Notes: This story is coauthored by Deus (his chapter is also called Soul Prophesy) and he posted his part at as well. Go read it and all of this will make more sense.
The night was alive with burning colors and sparks of molten excitement. From every corner dark shadows slithered toward the throbbing pulse of life. Whisper soft they entwined their spectral arms about the writhing bodies and caressed faces stretched, grinning masks of jubilation. Soundlessly shrieking they swarmed around the mass of moving beings.
They were everywhere, enveloping the night in a coldness reminiscent of the forgotten graves. She felt the air being torn from her lungs by the mad spiral of phantoms. She pressed her hands over her ears trying to drown out their moans. Icy fingers tangled in her black hair. They jerked sharply, bringing tears to her eyes. In slow motion she raised her arms to fend them off. Her hands slid through them but theirs didn't. Raw welts on her flesh from cadaverous fingernails centuries dead. Screaming for them to stop, to leave her alone, but they laughed and laughed. Teasing whispers of death and the scent of tomb flower swirling in a hectic chaos through an ocean of insanity.
"What?" River iu'Kren blinked twice and looked around in bewilderment. What was going on? She blinked again and met the pale blue eyes of her closest friend, Mag Resvan. The concern on the older girl's face would have been touching if it wasn't mostly misplaced. She didn't need to be worried about by others; River's view of the world was jaded and bitingly cynical. If something should happen to her then it would be her own fault and no one else's.
"Sorry, I must have been gathering stardust." Looking down she noticed that, during her spell of daydreaming, she had dropped her tray. The dark brown mead spread in a puddle where bread crusts and fruit rinds floated about.
"Ha! I'd say you've been gathering whole stars, girl," Mag laughed as she picked up the metal tankards still dripping their contents onto the wood floor.
"Well, maybe. I was just thinking about the festival, that's all." River bent down and sopped up the mess with a tattered rag. If she didn't have this mess cleaned up before Barr noticed she probably would never be allowed to watch the festival. He always had a fanatic need for cleanliness. So why he ran his own tavern instead of becoming a priest of the Order, she couldn't comprehend. Those priests were always preaching about how being clean made one closer to the Divinity, and other crap like that. Ha, if they really believed that then they should be helping the poor and the destitute, instead of telling others that it was their duty to show charity. Hypocrites, each and every one of them.
"I can't wait till Barr lets us leave," Mag sighed, glancing wryly at the one of whom they spoke. "If you can believe it they chose my great aunt to be Death's Bride. Last year it was Luca's cousin, and the year before that her grandmother, but not this year. Helen will have her day in the moon!"
"Really? How long has your aunt been dead? She must have been really old to have died at just the right time for the festival." River paused to look at her friend in surprise.
"She died last summer, she was seventy years old. I tell you this, never have I seen Luca's face turn a more garish shade of splotched red before, and it was all due to my great aunt being chosen." Mag laughed twirling around, drops of mead flying from the tankards.
"I hope she doesn't lose anything like Luca's cousin did. I can't believe that she lost a leg right in the middle of the whole thing. And to make it worse that leg smacked into Mayor Ricard's young bride." Both of them convulsed in laughter in the middle of the tavern, but none of the festivalgoers noticed. They were too busy refilling their tankards and then returning to the excitement.
"Hey, stop laughing and start serving!" Barr yelled shaking a fist in the air. Smothering their giggles the girls exchanged amused looks then continued with their jobs. The odor of the place was staggering, but they had gotten used to it. River had gotten used to everything in her life, and lived with a minimal amount of complaints.
"Oh this is a great sin. The Divinity cannot look upon this with a kind eye." River rolled her eyes as the village's priest stumbled through the door. His blue robes were in disarray and some exuberant person had stuffed tomb flowers into his belt. From the smell of him, he was no stranger to drinking.
"How 'bout a drink, sir?" she inquired offering him a filled tankard. He waved a dismissive hand and sat down. Shrugging she set it down in front of him and observed him lifting it to his lips with a shaking hand. So much for the will power to resist temptation. Everything seemed to be run by weak willed individuals with now sense of self.
Wiping her hands off on the cloth hanging from belt she negotiated the maze of wooden tables. Nimbly she dodged the unwanted advances of one the tavern's patrons. Her formidable agility was the product of growing up in tavern where some men had fewer morals than others. She had learned early on that some men just wouldn't take no for an answer. Therefore, the only solution was to be too fast for them and always aware of where their hands were.
