Far Off Unhappy Things
Chapter seven: Morana
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
To the north of Luson, the Forest of Forever Fall eventually gave way to open fields and grassy hills. Here, tiny townlets were scattered about between large orchards and fields. Every now and then a small castle of a local lord or a guard tower, built by one of these lords as a gift to one of the townlets jutted out of the ground, breaking up the endless greens, oranges and browns with dreary gray or black.
For days now, Morana had been trekking through this landscape, occasionally stopping in towns to sleep.
The amulets, little silver sigils and protective effigies that covered her robes rustled and clattered in the wind as she kept putting one foot in front of the other. Uphill, downhill, and over worn cobblestone roads from town to town.
She paused at a crossroads near a lone windmill to consult a signpost. The miller stood behind a fence, pipe in his mouth, looking out over the road.
“Hey lady,” he said. “Going to Pyrite?”
“Euh,” she replied while looking at the signpost pointing to different towns in different directions. “Is that north?”
“Yeah,” the miller said. “That’s north.”
“Then I’m going to Pyrite,” Morana said.
“Better watch your back, them soldiers there is bad news.”
Morana fidgeted with the mirror tied around her neck and wondered if it was doing its job.
“Don’t you think they’d leave someone my age alone?” She asked the miller.
“Hm.” He said. “If I can see you’s a pretty lady spirit wearing a guise, them experienced mercenaries can too.”
It evidently wasn’t.
“How,” she asked annoyed, almost cross with the man, “Can you tell that, exactly?”
“Wasn’ born yesterday. Been milling grain ‘ere for decades. Not a lot me millstone hasn’t told me about.”
“Your millstone?” She asked, incredulous.
The miller grinned, wide enough his pipe almost dropped out of his mouth. His teeth were black, almost purple from decay and tobacco in places.
“Is the grinding of the grain, you see. Grain sees lots of things, and me millstone, me millstone whispers about it all to me during the grinding of the grain. And me’s a good listener.”
“Right,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
“You take care a yeself,” The miller said as he smiled another crooked smile and waved her goodbye.
Shaking her head, Morana resumed her path. Pyrite should be close enough to her destination that she would be able to get some useful information out of the people there. Neither Prince Autumn nor Fleur in Luson had been terribly useful, but if she went by enough deities, both Resplendent and Fallen, eventually one would listen about the calamities about to befall their world.
And it wasn’t bad being away from the court of Hades, walking the Lands Lost. Despite the cloudy gray sky, the endless drizzle rain and the generally unpleasant disposition of the populace, the lands themselves were quite pretty. Picturesque and story-book-esque, a fairytale aesthetic she loved long ago, before she wandered the halls of the dead, mirror and lantern in hand.
By nightfall, she reached the town of Pyrite. A river ran through the town- and the riverbanks were mostly rock and geometric shapes of glittering that wasn’t gold.
A fitting name for the town.
It was larger than she had thought, with stone buildings, towers, bridges and large squares with market stalls. Despite the falling of night the town was still quite busy, with farmers, peddlers and craftsmen still out and about, alongside soldiers in armor wearing the emblem of the Unconquerable Sun.
Unconquerable her ass. The Sun had been waging war on-and-off with Autumn for literal centuries now, always beaten by the dear-headed God of the Twin Cities and the forest of Forever Fall.
In the center of the town, bordering the largest market square was a large, gothic church. Dominion of the Nine Spoked Wheel, it read above the entrance. Before it, three inverted crucifixes with charred corpses nailed to them stood on proud display. Two soldiers of the Sun sat near them, their backs against the church wall.
“Hello,” she said as she approached them, praying to her lord, the Wealthy One, that her mirror would work for once.
“Hmph,” one of the soldiers grunted. “If you’re a beggar, go see the priest or something. We aren’t paid shit, we’ve got nothing to give.”
It seemed to work.
“No, I’m a wanderer. The wife of a peddler. I’m just going around town before we leave again in the morning to sate my curiosities at my old age,” she said.
