A long time ago in South Dakota....
The Old Woman
The old woman wandered along the dusty road, although truthfully it was more path than road, the sun burned her back, throat parched, she noticed a small pool of water just to the right. Hovering over the murky water she wondered whether it was safe to drink but at the moment she was so thirsty that she really didn't even care. Die of thirst or die from poisoned water. Dead is dead she thought. Kneeling she cupped her hand and brought the warm, almost hot, liquid to her mouth. She swallowed it gratefully and closed her eyes briefly. It was when she opened them that she noticed the small piece of twine sticking out from under the large flat rock to the left of the puddle.
Frowning she tugged at it. It was stuck fast. Using her fingers as shovels she clawed at the dirt around the edge of the rock. When that seemed fruitless she pried at the rock itself. It gave way with a sucking sound like some ancient creature partaking of a fresh kill and shivers went up her spine. She shook her head, for she had imagined screams and gnashing teeth and even in the blazing sun she felt a sudden chill.
With the rock up it was much easier to dig at the twine. She didn't even know why she bothered to, just a tiny bit of rotten twine. She felt a slight shadow fall across the ground in front of her and startled she looked up. Circling in the sky above her she could see two ebony ravens. Flying together in ever widening circles. As she watched their flight, she tugged at the twine and with a pop it broke loose from the ground. She gasped.
It wasn't just a piece of twine. It was a bracelet, with lovely red beads. Three of them woven quite tightly into the design and even caked with dirt they glistened in the sunshine. She turned it over into the palm of her hand, listening to the cawing of the ravens. The beads felt strangely warm against her skin but oddly comforting.
She had felt lost and alone for these past six months, the death of her husband had rattled her. She had not expected to lose him and most certainly not in a wolf attack. As was the custom, she had insisted on seeing his lifeless body, only afterward realizing that she would be haunted by the image of his ragged ripped throat. The wolves had been busy in the cold winter months. The village had lost three others besides her Robert. There were superstitious whispers that had continued into the summer. Whispers of evil, the stench of a creature, and some even set guards at the doors to their homes. She didn't believe in this nonsense and yet she woke often during the night, filled with dread and foreboding. Drenched in sweat she stared into the darkness at night and felt a presence. Not something she recognized but rather something she could not identify.
She had even tossed the stones into the circle a few times, like her grandmother had taught her, but they only proved to worry her more. Falling in patterns that warned of chaos, disorder, and perhaps even death. She hadn't tossed the stones in ages until this had all started. She wasn't as versed in them as grandmother had been, she ached from missing her grandmother, gone twenty years now.
She cleaned the bracelet as best she could with her dry and wrinkled hands and wandered back to the road. The ravens flew high above her as she trudged toward home. She put her hand in her pocket to feel the bracelet and her fingers tingled at the touch. It was a long trip to the cabin and when she was almost there, a tingling sensation began, the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. She jerked to the left but the small band of trees prevented her from seeing clearly. Did something lurk there? Was she being followed? She shook her head at her own nonsense yet quickened her pace. Once inside the cabin she dropped the rough wooden board in place to bar the door.
The cabin was suffocating, only a tiny amount of air drifted in though the tiny windows and even with that the hot summer air created few breezes. She opted to eat left over meat and beans from yesterday without bothering to heat them. She dreaded adding any more heat to the hot July mix. She sat down in the large overstuffed chair that she had bartered for some five years ago, It was a sight with lumpy stuffing and faded fabric but it was the most comfortable chair she had ever had the pleasure to sit in. She missed Robert and floated through most days without a real sense of direction. She closed her eyes briefly and drifted into the nightmare.
She found herself along the road just as she had been earlier, except it was closer to dusk and the night noises surrounded her. She shivered, for the evening air felt alive with something. An essence, that coated the impending darkness with a cloying smell, like burnt flesh. It clung to her and her feet moved faster without any thought of doing so.
The trees to the left, swayed and rustled although she felt no caress of a breeze on her skin. She felt instead like a thousand ants were crawling across her skin. She peered into the dim landscape under the trees, unknowing that eyes stared back. Old eyes, ancient eyes, they were hunting, they were challenging.