"I want you to keep that priest's cup full all the time. I don't need him making trouble by spouting his holier-than-thou speeches," Barr hissed, glaring balefully at the withered husk of man who sat praying between sips of mead. Roughly he handed her a pitcher and sent her back on her rounds.
It wasn't a rewarding job since she never saw a copper of what she should have been earning. Her mother, Shalna, was the only one Barr had truly hired; River was just a fringe benefit. Shalna had been the mistress of a powerful lord of the realm, until he learned of her impending pregnancy. Unwilling to compromise his position or bring scandal down upon his family name, he cast off her mother. Heavy with child she had eventually managed to find a place to work at the Chasm Tavern and Inn where Barr's first wife had taken her in.
River barely remembered that woman; she having died when River was four. What she did remember was the only source of motherly affection she had ever known. But that was so long ago that it seemed more like a bittersweet dream than reality. And the reality was that she was a bastard in a world where only legitimate children found acceptance. That wasn't to say that the village rejected her, but the stigma of her birth seemed to follow her around like a vicious shadow. She had a few friends, Mag for instance, and many more acquaintances, but on the whole she was ignored. And she liked it that way.
A great cry rose from outside and she could see the flames' shadows dancing on the walls. The drummers' beat their instruments to a faster tempo and the festivalgoers cheered and screamed. Funeral pipes played in accompaniment to the drums while someone beat vigorously on a cowbell. Laughing and singing, the crowd swelled around the bonfire, raising their arms to the stars burning in the nighttime sky.
River bit her bottom lip wanting desperately to join the festivities, but knowing that abandoning her post would mean extra labor. It was conceivable that she could sneak out and back without Barr noticing, but did she really want to risk that? The consequences would far outweigh the brief flash of pleasure she would have at watching the whole affair. Really why did she torture herself with thoughts like that? She would go when Barr let her. Maybe Mag's aunt would still be in one piece and dancing when she finally reached the festival.
"Hey girl, give us another!" Sighing she made her way towards a burly man waving his tankard in the air and splashing his comrades with its contents in the process. Warily she approached, mindful of errant hands and any other token advance the men offered. Deftly she filled their waiting cups and bounded away from their waiting hands. Men, such animals, she thought in disgust.
She held her whole job, and life in general, in disgust. Maybe if she hadn't grown up in a world where violence and alcohol were part of everyone's life, she could have had those fuzzy, warm emotions that Mag had. Her mother had warm feelings–for anything male it seemed.
River had gotten used to seeing Shalna disappear from the Tavern on the arm of some anonymous man, then reappear a few hours–or minutes–later with a jingling coin purse. She had also gotten used to the whispering and nasty remarks about that woman. She felt no love for Shalna and knew for a fact that she, as Shalna's daughter, was only a burden to her. Shalna had told her quite frequently that if it wasn't for her, she could have had a comfortable life with no worries. Well, she hadn't wanted to be born, so they were equal.
The ever-opening door swung upon its hinges and another patron entered. She spared the person more than her usual cursory glance for the man was a stranger. She knew everyone in the village and few people from the outside islands ever came to their town so she felt a moment's curiosity. She grabbed a full tankard and made her way towards the man clad in worn, but well-oiled leather.
"Here you go sir," she said cheerfully as she set the mead before him. He glared coldly at her with expressionless brown eyes. A sliver of fear went down her spine. He had eyes of a professional killer. If someone had asked her, she wouldn't have been able to explain how or why she knew that. She just did.
"River, River!" called Mag from across the room, a tray precariously balanced on her head and her hands filled with pitchers. The girl gratefully turned away from the stranger's piercing gaze. Somehow, and much to River's surprise, the statuesque Mag managed to successfully navigate around the sea of people and tables.
"What?" River inquired as she carefully removed the wobbling tray from her friend's silvery-gold curls.
"Well, thanks to your mother–to Shalna," Mag quickly amended, "Barr is letting us go. Saran and Pasha have arrived. They were 'delayed' at the festival. So we can leave and have fun."
"Great. This is couldn't have come at a better time. I'm about dying from the heat and the stench." The combined warmth from several dozen sweaty and grimy men, who hadn't bathed since the spring past, was causing sweat to trickle down her face and back in continuously. Even standing in the fire would be preferable to this crush of humanity.