“Oh,” the soldier said. “Here to ask about Her Divine Radiance, the Sun, then?”
“What’s up with the corpses? Are they convicts?”
“Vampires. We gave them over to Her mercy, to soothe the fears of the populace and to warn their kind to stay the fuck away.” The soldier chuckled. She clearly enjoyed her work.
“Ah,” she replied to the soldier. “Are there many vampires here?”
“Over yonder begins the black forest,” she replied. “The clouds are darker still there, and the foliage blocks the rest of the light. It’s a forest of eternal night- where the vampires make their kingdoms.”
“Scary,” Morana replied. Allegedly one of the Fallen lived among vampires, so she was finally getting close to her destination.
“We don’t set foot in their forest of the damned. In return we expect them to not set foot in the lands of the Sun either,” the soldier said.
“I see, I see,” Morana answered. “Have a good day.”
“Good day to you too, lady,” the soldier answered as Morana walked to the entrance to the church.
It was sparsely decorated, a harsh contrast with the extremely opulent church-theater dedicated to Autumn in Luson. A few rows of simple wooden benches, and a dark, stone altar surrounded by black metal spikes. Tall, thin windows let in little light, and the only piece of decoration was a wheel resembling a breaking rack on the wall behind the altar.
A man in somber black robes with two little horns protruding from his head was busy cleaning the altar.
“Hello,” he said, smiling to reveal a mouth a little too full with sharpened teeth. “Welcome to the Dominion of the Nine Spoked Wheel.”
“Hello,” she said as she walked further into the church, and sat down on one of the somber wooden benches.
“Good lady, I’m sorry. Just cleaning for now. No black mass until friday.”
“That’s okay,” Morana replied. “Just sitting and thinking for a bit.”
“If you need me for anything, let me know,” the strange priest said. After he was done scrubbing what appeared to be bloodstains from the altar, he left through a door on the left of the altar and came back a bit later with a mop and a bucket to start cleaning the floors.
“Where did all that blood come from?” Morana asked.
“We used to hold biweekly sacrifices here. Before the soldiers of the Sun took over and told us to stop.” He sighed.
“I hope Autumn sends some soldiers soon, our good little town is suffering greatly,” the priest said as he scrubbed the floor. Morana got a glimpse of his eyes- yellow with slit pupils. She wondered what he was.
As she watched the man clean, she sat and she thought.
A day later and still not done thinking she walked into the black forest while reading a map of the different kingdoms, vassal states, duchies and towns to be found there.
The forest was dark, and mist crept over the ground, through shrubbery and bushes. Fell from roots and stumps like tiny, ghostly waterfalls. The lantern on her belt cast pale blue light around her.
Wandering the forest looking for the nearest town or tribal encampment she had a lot of time to think. The Lands Lost were as lost as they ever were, drowned in conflict and senseless bloodshed.
Still, she thought. They were worth preserving. Some shadowy force was moving behind the scenes, something connecting seemingly disparate events that, if left unchecked, would devour the lands like a tumor.
She milled on this thought for hours every day.
Fleur was useless. Fleur was beyond useless. A broken piece of work. She fiddled with the mirror around her neck as she cursed the blue-haired demigoddess her name. Prince Autumn seemed to keep her around as a trophy of sorts, not because she was actually useful.
Morana had volunteered to bring the tributes of Hades to the Lands Lost to get close to one of the only people who should in theory be able to help her with her conundrum, and all she had found was an emotionally immature wreck.
Maybe, she thought, the lore was wrong. Fey goddesses older than the seasons. Fallen beings who taught men and giants the secrets of civilization that some cruel god had declared forbidden. Fleur had not come across as something like that. Maybe she was chasing an unsubstantiated fairy tale.
There had been paintings of Fleur in the archives of Hades. A winged woman in royal garbs teaching men how to make mirrors.
“Fucking hell,” she spat as she anxiously fiddled with the mirror on her necklace. Some droplets of spittle burned and chewed their way through some rotten wood they landed on.