Finding herself mesmerized by the sensations that pulsed in the air, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the bracelet. The three red beads gleamed, filled with a light that radiated from inside the beads themselves. At first she was confused and looked around for a fire or other source that might be reflected in the beads. Finding none she twirled the beads with her fingers and watched the light dancing inside them. In doing so, one of the beads broke loose from the woven twine and she clasped it between her fingers to keep it from dropping to the ground.
She had become so enchanted with the dancing light of the beads that she had forgotten her fear of the trees. She gasped as she turned toward the tree line. Standing near the edge of the road was a form, dark and foreboding. Manlike but yet with arms that hung much longer than they should and a humped back accentuated the effect even more. She started to speak but stopped as he raised his head. Eyes, yellow and inhuman, peered at her and he took a step in her direction.
When she should have been quite terrified, she suddenly became calm. Reassuring feelings rushed through her and she stuffed the bracelet into her pocket while keeping the single bead in hand. He came at her swiftly and like a bubble floating through a summer sky she instantly knew that he meant to have her, have her soul, and only then did she tremble in fear. The light inside the red bead glistened even brighter.
His talon fingers grasped at her and she fought back. Scratched and bleeding she shoved at him. In his hand he held a black bead which he kept shoving at her face. She thought at first he meant to blind her with it but then he pushed it between her lips. The red bead hummed with light and she shoved it at him. He glared at it for a moment but did not relent. She spit the bead out and he hesitated. She tried to force the red bead into his mouth but encountered yellowed, broken teeth. She tried again but he slashed at her with his fingers and blood flowed forth from her neck.
She felt weak and slid to the ground. He roared, searching the ground, and she realized he was looking for his black bead. She almost smiled, knowing he wouldn't find it for she could feel the hardness of it underneath her shoulder, hidden from sight. His image slipped from her eyesight as the ground turned red with blood around her but she could hear his roar of frustration as she passed from this realm to the next. He clawed at the ground in anger. The small red bead rolled from her fingers into the dry grass beside the road.
Shaking, she awoke covered in sweat. Waves of the dream vibrated through her, crashing on the shore of her soul, threatening to capsize her mind. It had felt so real and she knew the dark sensations of the dream were meant as a warning. While she had never had a vision, her grandmother had, they were almost never good, instead warning of trials and tribulations. Forerunners of life changing moments crystallized into visions they were messages of what was to come.
She looked at the bracelet, laying innocently on the table beside the chair, and wished for a moment that she had never dug it out of the crusted dirt. She scoffed at her foolish thoughts. Ignoring something didn't change it. It simply made you less prepared. None the less, before she tucked herself into bed for the night, she barred not only the door but the small windows, going to bed in the suffocating heat of the cabin.
She slept dreamless through the darkest hours of the night and felt calmer upon arising. She was a strong woman, alone in this life now, but none the less very capable of handling what life chose to throw at her. Had she known that three days hence the dream would become reality she would not have been as cheerful as she sat down to breakfast.
The Collector of Souls
Tired and hungry, he rested his head against the moss covered stump, he felt a strange stirring inside, a yearning, perhaps for the old ways. But the ways were different here in this time, in this world, full of light and burning heat. He felt at times like he stood too close to a blazing fire and although he had grown accustom to it, he never truly accepted it. It felt foreign, and confusing, and it leaked into his mind causing anguish.
He was a collector, a collector of souls and he didn't even know the word. Soul. To him it was simply an essence that he craved, that he needed to exist. Exist was the primary goal and he achieved in by feeding, feeding on the essence of these creatures. Be it rabbit, wolf, or human he could use it, but consuming the human essence was a powerful elixir, one that could sustain him for many days, unlike the smaller species.
When he had first arrived here in the world of light, he had consumed things randomly, frequently missing the tender morsel of the human soul, like a fine wine, most fragrant and luscious at its peak. With practice he had fine tuned the process using the old ways, specialized the process to the level of being able to bottle up the luscious essence and preserve it for future use. His only frustration was that he seldom had the option of retrieving the onyx bead, too often he was so famished that he gobbled the essence rather than allow the bead to leach it from the vessel that contained it.
