkness rolls over the land, strange cries can be heard from the depths of the surrounding forest, cries which probably don’t belong to wolves or owls. No one comments, no one asks. In unspoken consent the villagers fearfully and, to outsiders, oddly ignores all these sinister predicaments. But why wouldn’t they? After all, everyone ignores the grass they walk upon as well, and no one comments why the clouds in the sky are as white or grey as they are. It’s the way the world works, and there is no reason to interfere in what you cannot change.

But when Lucile wanted to go hunting, parental concern overruled the silent consent. Her mother, who was a brilliant beauty even in her mid forties, stomped angrily into the earth and almost shrieked;

“By absolutely no conditions!” Her eyes glared wildly with a desperation which frightened her daughter slightly. It was the look of a mad woman who preaches about the end of the world. “You are not going into the woods, young lady, and that’s final!” She pointed a finger at Lucile’s chest, the desperation on her face transforming to an anxious terror. Now, what we must understand is that Bertha truly loved her daughter. But as aware as she was of the horrors of the woods, she was not very proficient in reversed psychology. If she had been, she’d most likely never forgive herself for this moment in her life.

The rivalry between women is much greater than that of men. Males constantly test their mettle against each other by show of force which usually puts an end to any disagreement. Female rivalry can proceed for many years, and none is quite as strong as that between mother and daughter. In other words, lovely Bertha did everything but pack Lucile’s bag on that beautiful evening.

She only stared at her mother. Her lips were pressed into a thin white line on her face and the deep blue eyes she inherited from her deceased father sparkled with anger and annoyance. There was something radiant about her, and one day she’d most likely grow up to put her mother’s beauty to shame.

“I’m going!” She said, determined to defy her mother’s anger which unconsciously she accepted as a challenge.

“No you are not!” Bertha shrieked and reached forward to grasp her daughter’s arm, but it was too late. Lucile darted out of the way and turned, moved with the speed of youth and escaped the homestead. With her hands clutching her skirts, she ran with the evening sun in her eyes and the summer breeze in her hair, up the slope and into the stables. She heard her mother coming after her, crying now as well as screaming.

“No, Lucy! Please!” There was a terrible desperation in her voice which broke Lucile’s heart, but she was her father’s daughter as well, stubborn on the verge of pig headed. She jumped up on her horse with the agility of someone who’d spent most of their life in the presence of livestock. With her skirts hanging over the saddle, she rode out of the building and onto the small path by the edge of the meadow. Somewhere behind her she still heard the sobbing of her mother and almost gave in and turned, knowing she was punishing her too harshly. But we must remember that Lucile was only sixteen years old and still possessed by the arrogant stupidity commonly found in the very young. She chose to continue her course and disappeared into the bowels of the woods.

Lucile knew the path, and she knew how to reach the main road. The band of hunters would follow it for a short while before swerving off to the east, taking a small path towards the brook and proceeding north from there. Lucile knew she could catch them just before they turned, and proceeded in a slow gallop towards her goal.

The guilty emotions of hurting her mother slowly faded as the brilliance of the setting sun painted the world crimson. It was as if the land was bleeding, the trees and the moss seeming to glow with faint reddish light. She slowed the horse down and proceeded to trot along the path while humming an old tune, yet there was an odd feeling haunting her. It was ominous and wrong somehow, as if she was closing in on something she was forbidden to see. But the world around her was peaceful and inviting, buzzing with the life of summer and youth. She shook her head and attempted to quell the feeling. She didn’t succeed and proceeded to simply ignore it.

When she reached the end of the path, without the main road anywhere in sight, she knew something was terribly wrong. She tugged on the reins and her horse came to a stop, snorting in good humor and began to sniff the ground for something edible. Lucile pulled up her skirts and hopped from the saddle, the first seeds of panic already planted in her heart.

The path ended suddenly and naturally, simply thinning into the underbrush. But it couldn’t be; this path had always lead straight to the main road, without any turns or confusing byways. But as she gazed ahead there was only forest. Thick lines of oak and pine stretched out in random patterns endlessly towards the beyond.

