When Churchyards Yawn and Hell Itself Breathes Out Contagion to This World
They both stirred in the darkness from their sleep. Althea turned into Galen’s chest half asleep searching only for the safety of his embrace pressing against the strength of his toned chest and wanting to sleep further. The two layers of barricaded doors between them and possible daylight made it impossible to tell if they were still left with the night to sleep or if it had passed to midday. They had no way to know. But Galen could still feel her tremble from the horrors in night that still apparently haunted her. He felt no need to rush their waking.
Even if part of his reasoning to let her sleep was purely selfish, he let her sleep and he dozed in and out of consciousness with her. He would hold her for as long as she would let him. An ever-growing part of him wanted to keep her here, in safety, and away from the monsters clamoring for her flesh. His heart suddenly cared less and less for the suffering of the world, and cared more only to keep her from further agony.
Hours passed or perhaps only minutes – time was an elusive shadow that they had no grasp on - and Althea stirred with more strength. The darkness was no longer complete and total, but still overwhelming. Only the dimmest shades and outlines could be distinguished in this light. Althea reached out her hand towards the outline of Galen and held his face. Galen held out his hand and held her face as well. He found her cheeks still wet with tears.
“What time is it?” she asked him. Her voice was horse, almost weak sounding. But he could still hear strength in it. No matter what had happened to her last night, no matter what she had faced, he knew she hadn’t been beaten.
“Hard to tell. I’ll go out and see.”
“No, we’ll go out together,” she affirmed as she started to get up to leave as well. She refused to wait alone in the darkness. She longed to see the light she was hoping was there.
They both ascended the stairs carefully and quietly and opened the hatch to their cellar hiding place. The pantry itself held a dim glow as the light shown from under the door. It was indeed day now and not night, though how late was hard to tell. They both felt rather rested physically, all things considered, but they were hungry and thirsty. Althea was the first to reach for the door, and she opened it slowly. The light in the room poured quickly onto her and her eyes painfully adjusted. She held her breath to listen intently for any signs of movement. She could hear none.
As they both emerged from the pantry, they felt the warmth of the day indicating it was no longer morning. The air held no dampness of morning dew; the sun had taken it all. Galen held out an arm to signal Althea to wait behind as he stepped out the door to assess the sun. It was well past midday. He looked around, made sure they were alone, and then turned to her and said, “We’ve slept most of the day. It’s getting on towards late afternoon.”
Althea seemed discouraged, but not surprised. “We’ll have to stay another night. We can’t set out this late. The hill is still a day’s journey from us.”
Galen dropped his head feeling some guilt at how much pleasure he found in holding her until they were both so far into the day. But that guilt was slightly overshadowed at how much he looked forward to more rest and another night holding her.
“We should find this village’s well. I don’t know about you, but my head hurts from dehydration. Maybe we can look for other supplies too. Carefully,” Althea added at the end. The villages even outside of the Plains were pitfalls for danger, but villages within the Plains were even more so.
“I think I remember seeing one in that direction.”
“Ok, then let’s start.”
Their search didn’t take long before they found the well at the village center. Galen started to pull the rope to bring up the water and realized the gears were in bad need of lubrication and made a lot of sound. They looked at each other frustrated at this, but Galen soon continued slower this time. Althea took her bow from across her chest and stood ready if their presence attracted any attention. Galen’s arms started to burn with the effort it took to pull the weight of the water-filled bucket slowly, but he didn’t want to show any signs of strain to Althea.
The first bucket full of water reached the top after what seemed like an eternity. Galen rested it to the wall of the well and immediately dipped his face to the water and drank until his belly was filled. The water was cold and quenched the burning in his lungs. The water seemed to sooth his insides that were strained and sore from pace they kept the day before. He wanted so much to pour it out on his head and feel that same relief all over his body. Instead, he turned to Althea and silently offered to keep watch while she got her fill.
Althea drank and drank until she felt that her insides would burst. Between the two of them, they had managed to drain the large bucket. Althea slowly lowered the rope and bucket as quietly as possible to bring more up to refill their packs.
With their chore at the well completed, Althea took back her bow, slung it across her back, and they began to quietly search the town with the remaining light of the day. Most of the village was ransacked either by those alive when they were fleeing or the Immortuos that pursued them after and destroyed everything in their rage that they could get their hands on. They felt as if they were walking through the bones of a slain beast bleached white from the oppressive sun years passed after its demise. Nothing left resembled what had once been. It was devastating to think that once each home was filled with the lives of a family, each shop held the livelihood of a living soul, and a community cared and held pride for a place that was now held in ruin. It was no longer a place that nurtured lives; this was now a graveyard. Only death was found here.
Galen sensed the weight that burdened Althea at each step, and he silently slipped her hand into his own. She was so far into her own thoughts, drowning in the signs of suffering around her, that the warm touch that she suddenly felt made her jump slightly in surprise. She gave Galen an apologetic look, and he just looked on at her with concern. She shied away from his eyes; she didn’t want to be pitied even if he meant well. Nothing was going to get better for her or anyone else if she hid behind being a victim.
In an attempt to shift focus from her, she walked herself to a demolished merchant’s stall and picked up some long pieces of broken wood. “Maybe,” she said, “we could make some torches to bring into our cellar. If there is any food still good here, it would be there or places like that. The light will help us look.” Galen nodded and picked up a few pieces of wood himself that would be appropriate.
Althea suddenly reached a hand to his bent back to stop him and stood frozen. Galen stood still as well and listened intently. Somewhere in the distance they heard signs of movement, shuffling of uneven feet. Althea passed the wood she held in her hands to Galen and once again removed the bow that rested across her chest and back and held it ready. The rustling became louder and was moving steadily towards them. Without a word between them. Galen placed his back against hers. His sight saw the way ahead, and her sight covered his back. He began to move forward towards their cellar, and Althea followed walking backwards with her bow still held at ready with arrow in place desperately praying she wouldn’t have to use it.
