fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
From the journal of Schism, explorer and sage- 42 years after the cataclysm:

I’ve been to Solace twice before this visit: once, while they were setting up their clay buildings inside the narrow cliffs of the Rift Canyon, just east of the Kraken Channel; again, to help them establish trade routes with Cair Mallus on the Western coast, a town with which I have also developed a good relationship. These women are as resilient as steel in the new life they have forged; in a mere two years, they have changed from broken souls, to refugees, to builders and citizens in a miniature kingdom.

Not all of their struggles had been resolved as easily as their flight from the ashen town of Vaust, however. They chose to inhabit the canyon due to the isolation it afforded, but none of them are equipped to deal with the challenges of being isolated.  And they are quite wary of strangers. The first time I went to visit them, I was locked in a cage for a fortnight before I could convince them that my intentions were good. They needed someone to show them the outside world, so I set up a trade route on their behalf; Cair Mallus gave them meat and vegetables for crafted goods of all varieties. They were nearly starving, having only the most challenging game available in the vicinity of their town, and none among them, with the exception of their leader, knew how to hunt.

They have progressed farther since then, but this recent secret missive from Guardian Lillian, instructing me to return to Solace, was delivered by the same caravan running the trade route. I suspected that the isolationist policies of Solace had mostly gone unabated. Without knowing the reason for the missive, I returned to Solace immediately, arriving at about midday three days after receiving the letter. As I walked through that sandstone canyon, tall enough to let in only a crack of sunlight, I reflected again on how cool the passage felt. Even though the sun was nearly overhead here, the high walls kept the temperature low.

Lillian met me at the gate. She looked ill in the dim light of the canyon; the wrinkles creeping underneath her brow informed me that she was gravely concerned about something, even as she tried to maintain an official presence. She did not need to try. She seemed to me to be as regal, authoritative, and somehow sociable, as any other decent ruler I had ever seen, although she was the only example of such a person.. After providing me with quarters in her house, I was invited to dinner. This courtesy she bestowed upon me with a sense of gravity--whatever I had been bidden to come here for, it would be happening tonight. I entertained the idea that I was being given a surprise party while I dressed to prepare for a formal gathering.

The women of Solace ate in the center of their village, with their clay cottages surrounding them, as if they were all a large family. They sat in a circle and chatted casually with each other about their days. The air was rich with the smell of campfires, beef, and potatoes. Even the cooks who had served the entire village were given special seats in the circle after all had been fed. Even though there were probably over two hundred women in the circle, everyone was close and amiable with each other. I sat next to Guardian Lillian, who was eating quickly, as if she would soon not have a chance. I grew more concerned until I simply asked her what it was all about.

She turned to me, with an intense seriousness, and said, "In three minutes, I will propose a toast to you. You deserve it, but I also require a favor. I want you to stand up, and acknowledge each woman of the village in turn, looking at them with direct eye contact. This is very important to me, Schism. Direct eye contact. Make a mental note of every person who makes eye contact with you. Do you understand?" I nodded.

Three minutes later, she began to bang her drinking cup with her knife, and I was made to stand up. Feigning my surprise with a little bow, I began the task as requested. One after another, each woman that I chose to look at looked aside as soon as I glanced at her.

Except for one.

As I returned to my seat, I informed Guardian Lillian of the young woman immediately across the circle from us. Lillian whispered to me, "No true victim of Vaust could possibly maintain a man's glance for any amount of time. That woman is not one of us." I asked her about herself, as she always made full eye contact with me, and she intoned, with a brief chuckle, "I am no man's victim." Lillian had escaped from Vaust by learning to become a nature-manipulator--I have no other words to describe Lillian's talents, which I had only experienced on one other occasion.

With a flick of her wrist, Lillian summoned pillars of sand to circle the young woman's legs and hands, binding her to the ground. People cried out and ran away from the writhing person, who was arching her back and screaming curses in a guttural tongue that could not have come from her body. As we approached the restrained thing, Lillian demanded, "What is your goal, creature? Why are you posing as Walen just to dine among us?"

I realized then that my eye contact challenge had been a façade. Lillian knew the names and lifestyles of every person living in her village and had likely been aware of the identity swap for several weeks before this meal. She wanted me to witness this moment.

Rather than answer the question, the fiend posing as Walen began to open her mouth, making retching sounds. A head appeared from her mouth, with completely red eyes on pitch-black skin. The creature laughed as it abruptly yanked its long, serpentine arms out of the woman's throat. Lillian attempted to ensnare the body of the creature by conjuring ribbons of stone, clay, vines--none of it worked. Objects passed through the creature as if it were no more than a dark cloud in the form a tall man. It cast no shadow in the limited sunlight as it wrest its limbs, each with a jarring impact, from the woman who it had inhabited. Walen was choking on the creature, turning blue and purple, unable to breathe, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Fully removed from its host, this creature stood about seven feet tall and had arms that dangled from its shoulders to the level of its knees. Though shaped like a man, this onyx apparition would have been nearly invisible were it encountered somewhere dark.  It smelled like rotting milk at this distance, and some of the women cowering from it began to gag. That cackling sound, similar to metal scraping against a stone, seemed to come from its hands, which were reeling in some kind of oily rope. It had no mouth. I had only seconds to put all of this in my head; it took off in an awkward sprint, collided with a cliff face, and stretched its limbs over vertical sandstone, scaling the wall up to the cliff in mere seconds.

The creature was gone. In my mind, however, I retained that glimpse of the body-stealer. Whatever had enabled it to possess the body of Walen was apparently not enough to allow it to overcome a village guarded by a woman such as Lillian.

Walen returned to her normal color moments later, brushing her face to wipe away the tears and splotches of dirt that had stuck to her wet cheeks. I noticed then, a thin ridge just behind her cheekbone, running in a large oval from one side of her face, across her jaw to her other ear, and back again, crossing just behind her hairline, as if the front part of her face had been removed and then refastened with a little excess bone. A disturbing concept that I put aside while they gently propped her up, and gave her some water.

The young woman remembered nothing of the last two weeks since she had set out from the village to gather scrub grass, for stuffing pillows and beds, in the sun-stricken foothills of Mount Aramis. She had gone alone, inviting numerous risks to her health and the rest of the village. None of these known risks, to this point, had included the body-stealer. She vividly remembered, up to the moment it took over her body, her encounter with the fiend.

With Guardian Lillian crouched at her side, Walen began to softly tell the story of her encounter with that creature, pausing, from time-to-time, to shake uncontrollably as she recalled it. I listened intently, capturing every detail within this journal.

For some reason, the absence of death has not made living any easier.


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May 2017

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