Lucile had never been lost in her life, and her father had shown her these woods. She should know exactly where she was, recognize every stone and branch on the ground. But she hadn’t the faintest idea. She turned on her heels, gazing back the way she came as her panic was beginning to grow full and violent in her chest. To her horror, the path she had been following wasn’t a path at all, but a small trail that faded into nothing just a few paces ahead. The hill she had descended just a few minutes ago looked entirely different from how it should. It was rocky and steep, dead trees protruding from its side like grasping fingers.

She must have wandered off the path without noticing and ended up in a part of the woods she’d never seen before. But how was it possible? She couldn’t even remember taking any turns. Her mind whirled; reaching for any point of logic it could cling to. There was none, no explanation to be had. She shoved her hands into the thick mane of blonde hair on top of her head, her face contorting into a forlorn mask of anxious bewilderment.

What was she to do next? Well her choices were obvious really. She could either keep on forward and find the edge of the forest, or turn back from whence she came and attempt to find the path she must have wandered off. She breathed heavily and stroked the mare, reminding herself that she was not alone. It helped, if only slightly. It was only a horse after all, and if anyone was going to do any thinking it was going to be her. She got back up on it, took a deep breath and turned her around. It obeyed instantly and casually started trotting towards the steep hill.

But as she came closer another devastating realization struck her hard in the gut. The fabrics of reality seemed to sway and unfurl around her as she realized something beyond her logical ability to comprehend. The hill was far too step for her horse to manage, and would absolutely have refused even attempting to descend it. It was not a flat wall of gravel and stone, but it was not far from it. But she had ridden down that hill, without a doubt, the memory was fresh in her mind and fifteen minutes old at most. What was going on?

She felt her lips begin to quiver as her panic, fully grown and ravaging her innards like a beast, overwhelmed her. She leaned forward and stroked her mare with shaking hands, her throat almost clenching together as she began to speak;

“You… You know the way home, don’t you, love? Go home, Felicia. You hear me? Go home to mom.” The mare flicked her ears and stomped restlessly on the spot, but didn’t make any indication to move. In a calm and casual demeanor, the horse began to prod the ground for something tasty to scoop into its mouth.

Meanwhile Lucile had begun to cry; heavy crystalline tears rolling down her pale cheeks. Without much thought except for the wild guidance of panic, she turned the horse around and galloped in the direction she was headed before. The horse kept an even speed as it darted between the trees, jumped over fallen logs and mossy boulders like a spirit of the woods.

It had grown dark, and with the tears still in her throat, Lucile had no choice but to reign in the horse. It stopped self consciously in a small clearing by a huge oak. It was lined with beeches which drowned the area in a thick blanket of shadow; inviting a sinister sensation of isolation.

Lucile slid from the back of the horse, weary from the ride and the panic. With the tears still drying on her cheeks, she looked up at the endlessness of the sky, trying to find comfort in the beautiful pictures painted there by the god Aeren.

She remembered her father saying the stars were Aeren’s diamonds, each larger than the entire world and more brilliant than anything humans could imagine or comprehend. She conjured an image of her father’s face in her mind, scruffy with beard and unkempt hair. Yet he had been handsome in the weather beaten way women seemed to like. Lucile remembered his eyes the most vividly, deep blue and shining with a curious intelligence. He had enjoyed the forest and been fascinated by the unknown, but his family had been his one true passion.

When he disappeared in the mines underneath the village, Lucile and her mother had never fully recovered.

“I miss you father.” Lucile whispered to the sky, fresh tears trailing down her face. Less than a second after lying down in the high grass in the middle of the grove, still gazing at the brilliance of the sky, she passed out from exhaustion.

She awoke less than three hours later from the horse neighing anxiously. It flicked its ears and strode around the glade, turning and stomping in the ground with its hoofs. Lucile quickly got to her feet, cursing herself for forgetting the horse before she passed out. It was a wonder it hadn’t wandered off on its own.