Laughing the two friends deposited their burdens gleefully on the counter and, arm in arm, raced out. It was a night to celebrate with abandon and exuberance. The Festival of Death was always held in fall when the first snows frosted the ground. It celebrated the end of life and the slumber of cold death. It was a remnant of the Necromancer rituals from the old days, or so the elder folk claimed. Supposedly there was this powerful legion of Necromancers, the sons of Death, who had swept through the islands and enslaved the entire population. This went on for decades until, that's when her knowledge of history became sketchy, something happened to them. She half-remembered something about a great power that had risen up and banished them back to their Father's care. A god who had sacrificed himself in order to stop the sepulchral onslaught. Then the Order rose up from the main island and peace and happiness were restored, or so Mag said the history books said. River really wouldn't know being mostly illiterate.
But enough about her failings, of there were many, for the celebration was still in full swing and she was ready for a break from her menial chores. Oh, if only the festival was held everyday, maybe then what she did would have some meaning, which didn't say a lot.
Up on a platform, in front of the roaring bonfire, the corpse of Mag's great aunt Helen danced. It twisted and writhed, arms flung out with the motions of the body, and brittle gray hair drifting down to the wooden planks. Around its decaying neck the Resvan family had placed several garlands of tomb flowers, whose petals were browning from the intense heat of the fire. Their heady perfume overpowered the odor that the cadaver's dead flesh must have been emitting. It was Death's blossom, a flower that only grew where corpses had been laid. One could always discover a forgotten burial by locating a patch of those flowers growing out of place. Their roots secreted a toxin that prevented anything else from growing there or any insect from feasting on the dead flesh. And supposedly their fragrance could entice wayward spirits to visit and revel with mortals, at least that was what Mag said her books reported.
"She looks very good," River remarked, raising her voice to be heard over the din.
"Yeah, she does doesn't she. We had a little problem with her left ear, kept falling off, so we sewed it on with black thread." Mag grinned, a proud look on her pretty face.
"You can't even see." They watched the figure continue to move about the platform.
The light from the fire etched everyone's face in sinister shadows making each face that of a skull. River shivered as she thought about it. She didn't fear death for she didn't think that being dead was any worse than living, but to see people she knew to be alive look as dead as a corpse was unnerving. It was just too reminiscent of her nightmares.
Every time she closed her eyes to sleep the dreams came, carried on the wings of malicious sprites. Spectral beings would surround her; skeletal hands would grasp her ankles and drag her down into the ground. She fought, crying and begging, but they would never stop, not until she joined them. Cold hands clutching pleadingly at her, sharp nails digging into her skin. Insanely they would laugh demanding that she yield, give up and come and play with them. And that was what she was afraid of. Terrified beyond reason that she would surrender and let them take her. They whispered insidious promises in a language long forgotten from the ripple of time's waters. Telling her secrets she never understood and with every word she was feared that she comprehended their meaning. That was when the earth would enclose her. Her scream of terror cut off as the warm earth flooded her mouth, falling down her lungs to suffocate her. The hands would continue pulling her down, laughing, always laughing.
Then she would wake up in her cot shaking and drenched in a cold sweat, breathing heavily and haunted by a thought that maybe it was more than a dream.
Of course she could just be going out of her mind. Hearing bodiless voices in her head like that old lady who lived on the very edge of town. Soon River would probably be like her, talking to herself and claiming that her cat was really a messenger from the Gods. She hoped not, she didn't think she could live like that.
"I have something for you!" Mag declared suddenly, breaking into her melancholy thoughts. "I know you don't like people remembering your day of birth, and yes I know how you like to forget that you exist, but I couldn't resist." She pulled out leather bound book from her apron.
"What's that?" River asked, almost afraid of the answer. No one, not even Shalna, had given her anything for her day of birth. Mag was right though; she didn't want any reminders that she had been born.
"It's a book on the history of the Necromancer invasions," was the reply.
"But I can't read it. Besides it must have cost you a small fortune!" River exclaimed pushing away the gift. She knew that it had been terribly expensive, all books were. Each page had to be handwritten and plain paper was hard to find. Something like that would be worth five gold suns.
"It doesn't matter, River. It's about time someone gave you something for free. I'm your friend and by rejecting it, you would be doing me a disservice," Mag, ignoring the vehement protests of the younger girl, shoved the book into her hand.
"No, sell it and use the money for yourself. I love it, but I don't need it," River cried while trying to open Mag's resisting hands so she could give it back.
"Look, no matter how much I spent, even if you can't read everything, it doesn't matter." Someone called Mag's name and she waved at the person. "I'll see you later. Happy day of birth." With that she was gone, vanished into the crowd of festivalgoers. The younger girl stood there for a moment longer half expecting her friend to reappear and dreading that very occurrence.
She felt as though something significant had transpired and yet was unable to say what had made it important. True it was the first time anyone had every taken into consideration her goals, but there was something else. The answer seemed to be spoken to her from just far of her hearing range. Blinking she realized that she must look a sight, standing there and not participating in the festivities.