Still, there were more leads she had to chase. In the lands of the vampires there allegedly lived a woman with pointed ears and tremendous knowledge of thaumaturgy.
After hours of trekking through the dark woods, she finally neared a settlement. The first sign that she had finally reached a place people lived was an abandoned watchtower. A ghost haunting it fled the moment it saw her coming. A league beyond it- a harrowing trek given that there were no roads to speak of here- lay a decrepit village. Massive pyres burned in wrought iron cages around it, creating a semblance of light.
The moment she stepped into the light of the fires, six spears were pointed at her by six guards.
“Who the fuck are you and what do you want from us?” one yelled, an older man with a leather helmet.
“Woah,” she said, raising her hands in an ‘innocence’ gesture. “I’m from Pyrite, I’m just passing through.”
“Pyrite eh?” the guard said, before exchanging looks with some of his men. “You some crone creeping through the forests looking for ingredients for your ointments and potions?”
At the very least her disguise worked on these people. “Yes. But the woods are unkind and I am sore from walking. I seek shelter.”
“You can enter,” the guardsman said.
As she cautiously approached, he leaned in to whisper: “We’re a paranoid bunch here in Wayleidh, and that’s why we’re still alive. If you set one foot in the direction of our wives or children we send your decapitated head to the closest vampire lord.”
“Understood,” she said, anxiously fiddling with the mirror around her neck.
“Good,” he replied before sending her on her way. “There’s a tavern across from the church in the center of town.”
The village was a rectangular open space in the forest, surrounded by a tall iron fence. A fence resembling the metalwork around graveyards, but inverted- not to keep the dead in, but to keep them out, Morana realized. The people here were gaunt, pallid things, shambling about simple streets, between crooked and squalid buildings.
Waist-high cobblestone walls separated the streets from the buildings, and lanterns blazing with fire lit the town, casting a myriad of sharp shadows in every direction. At every junction and near every alley little groups crowded together, talking, gossiping, pointing at each other.
She slowly shuffled across the streets, heading towards the center of town, feeling as if watched from every angle. Even the lands of the dead were cheerier than this place, she thought as a cold icy numbness slowly washed over her.
“I’m a daughter of Hecate,” she whispered to herself as the shadows seemed to grow darker and the angles of the buildings more crooked as she reached the center of town.
A massive gothic spire loomed over her, under the inky black open sky. In front of the spire was a statue- a massive bronze sculpture of a naked woman with wings and pointy ears using her bare teeth to tear into a smaller woman’s neck.
Some palpable malice radiated from the statue that seemed to cast no shadows at all.
“The First Rape, or: Saint Jakinta grants Eternal Life- by Aster Scarborough,” a plaque on the plinth of the statue read.
“Like it?” someone suddenly said.
Morana turned around, took a deep breath and a step back.
An older, gruff looking man in a leather duster and hat had crept up behind her. He was as pale as the rest of the populace here, but stronger. More vigorous.
“I eat better,” he said.
She eased her breathing and reached for the mirror around her neck.
“It’s frightening,” she said. “What a depressing statue.”
“Hey,” he said, in a tone that confounded her. Somewhere between playful annoyance and vitriolic hatred. “That’s our patron saint you’re talking about.”
“I apologize, I’m not from around here,” she said. “I’m from Pyrite.”
“No, you’re not,” he said as he pulled some small device out of his duster.
Morana reached for her lantern. “I don’t want any trouble,” she said. No mortal could harm her, except for the rare magician, so she had nothing to fear. But she also didn’t want to be chased out of town with fire and pitchfork already, without finding some further leads on where to find the vampire kingdoms.
The man fiddled around in one of his pockets, and took out a tube of white paper. Some kind of intoxicating drug, Morana realized as he lit it and put it in his mouth. A sharp smell slowly spread through the stale air around them.
“I’m just passing through. I apologize. I’m looking for something in this forest, so I’ll just be heading to the tavern.”