She approached the mare carefully and placed her hands on the silky skin around the muzzle, stroking it carefully while whispering soft words of comfort. The horse calmed down after just a few moments and scoffed against Lucile’s hands, the warm breath reminding her of the cold and prickled her skin with goosebumps.

As she stood there, almost forgetting about the seriousness of her situation, it came back to her in a flash as something cried from the surrounding forest. It was faint and ghastly in its distant moaning, bleeding in the air upon the threshold of hearing before slowly fading. With a sense of rising horror, her feet frozen in place and her breath instinctively slowed, she recognized the sound.

She’d heard it plenty in the village after all, especially around the break of summer when many mothers seemed to be due. It was the balling of a baby, an infant child lost somewhere in the depths of the forest. Yet the cries were different in a way she couldn’t quite define. While the screaming of the newly born in the village was the sound health and life, this had a sinister cling to it. It was the cries of abandonment; an infant freezing to death in the dark, embraced only by the cold fingers of shadow and despair. But then why, she wondered, was she so terrified?

The horse grew restless once more as the ghostly cries eventually faded out to nothing, leaving the night still and forsaken. But the silence was deafening, and somehow worse than the strangely evil cries of the lost child. Adrenalin pumped through Lucile’s veins, and her heart banged in her chest, seeming almost to pummel her ribs in panic. She was suddenly convinced she was not alone. The forest seemed unnaturally dark, the large oak casting the glade in shadow suddenly foreboding and sinister. She noticed something then, a revelation which caused her heart to freeze and soul to cry out in fearful agony.

The oak hadn’t bloomed. No leaves adorned its crown, only a patchwork of skeletal branches reaching towards the sky and the surrounding forest like deprecated tendrils. Decayed ropes hung from its grasping fingers, rotten and moldy from decades of exposure. As the clouds of the sky rolled on, the full moon pierced the woods to illuminate the blackened hellhole poor Lucile had chosen as her refuge. What she saw sent shivers running through her spine.

The forest floor was littered with skeletal remains. Human skulls, arms and torsos shone pale in the bleak moonlight, decayed faces leering at her with shadowed eye sockets. She had mistaken the ropes for vines in the dark, and the glade had been in too much shadow to reveal its skeletal inhabitants.

As she stared at the tree, seeing it as a graveyard rising towards the sky, the mark on the trunk became visible to her. It stood out in her mind, and as she regarded the nightmarish symbol something surfaced from her subconscious. It was a word, one she had never heard or read before in her life, and yet it rose in her consciousness like some malicious idol; Atuteran.

Her courage snapped and she ran.

At some point she passed out, or maybe she fell and hit her head. She only remembered running through the dark woods as fast as her legs could carry her, completely forgetting about the child, her horse and any perils which might linger in the depths of the dark.

As she ran the trees seemed to bleed, evil in their cold and frozen places, hoping to trip her with their tangling roots. She felt tears running down her cheeks as panic were replaced by dread and hopelessness. Even the mossy ground seemed to rumble and churn as she sped across it, opening and closing to invite her into its moldy hell.

Her legs eventually gave in as the taste of blood dominated her tongue and her lungs felt filled with lead. The world spun and twisted around her, and then all was silent and devoured by darkness for a few merciful hours.

She woke from the sun pressing against her eyelids and the sound of birdsong filling the air with its lovely chorus. She opened her eyes only to stare at a brilliant sky, ocean blue and devoid of clouds. Tall grass surrounded her vision, and she sat up slowly to get her bearings.

She was in a beautiful clearing surrounded by the deep woods, now inviting and peaceful in the illumination of the sun. The clearing was actually more of a small meadow, well tended and cared for as a garden. Confused, she inspected the area closer, and was met by the welcoming sight of a small cottage in the middle of the glade.