Their progress was slow and methodical. Each corner of the town they passed was checked before moving onward, but still the sounds came louder. When Galen caught sight of their kitchen building, he reached back behind him with his free hand and stroked her elbow in reassurance. They were so close, but they knew they had to keep their silent and slow movements until the last minute. Any careless sounds made in haste would reveal them. They couldn’t afford to give away the one place of safety that they knew and give signs that there was something to hunt within those walls.
Galen held out his hand and placed his palm at her back signaling her to stop as he opened the door to the building. She could hear him shift the weight of the wood he was carrying even as quiet as he was trying to be. Both of them felt that even the sound of their rapid and frightened heartbeat echoed down the streets of this town calling loudly to danger. When he released her hand on her back, she started to once again move backwards at his direction into the building.
As the door closed behind them, they could hear the movement quicken as if suddenly given direction and purpose. They immediately sat low on the ground pushing their backs and weight against the door to barricade it. The sound came closer. It was every bump in the night one feared as a child. It was every nightmare given form lurching closer and closer. It was no doubt an Immortuo, and it was getting ever nearer. There suddenly came a stench of death as the noises suggested their unwitting pursuer was right outside their building now. All they could do was desperately pray that it didn’t detect them.
So little was known for certain about the Immortuos other than they were living souls within their previously dead bodies. But so much of the unknown began to fuel anxiety and fear in Althea and Galen now. How alert and aware are they? How intelligent could they be? Their raw, base anger and rage were well known to all, but could they detect or distinguish like a sentient, living being? Were they clever enough to open doors in order to search, and what would drive them to do so if they could? All that Althea and Galen knew, was that they could not afford to assume any less. Their muscles tensed and ready, they braced themselves to run or defend themselves within an instant. Galen reached for Althea’s hand and found it as frozen in sweat as his. But she took it nonetheless.
Althea detected it first. Galen noticed her body stiffen and tense beyond any fright he had yet seen in her. She took in deeper breaths as if she were smelling the air. He couldn’t imagine why; the stinking stench from the death outside the door was nauseating. Althea turned and Galen saw sheer, white panic in her eyes. In everything he had seen her go through, he never saw fear in her like this.
Then the smell of death seemed to disappear as it was replaced by a new scent. It was sweet, detestably sweet. It pervaded the air like newly fermented fruit and was purely revolting. Galen knew now the shear dread Althea was feeling. They were now trapped despite how hard they tried to avoid it. They couldn’t flee from their spot without being descended upon by a vicious Immortuo who wouldn’t hesitate to destroy them, but staying meant bearing the effects of the approaching Purple Mist which would render them helpless if the Immortuo happened to feel compelled to enter their building.
“Oh God,” Althea said almost inaudibly. She had felt hopeless before, but not like this. Nothing like this. She felt terror and despair before, but never like this. In all her life, whatever devastating evil she had faced, whatever the difficulty of the trials she overcame, she always had some measure of control. Even if she could not grasp it in the moment, she always had some way to do something to save herself, even if it took her time to realize it. But not now. Despite how far she had come, she was helpless against this.
Soon they both felt pricks against their skin like shards of ice and glass against their hands that lay on the floor. They looked down at the same instant to see the Mist in its shimmer of purple seep into the room through the slit in the door they braced themselves against. Suddenly a weight bore down on their bodies like the sky had descended with cruelty to crush them into the dust. The lights in their hearts were suddenly extinguished, and only darkness remained so pitch black that it seemed to consume all the light in the world around it. All goodness in the world faded away and was consumed by fire.
Galen turned to Althea. He was not concerned for her, but desperate for her to save him. He turned to her, the only light he knew could possibly be left in the world, but the darkness was even closing in on his eyes weighed heavy in defeat. He reached out to her and pleaded with his eyes for her to make it stop and to save him, but the weakness became far too much to bear. He collapsed in a heap on the floor under him, and his eyes closed succumbing to defeat. In the darkness behind his eyes, he not only lost the light he held within himself then, but he seemed to lose any spark or trace that he had ever held the light before. Suddenly the world was not only devoid of the blessings of life at that moment, but in all moments before it. He was consumed in an existence without any heavenly radiance. He felt the death of his parents, the death of his grandparents, the loss of all of his friends before him, all at the same time and compounded over and over again.
Althea held herself up as long as she could possibly endure holding onto the light with everything she had in great determination. But soon the Mist encircled her entirely as if knowing the strength and effort she was putting forth to fight it. It seemed then to create thick chains that wrapped around her neck and arms and pulled her violently down to the ground. She tried so fiercely, so desperately, to pull herself back up.
“Althea, do not let the darkness win.”
Her fingers dug into the earth to help her move away from the mist, but its grip on her was tight and unyielding. The Mist found a source of enduring hope, and it was determined to obliterate it.
Althea was completely pushed into the earth with the weight of her oppression felt through the bonds wrapped around her body in the Mist. She heard the cries of the earth through her connection to its Magic and lifeforce, the wailing of its pain and the moaning of its misery and sorrow. She heard the dying voices of a thousand souls and the mournful screams in rage of those yet undying and unable to rest. The ceaseless persistence of unimaginable torture perverted the earth, the air, and the water of the world and reached through the ground into her fingers and through her whole body turning her blood and heart black with unimaginable pain and bearing the wounds of the earth.
And suddenly her struggles left her, strength and will left her, and her sight descended into dark obscurity.