With a self-mocking laugh she turned her back to the celebration and headed towards the edge of the forest where the noise and confusion receded to a vague suggestion. Why had Mag chosen this year out of all of them to finally give her a gift? Of course the question, which had always plagued her when she felt the most depressed, was that did she really deserve Mag's friendship?
The girl had spent too much on a bastard child with no talents to recommend her. Mag was the best reader, excluding the priests, in the village. So why would she befriend someone who couldn't read more than thirty words? Even the younger village children were more literate than River was. It had to be embarrassing, but it gave her an odd comfort that, despite her numerous faults, that Mag was open-minded enough to call her a friend.
Not many people were like that she knew from experience and from what she had observed. There seemed to reside in every person some vicious demon that loved to use the tongue of its host to slander and abuse others. No one was exempt from this, not even Mag who loved to insult Luca at every turn. And especially not the viper-tongued Luca Larshaw who's every word dripped a deadly poison. If one was ever feeling to good about life then Luca would be there to bring her down, cruelly.
She was the only villager who seemed to care about River's birth, when she didn't even care herself. Luca had made it her mission to torment, taunt and emotionally destroy her. Every snide remark aimed for the core of River's vulnerability, a place that was harder to find each time. River had developed a profound resolution when it came to that girl and for everything she said, in some sense, was true so she might as well be resigned to it. Of course River could still be angered, but she tried not to act on that anger. Not because it would lower her to Luca's level, she would gladly get lowered to that level, but because it just took too much energy.
It was odd moments like these, she reflected as she strolled to the edge where forest and field met, that gave one something to think about. It was flattering, somewhat, to know that the all mighty Luca was just as low as the village bastard when it came insults. The only significant difference was that Luca lived in a nice house with servants and her father was a fairly well off merchant. River, on the other hand, slept in the loft of the tavern's stable and only really knew that she had had a father or she wouldn't be alive–which might have been just as good.
But what was life without a few chasms to jump, or so Mag always said. If it was true it had yet to be seen, for River at least. Her whole life was on the chasm where one false step would send her tumbling down to an unknown fate. Every night in her dreams she faced that chasm and everyday a little more of the edge gave away. If she fell down would she become her mother, a woman whom she intensely disliked, or was there something else, maybe worse, there? Her own personal demons could reside there, and gods know there were a lot of them; her whole life being someone else's bad dream and all. Maybe she should jump and get the suspense over with. Surely her life wouldn't be that much worse. Hells, anything would be better…except being Shalna, who's discretion was pretty much non-existent.
Sighing gloomily River sat on a convenient rock beneath a fairly large tree. She looked at the tome she still grasped with her hands, as though she feared that it would be taken away from her. Everything seemed to be centered around it, such an insignificant object; her whole mood, her life, the very meaning of her existence. There in its pages marked by ink from some anonymous person's pen, the leather for which some hapless animal had unwillingly sacrificed itself. Was this all her life meant, some ephemeral work by some half-rate author who was most likely making the majority of it up anyway?
Suddenly there was a noise behind her that possessed a decidedly odd feel, but she couldn't quite guess what or why. Slowly and with great trepidation, she looked behind her. Maybe moving away from comforting light of the fire had been a mistake. She blinked rapidly when it appeared that the tree t she had been resting near had moved. It appeared to be closer to a small gathering of people as though some mysterious power had drawn it there.
But, on the other hand, she might just be going crazy like she had thought a while back. Of course the tree hadn't move she had just remembered it wrong. That lapse could be forgiven considering it was dark and no one was around to catch her.
Silently laughing at herself, for her paranoia and the convoluted path her wandering mind had taken her down, she shook her head. Maybe she was more touched by the gift than she was willing to admit–or maybe she was just touched in the mind. Either way that didn't excuse her melancholy thoughts on a night that was about the joy of the death of the old. Perhaps tonight her old self would die and she would awake shiny and new. Ha! Not very likely.
Her silver eyes flew wide open when she focused on the tree to find it not quite in the position it had been a second ago. In fact, by estimation, it had probably moved a good six or seven strides away from its last location. This time she knew that she wasn't seeing things, or she was, but the things she was seeing weren't in her mind. That tree had moved, no doubt about it. Now the only questions were: why and was it dangerous?
Preferring, on the whole, not to find out the answer to either, she calmly stood up, brushed herself off and bolted for the inn as though her very life depended on it. And if that tree was dangerous then her life probably did depend on it. She never looked back as she raced away, legs carrying her as fast as she could go.