A gnarled but handsome apple-tree grew a few yards away from it, large green apples sprouting upon its branches. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the chimney of the hut, filling Lucile with a throbbing yearning for home, but also hope. She looked down upon herself and saw the torn and muddy fabric of her dress, once rose red and now mostly black.

She felt her hair and grimaced at the cakes of dirt and moss sticking to the strands. A bath would have been a blessing, even in a cold spring.

It was amazing how a quick look of resembled civilization could bring back all the insignificant cares of a mundane life. Are my clothes fresh? Is my hair alright? Do I say aye and ye, or do I make a more city-girl accent? Trivialities which all fell away in the face of what truly mattered, the question which comfort hid when it fabricated the meaningless cares of a modern existence. Desperation and exposure had brought it back to her, or even revealed it to her as she had always dwelt in a protected township; how do I survive?

She got to her feet and remained so for a brief moment, scouring the meadow and the inviting cottage at the center. A mild breeze caressed the land from the east, bringing smells of summer blossoms and climaxing life, yet something was strangely off. Lucile could not define just how or why, but the homestead up yonder made her feel just as uneasy as it did hopeful.

Maybe just due to its isolation, she rationalized, and started making her way towards the front door. As she neared, she heard the familiar sounds of goats from the other side of the building, and a fenced in triangle beside the door held a small flock of hens. Lucile knocked twice, the sound reminding her of a fist on a coffin. She shivered.

There was a pleasant smell of something cooking from inside, but something hid underneath it; the stench of something which had been left to rot in the sun. Footsteps approached the door from the other side and Lucile took a hasty step backwards, suddenly filled with a senseless wish to flee. Just what in the blazes was wrong with her?

The door flung open, the smell of sweet cooking intensifying to drown the reek underneath. Lucile stared into the beautiful face of a middle-aged woman. Her eyes were cold blue, like winter frost on a blade, and long curls of raven hair framed her features. She was tall and slender, full lips and high cheekbones. She might just have been the loveliest woman Lucile had ever seen in her life.

“Oh?” The woman said and smiled cautiously, her cold eyes seemingly boring into Lucile’s soul. “What is a lovely young girl like you doing out here? The forest can be dangerous you know.” Her smile grew wider as her face softened.

“I am sorry.” Lucile stammered, her lips going numb. “I went lost yesterday and I’ve been in the woods all night. Could you please help me?” Her eyes pleaded to the woman, the desperation unspoken yet unmistakably relayed. The woman’s eyes widened into a oh-you-poor-thing look and her hand stretched out towards Lucile, almost motherly.

“Of course I can, sweetheart. Are you hungry? Of course you are.” Lucile reached out and gently took the woman’s hand. Her skin was smooth and invitingly warm, like silk by the fire. She ushered Lucile in and sat her down by a charming little table next to an ornate window.

The indoors were deliciously homey; cozy in a fairytale manner. The floor was oak, elegantly veined and naturally colored. The walls were high enough to cause a brief sensation of vertigo, sturdy and well fitted to keep out the cold. In the corner of the one room the oak gave place to a rectangle of smooth stone.

A pot brewed there upon thin spidery legs of iron, and a burning furnace with a steaming kettle resting upon it. The window overlooked a small garden were roses, sunflowers and other colorful plants painted the world. It was an extremely comfortable homestead, smelling exquisitely of spices and flowery perfumes. Lucile immediately felt at ease.

“My name is Celeste Lily, by the way.” Said the raven haired woman lightly, now shuffling around the stove area for plates and spoons.

“Oh, I’m Lucile Bradle, miss. But everyone calls me Lucy.” Lucile said somewhat awkwardly, her head spinning with contradicting emotions. She felt like she needed to escape, yet she had no idea why. She also felt like staying forever, like asking the stranger if she could move in and forget about Shallowbrooke.

“Call me Lily, please. It’s my last name but it’s what I’ve always been called anyway.” The woman turned and smiled, her eyes lit with warmth.

