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October 28, 2011 / Bika

Whispers After Dark

I love the enthusiastic celebration of the eerie, the creepy, the surreal and the strange that goes hand-in-hand with Halloween. When I was little I got my hands on a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The tales themselves were worth a chill or three to my prepubescent spine but it was the illustrator that took it over the top with gems like this: 
Nice image to impress upon a young and fertile mind, no? I had to unfocus my eyes and cautiously check each new page, covering up any pictures with my hand and then–slowly, AFTER reading the passage–spread my fingers apart to reveal the horrors beneath. I think I understood even then that some things are just too brain-meltingly scary to take in all at once. Little bites, my darlings. Little bites.
I’m taking this opportunity to dig up (ha, get it? Dig up? Work with me, people) some macabre and creepy stories of  my own, both new and old. Remember Libby’s nightmare? I guarantee you she does…or rather she would, if she were still alive.
[Excerpt from The Tree, originally posted here 11/30/10]

*  *  *

Libby began to see the fox in her sleep. It invariably darted into the bushes as before, and Libby invariably took off after it, assuming a sleek feline form as she chased it over the hills of Feralas into the misty northern forests. Every dream was identical to the last and realistic down to the feeling of cold, damp grit under her paws as she ran.Wait for me, she called out in the chilly air, and always the response came singing back to her flattened ears.

Come, there is much to be done. Come, the Mother is calling.

Morning would find the druid scrubbing frantically at the pots, the floors, what meager rugs they’d brought out to their home in the wilds. The beat of her heart mimicked the rhythm of her frantic plea.

Mother, hear me.
Are you there?

More than once she caught herself staring blankly north. Always north; this began to feel of supreme significance to her, that if only she could find a proper northern path she would emerge in some hallowed ring of earth, to be greeted by the Mother Herself. Her daily forages took her on paths that drifted inexorably toward the great cliffs that divided Feralas from her northern sister, Desolace.

In a breathtakingly brief span of time she’d convinced herself that it was only right that Desolace held the key to her restoration. It was, after all, her homeland. Where better to connect to the spirits than to the very soil which saw her greeted into this world?

So, when one day the fox appeared on her path, looking expectantly at her with those gold-rimmed yellow eyes, she twitched and fell into the well-worn course of her daily dream.Over the hills, cross the road, under the canopy of enormous trees they ran, sleek black cat tailing bushy red fox, neither winded even at the point they reached the forbidding pillars of the desolate gate.

The lush greenery of Feralas quickly gave way to ruined, ash-like soil as they crossed the border into demon’s territory. They kicked up tiny plumes of gray dust, they bounded over stones and dodged roving guards, they skirted pools of viscous purple fluid that were once ponds teeming with life.

Libby began to slow. The fox took note of this and paused to watch her trot along until she got close, then bounded ahead. They continued in that fashion for an hour before they came upon a deep ravine lined with stunted trees and the corpses of lesser vegetation. Another pool of burbling demonic fluid lurked below. It was there on the shore of that sluggish puddle that the fox came to a final stop and waited patiently for the druid to catch up.

When at last the sleek, panting black cat reached the creature, she had to fight the urge to lie down and rest. Instead she circled the yellow-eyed beast and sniffed tentatively at its fur. She could smell nothing but the overwhelming odor of fel taint from the scummy pond and the sour ashy dust that seemed to lie over everything here.

You have come.

At the sound of that voice, a new and powerful hope sprang up within Libby’s heart. She lay down on the filthy earth and whined with her tail lowered.

You are needed, my daughter.

An unseen hand shoved her forcibly out of shifted form; the cat was now a groveling black tauren with her waist-length braids trailing in the dirt. Her hair and short black fur, matted and wet with sweat, were painted with powdery gray streaks of dust and dirt. It filled her nose and left gritty poison on her tongue.

“Please, Earthmother, tell me how to serve you. I humble myself before you, instruct me!”

You will serve me here, little one. The dead foliage began to groan and rustle, whipping about as though caught in some tumultuous wind.

This place was once a beautiful grove, my daughter. You will purify and restore it.

“Every day of my life, Oh Earthmother, I swear it! Only grant me the means to do so and I will be your humble servant for the rest of my days!”

So be it, said the magnificent voice, and there came a crackling sound from the earth. The sky dumped a torrent of rain on her head and soaked her to the bone in an instant; the little fox fled to a boulder nearby and observed the terrifying scene with its watchful yellow eyes.

Clumps of blackened, twisted briers uprooted themselves and limped along on their stumps; a hollow sapling dripping with violet ooze creaked and groaned as it lifted itself from the earth and set its witchy dead branches toward the prone druid, inching forward one root at a time.

Libby felt fear welling up inside her and cried out for the spirits of the earth to keep her safe. If any heard or answered, she could not tell. Her hooves began to itch. Rising up to her knees, she tried to stand and was unable; a frantic glance revealed gnarled roots growing out of her feet, her legs gone hard and dry up past the ankle. It spread. All at once her entire body itched with searing intensity. She scratched at her skin only to find that it cracked under her fingers, splintering as it slowly petrified from the ground up.

She began to scream.

The foul rain streaming down in buckets filled her screaming mouth and threatened to drown her; it turned the powdered earth into a sinking, stinking cesspool of sticky mud. Her calves and knees began to sink into it. Roots burst out of her legs with painful force and buried themselves in the quickening mud, planting her solidly into the earth from the knees down.

Leaning forward to brace her hands on the earth, she used her last ration of coherence to try pulling her legs out of the sucking mud. She could get no purchase. The ground was too soft and her hands sunk in to the wrists. Meanwhile the brambles had finishing their lurching trek across the stormy ravine; they coiled themselves around her thighs and arms, yanked her hands up out of the mud and twined between her fingers. In spite of her vigorous struggle, they were able to pull her arms up over her head, curling about her face and throat as they did so. When her spine finally snapped erect she was solid from the neck down and could no longer move anything but her eyes.

The animated sapling reached her and sank into the dead mire before her. As the brambles lashed the pair together, the druid’s frozen face and body fused to the dead bark of the tree with thousands of mind-breaking crackling sounds. She was still screaming silently when her braids turned into vines that lashed about in the storm.


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