The sun glowed a dusky gold in the cerulean sky overhead where only a few sheep's-wool clouds languidly drifted. The air was fresh with a slight chill, a reminder of the past winter. The white snow had melted in the face of spring's relentless tenacity. The areas once blanketed in smothering chill were now blooming with young, green shoots and dainty flower buds. Everything seemed to point in one inescapable conclusion: it was a beautiful spring afternoon.
River walked barefoot along a dirt path that was just beginning to show signs of, not neglect, but a lack of human usage. A place of solitude where one could momentarily forget the world. As soon as that thought occurred to her, she set off at a brisker pace. That's what she needed more than anything in the world: to forget her life for a moment or two.
As she came around a gentle bend in the trail, she watched it disappear between two large tree trunks. Smiling, she walked heedlessly after it. She wasn't worried, for what could pose a problem on such a beautiful day. She had forgotten why she was there or how she had arrived; it just seemed like she had always been there, always walking towards a goal.Deeper she went along the path, as it wended its way through the trees. Every turn disappeared behind a screen of trees, as another came into view. Slowly the sun vanished from sight, as the leafy boughs closed overhead. The father she went the dimmer it became; each shadow became deeper, menacing. A prickle of fear went up the back of her neck, as an ominous stillness replaced the comforting silence. Something had changed, something intangible that whispered of sinister endings. It wasn't right. This wasn't supposed to be happening. She knew this; how, she had no idea but she did.
The only sound was her breathing, surprisingly muffled, and the smothering tension of something to come. She couldn't go back for the path was gone; the only choice was forwards into the darkness that waited. The pressure was too much; fear rioted through her system. Terror seized her mind and she started running, feet blindly following the trail. Faster, harder. Leaves and trunks nothing but an unembellished blur. She couldn't go fast enough or far enough. The darkness that always hovered around her was back.
Heart pounding wildly, she exploded from the forest into–
Mist wound wispy tendrils around cracked tombstones covered in green-gray moss. A graveyard, she was in a graveyard alone with the mist–and the dead. It was like she could feel them, could always feel them lying there. A steady pulse that called in seductive whispers, promising darkness in which to fall forever.
Spinning around she found that, once again, the trail was gone. Gently the fog brushed against the gravestones and blanketed the ground. Here and there a dead flower raised its blackened head, as if it still held delusions of its own beauty.
A sound rose, surging beneath the noise of her own panicked breathing. A low scratching vibration like fingernails against hard packed dirt. Wildly she looked for the source, hoping that it wasn't what she thought it would be. It came from everywhere and yet, cloaked in mist, she couldn't tell where.
"No," she whispered looking at the white that covered her feet. As if in anticipation of her enlightenment, a boned-hand shot up clutching at nothing. Spastically the fingers opened and closed on the empty air, searching for something–for her. A second hand burst from the earth, flesh sloughing off with each frantic motion. She screamed as, from all around, the hands thrust themselves from the earth. From deep within the ground came moans of torment and despair.
Still screaming she tried to run from them, but they had her ankles. Dragging her down, as she struggled in vain. Pitching forward, she slammed into the ground. The wind knocked out of her. The fingers dug into her flesh, drawing blood that ran in rivers from her wounds. They latched onto her arms and determinedly forced her to join them. Crying and gasping, she tried to break free, but the dirt was up to her waist and she had only managed to free one hand. Desperately she tried prying the cold bones from her other arm to no avail.
Up to her neck, a clammy vice around her throat, she saw something. A shadowed figure standing motionless, watching. Taking a deep breath she called to the person, begging assistance. Stretching out her one free hand she implored. The figure remained still, faintly amused.
"No!" she screamed as the earth closed over her face, flooding her mouth. She tasted grit and decay, but still she was dragged down. Suffocating, dying…
Gasping River jerked awake in her small cot with the rough blanket wool twisted around her thrashing legs. Shaking uncontrollably and drenched in cold sweat, she sat there, clutching the blanket. It was all a dream and nothing more. Couldn't be more.
Now her teeth were chattering and it had to do less with the biting cold than the terrifying dream. Omen, some distant part of her mind whispered before fading. Soon she had forgotten everything except that she had been disturbed by the dream that always repeated.
Muttering an assortment of curses under her breath she settled down and pulled the blanket over her head. Now she had lost sleep and wasn't looking forward to the morning. Life really was a never-ending trial.
Please review with comments, questions, but not with flames. Thank you. Also don't forget to read my friend's, Deus, for the other POV of the story. There are two! And you should read both to understand.