“Lily, sorry.” Lucile said hastily. “How far is it to Shallowbrooke from here?” Lily seemed to consider the question for a few moments before she smiled and said;

“About an hour walk straight through the woods I believe. If you go around my hut and continue straight on, you’ll see a small path in the underbrush. Follow it until you reach the main road and then travel west along that until you reach Shallowbrooke.” She smiled brilliantly, and Lucile thought again of how she must be the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.

“Thank you!” She said and tried to rise, anxious to be off. Lily put a hand on her shoulder and said;

“Nope! You’re not going anywhere until you’ve gotten something to eat.” Lucile sat back down, half glad and half annoyed with the strange woman’s care. When Lily put a plate with steaming soup in front of her face though, there was no hesitation. She was ravaged, threw herself at the food and stuffed it into her mouth. Lily smiled at her, amused, and gently sipped from her own bowl as she regarded the charming scene.

The soup wasn’t the best meal Lucile had ever had in her life. Her mother’s pies held a private place in that regard, as well as the chocolate cake Mrs. Thompson made each year for her birthday. But after almost two days since just oatmeal and some eggs for a shallow breakfast, the soup was definitely exquisite. To be fair, it was more of a watery stew. It was filled with spices, tender pieces of sheep meat, cucumber, carrots and some sort of mushroom Lucile couldn’t place. She helped herself twice out of the steaming iron pot, and washed it all down with cold water.

When she’d finished, she leaned back in her chair and clasped her hands in her lap. She regarded Lily cautiously, waiting for her rescuer to speak first. She eventually did.

“Was the mushroom stew to your satisfaction, child?” She tilted her head to the side and smiled warmly, her crystalline eyes glimmering in the light of the furnace. Lucile felt a pang of unease, as if something was horribly wrong, but she couldn’t see why. Everything was perfectly ordinary, neat and tidy.

The floor was swabbed and clean, the books on the shelves ordered alphabetically; the ingredients on the stove neatly stacked or put in named jars. Lucile gazed back at Lily, who still smiled brilliantly at her.

“Thank you so much, Miss Lily, you truly might just have saved my life. But I am very anxious to get home.” She gave the woman a pleading look, not wanting to be rude or rush out even if her instincts told her to run until her bones snapped.

She tried to hide her distress, and must have succeeded as the strange woman didn’t seem to be faced by it. She rose from her chair and took Lucile’s plate, walked over to the stove and put it in a basin of water. Lucile half expected her to cover the doorway, pull a knife and laugh manically as she transformed into a hideous crone, just like the ghost stories told would happen if you came upon Scathe in the forest.

But Lily merely sighed pleasantly and turned her head to gaze at Lucile, her eyes displaying a mixture of forlorn complacency and genuine sadness.

“Yes, I understand, dear. But it just gets so lonely out here sometimes.”

She hummed a tune, appearing to contemplate something, and then opened a small box on the counter next to the stove. She produced two pieces of delicate meat, kept in salt and still exquisitely fresh. She wrapped them in a thin piece of cloth and brought it over to Lucile, smiling as if the girl was her own child.

“Take this.” She said and held the package out to her. “You’ll need it more than I do, and you could always spare me a thought when you ask your mother to cook it.” Not daring to refuse, Lucile took the package gratefully.

She thanked the woman many times before stalking over to the door, placed her hand on the doorknob and walked outside. Lily didn’t stop her, just smiled faintly from where she stood by the stove, her eyes glinting as if she had a secret Lucile just missed. Well out in the open with the smell of summer blossoms surrounding her, she felt free and safe once again.

With the package of meat in hand, Lucile strode around the corner to the back of the hut. She paused a moment to greet the sheep held in a pen just behind the cottage. Yet, something about them made her feel uneasy, just as the woman had before, and she quickly sped up her pace towards the edge of the woods on the other side of the meadow.