He seldom thought, he mostly just acted from primal need and allowed his rage to flow from him at times. He had become an outcast in a world he did not want and could not understand. But today he had sensed her again as she walked along the dirt road and it filled him, pulsed through him, caused him to ache. Who she was mattered not, the longing to gorge on her soul was so intense he had almost acted today, even as the sun still hung in the sky. The urge to destroy her coursed through him, tingling and tantalizing.
It felt different somehow from his normal hunger. It gnawed at him in desperation and he shivered in the heat of the day. He shivered? Although he seldom thought, rather acted only from a need, this shivering caught him off guard. He didn't shiver. This was an anomaly. It pulsed through him. He tilted his head to one side and studied the landscape around him. Perhaps it would be best to move on. He had fed here for months now and the humans were talking, superstitious and guarded. Each new kill drew more attention than the last. It was the height of summer now and starving wolves would no longer explain the kills.He felt the urge to move on and yet the woman...she drew him, seduced him with her essence and in the end he stayed.
Three Days Hence
She was at the well, two buckets in hand, gathering twice what she normally did on a trip here because she so dreaded these woods she used to love. They shimmered with dark shadows and sounds that teased just outside her hearing. She wondered if they sighed a warning. For some reason, she felt compelled to keep the bracelet with her always. She had not seen it glow as it had in the vision but she did not doubt that it could. She knew there were stranger things of this world than one might ever encounter in their own lifetime. She glanced skyward and sure enough there were the two ravens. They seemed to follow her and had since the discovery of the bracelet. She was sure it meant something but she had no inkling of what it might be,
She thought often of the dream, nightmare really, with a foreboding sense of destiny. She had played it through in her mind so many times. She thought about ways to change the outcome, to somehow avoid the beast or at least outsmart him. Perhaps a little more force might slip the strange red bead inside his mouth? Should she even fight or should she run when the encounter occurred? She no longer questioned whether it would happen, only when. Was the dream destiny or a warning?
Carefully balancing the buckets she trudged toward the cabin, thankful that today was overcast and a bit cooler. She only walked for a short time, before sitting the buckets on the ground and reaching into her apron pocket for the bracelet. It felt strangely warm and sure enough when she looked at it she imagined a small glow of red light inside each bead, She smiled at her foolishness, shaking her head, but when she looked again the light inside the beads seemed stronger, blazing in the center of each bead.
Quickly she looked around her but noticed nothing amiss. However when she looked again the beads were even brighter, filled with flame and pulsing with energy. Her heart thumped in her chest and she was filled with a calm sense of purpose. The time had come, the waiting was over. Her hands did not shake as rolled the bracelet between her fingertips and one bead broke loose from the twine. She kept it in her hand and slipped the others into her pocket.
She tried to imagine the creature's defeat, knowing that thoughts were energy and thus attempting to harness them to her benefit. She had read her grandmother's diary again yesterday and in it were written words that at first had seemed odd, disjointed, perhaps the ramblings of an old mind. Now though they seemed to speak to her and while killing this evil was important, she knew that guarding her own soul was paramount. They were not mutually exclusive, she knew, kill the beast and save her soul, but at the same time if she failed to overcome him, she knew the greatest calling was to save her soul, It would weaken him and perhaps give another the chance.
It was then she noticed the dark figure emerge from the tree line. A strange smell filled the air, burnt meat and ashes. He was exactly as in her vision, long dangling arms, distorted head, talons, long and black. He stood for a moment, surprised to find her ready and aware of him, not taken off guard as was usually the case. They each turned slight so they faced each other squarely. Then he charged. She was but an old woman. She really had no chance.
And so the events unfolded according to the dream. And in the end he roared in frustration because he had lost the soul and his hunger was great. She lay in the pool of blood with the black bead digging into her shoulder blade. When her soul slipped peacefully from the vessel of her body, she was amazed she could smile at the irony of it all. The red bead was lost as surely as the black one, kicked into the tangled grass by their struggle. Then suddenly she could see in the misty remnants of this life, the two ravens descending and sitting pecking at her apron pocket, It was then she remembered the other two beads and realized not all was lost. It would be another, not she, that ended it and she sighed as she let go.
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