She turned around, but felt the man’s gaze lock onto her neck at the same time as she heard a sharp clicking sound, and immediately turned back to face the man.
He was holding a flintlock pistol, aiming it at her.
“I’ve got a mirror to guide the living astray,” she started her mantra, intent on weaving an illusion to sneak away under.
The man chuckled and put his pistol away, but then pulled out a sheet of worn paper instead. He used his still-smoldering drug to light it as he spoke.
“I’ve got a candle to light my own path,” he said with careful cadence.
“I’ve got a lantern to guide the dead,” Morana said, anger boiling up inside her, vitriol building up in her mouth.
The man took out another paper and burned it. “I’ve got a candle to guide me safely to bed,” he said.
“And a sickle to take your soul away,” she said as she drew her sickle, which gave off the familiar, warm glow of banelight.
He took a third paper from his pockets, and shook it like a stage magician might shake a paper towel, about to reveal a hand of cards.
“I’ve got a chopper to chop off your head,” he said, as he was suddenly holding a long knife, the kind a chef would use to filet meat from bones.
There were no animals in the Lands Lost, she realized as the man made a mad dash for her throat.
Despite theoretically having nothing to fear, she stumbled backwards while thrusting her sickle forward. A single cut would torch the man’s soul clean out of its flesh prison, so the fight would be over in seconds.
A second later she was howling in pain. Two of her fingers lay on the ground together with her sickle.
Faint green flames leaked out of her wounds.
She howled in pain as she stumbled further backwards. Anger, hate and resentment filled her mind. This mortal would pay, and the entire town with him.
“To the flames with you and your entire damned town,” she screamed as she took her lantern from her belt.
“I am a daughter of Hecate and a lampade of Hades,” she screamed. “Banefire, for you and for your pale kin,” said as she tossed the lantern on the ground. As it broke, pale green flames started spreading around it.
“Tsk,” he said as he shook his head and put away his knife. He took out yet another page of text.
“On the twenty third of September,” he said as he set it on fire, “Death came to the village of Wayleidh, to take the old huntsman to His cold domain. But a crafty man he was, and pale fire would not burn on holy soil.”
The flames started to die out.
“What are you doing?” she yelled as she made a leap for her sickle with her still-intact right hand.
“In the end,” he said as the page burned up. “It was the old huntsman who took Death’s scythe as a trophy.”
She lost all strength in her limbs and fell to her knees.
“What are you doing,” she said. She spat at him, but he sidestepped the ichor. It made a sizzling sound as it chewed through the rough rocks of the church square.
“You’re not Him,” he said as he kicked her in the face. “But you’re a fine catch too.”
Morana was reeling, unable to look straight or gather any coherent string of thoughts as the man produced a length of chain from the seemingly bottomless storeroom somewhere in his coat.
“Be glad you’re not a vampire, they usually scream the entire way there,” he said as he started to tie her up. “It’s the silver chains, you see. The weaker ones, they catch fire as it digs into their skin.”
“Scream where,” she said, staggering.
“No, no, scream as much as you want. Don’t let me stop you,” he muttered as he hoisted his end of the chain over his shoulder and dragged her along.
She screamed as he dragged her over the rough roads of Wayleidh. She screamed as he left the gate and the guards averted their faces in terror. She screamed as he dragged her over the forest floor, over thick roots and through bramble.
He walked at a steady pace, not slowed down by her in the slightest, and when he finally took a break, both her arms were dislocated, her robes were in tatters and most of her skin was bloody rags.
She lay on the ground near a clearing, dry heaving as streams of her acidic tears left a burning smell in the air. A bit across from here, the man sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, smoking his drug.
“You think you can walk the rest of the way?” he asked her.
Morana didn’t answer.
“Yeah, I think you can walk the rest of the way.”
In silence he finished smoking.
“C’mon, get up,” he said after ten more minutes of what appeared to be silent contemplation.
Trembling, she attempted to upright herself without the use of her arms. The stranger ‘helped’ her with a yank of the chain.