As she reached the tree-line, she spied into the underbrush and quickly found the path Lily had spoken of. With a wide smile of relief on her lips, Lucile was just about to leave the meadow behind when a gust of cold wind had her shivering. It was odd, as the wind had been warm and comfortable earlier, a caressing stroke rather than a cold breath. The world had grown dark as well, something which unsettled her further as the sky had been cloudless. But it was the bickering of crows which forced her to turn, and what she saw froze her heart and chilled her blood for years to come.

The sky was dark, covered in a misty cloak of black clouds, rippling and unfurling sinisterly in the cold breath of the world. The mischievous wind whistled through the crowns of the oaks and beeches surrounding the meadow, tugging at their branches, forcing them to squeal.

The charming cottage in the center of the field had been reduced to a moldering ruin, rotten timber littering the ground along with burnt pieces of wood and stone. The part of the building which was still standing peered at the world with one black window, the glass smashed to pieces and reduced to a hollow socket of cobwebs and death. The sheep lay dead in their pens, their flesh black with rot and eyes staring milky white into the darkened sky above. Flies and other insects made their homes in the deteriorated carcasses, buzzing and working hellishly in the nightmarish husks.

Something creaked slowly from above her and Lucile turned her horrified glance to the branch above her head. A corpse hung there, swaying slowly in the wind, the old rope creaking with each gust.

It was decayed and at least a decade old, long hair clinging to the balding scalp, moldy and covered in thick cakes of moss. The face was hideous and deformed, a disgusting mix of rotten flesh and bone coming together to form an evil leer with gouged out hollows for eyes. Crows gathered by the corpse, cawing their foreboding songs and pecked at what pieces of flesh remained. Lucile saw it had been a woman, its dress tattered and rotten but unmistakably there. A sign was hung around her bony neck upon which someone had written;


With her hands shaking and lips parted to release tiny puffs of breath, the smell of spoiled meat struck her like a slap to the face. She looked down upon the package in her hands and almost spilled the insides of her bowels. The cloth was gone and so were the delicate pieces of meat within. What she held was the rotten worm-ridden leg of a goat, crawling with maggots and blackened just like the corpses of the sheep up yonder. She dropped it and stumbled backwards, a deep whine escaping her lips.

Her sanity desperately clung to what little memories she had of reality, struggling with all its power to remain intact. Just as she thought she was incapable of sustaining anything more, she gazed into the hollow eye of the ruined building, and saw something shift in the darkness within. Something had moved there.

Lucile turned and ran for her life.

She ran for almost half an hour. The woods had by then had its oaks and beeches replaced by pines and thick moss. The path lead where it was suppose to, all the way to the main road, upon which a frightened, cold and near insane Lucile came straggling an hour later. Her golden hair was a rat’s nest of dirt, leaves and branches. Her lovely Sunday dress was tattered, her young beautiful face smeared with mud and filth. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, just underneath her bosom, and when a rider came and swept her up on his horse, she passed out for a few merciful hours.

Lucile was taken back to Shallowbrooke. There she was greeted by her mother’s warm embrace and tears of happiness. The village welcomed her home in their own neighborly sense. The baker gave her bread, the blacksmith a few new horse shoes and the seamstress made her a new dress to wear on Sundays. All free of charge. She was greeted by her friends in embraced longings, a few tears, and even admiration for her defiance. But Lucile never forgot the nightmare or the questions which never ceased to stir within her mind.

What had awaited her inside the cottage, and what had she really eaten?

Shallowbrooke is a peaceful township. It’s a place where the adults work slowly in good cheer; everyone knows everyone and the children often grow up as siblings. It’s a small community without cruelty, mean gossip or deranged individuals.

But it is also a place where men and women sometimes go missing; where strange cries come from the woods at night, caravans don’t arrive and some trees never bloom. There is a shadow preying on the lands of Shallowbrooke. A shadow which engulf, devours and rolls around every window, threshold, path and stump. It’s its own kingdom of nightmare and despair, a place from which some never return.

And whatever walks there, walks alone.

Credit: Catcid


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