“You and your entire bloodline will drown in the cocytus for all eternity,” she spat at the man. “Your children will be drawn and quartered before being fed to Kerberus every day for the rest of the eternity that will be their miserable afterlife. Curses and accidents befall you until the day you die.”
“Yeah,” he said as he tugged on the chain a few times and started walking. Morana hurried after him, desperate to keep up with the man’s titanic strides lest she fall over and be subject to the hell of the past four hours again.
“I’m a lampade, not a disciple of Thanatos, but my sisters are, you pale and miserable inbred crook,” she ranted at him as he pulled her along. “You will be hunted for every day of your life and when you finally die I will be there, waiting for you with your own knife to gut you and feed your liver to the Aetos Kaukasios before filling the wound with excrement then singing it shut with fell fire.”
“Hmhm,” the man replied.
“The lands of Hades are allies to Prince Autumn and I am their diplomatic envoy, this is paramount to a declaration of war. Unimaginable torment at the hands of Autumn will be your every waking moment the rest of your tiny lifespan, before unimaginable torment in the stomach of some foul beast from Tartarus will be your every waking moment as your eternal reward,” she continued.
“You’ve started to contradict yourself,” he remarked. “As for that overgrown deer, he’s on my list. Not anytime soon, but he’s on my list.”
“You’ve already been struck by madness,” she said. “Demented fool. I’m a minor spirit and He is a capital G God, you slow dunce. You think that parlor trick with the paper will save you from God? From my sisters? From the slow death you’ll die at the hands of Chronos like every other mortal should you decide to spend the rest of your pitiful life crying in fear while hiding from all those who will be coming after you?”
“You’re a minor spirit,” he said as he shook his head. “Nobody is going to come looking for you.”
“You lie,” Morana screamed as she misstepped and stumbled over the root of an ancient, half-rotten oak.
By the time she finally passed out from the pain, none of her skin remained save for strips of wet, red tatters, dragged behind her along with the remnants of her black robes.
When she woke up, she was on a cold, smooth stone surface. Dazed, she tried to look around. Some chamber in a building. A large silver pentagram was laid into the floor. Carefully, she crawled to the edge of the pentagram, but found it a solid wall. A binding spell.
Patches of her skin had healed, growing back like mold slowly crawling to consume a corpse. She was fully nude, with none of her belongings anywhere to be seen.
The room had nothing in it save for abstract, runic carvings on the walls and pillars, and some wall sconces with torches. A large, wooden door was the only visible entrance or exit.
“Hey,” she yelled, her voice completely hoarse.
She looked at her left hand. Her index and middle fingers were gone. Pale fire still gently licked from her wounds, at her skin. Somehow, the mortal wizard had procured a weapon that could cut through soul-stuff like a normal knife would cut flesh.
“Hey,” she yelled again, but nobody replied.
Hours passed. Days, perhaps. She tried to sit down in a somewhat comfortable position and watched her skin slowly grow back. Soon, the binder-wizard would come and negotiate her release.
“Sick,” she muttered. The decrepit fool probably thought he could torture eternal life out of her or something. She’d never been bound before, but she knew the general strategies- get the magician to agree to terms that through a loophole, allowed her to kill or damn him.
With no way to track the time after her skin had fully regrown- at least seventy two hours- her mind slowed to a crawl. She had no idea how long she’d been sitting there in the middle of the pentagram when the door suddenly opened.
A woman with raven black hair, a heavy black dress with accents of purple velvet and a corset tight enough to crush her internal organs to paste entered.
Pale skin, almost porcelain. Dark red eyes, and two enlarged canines jutting over her lips.
Vampire. Had the binder-wizard brought her to a vampire? Suddenly her mind raced again. This brought new possibilities to the table.
“I’m Luna, Luna Walkenburg,” the woman said as she did a curtsy. “What’s your name?”
“None of your business,” Morana spat.
“Alright, then I will talk to you tomorrow,” the woman said before turning around and leaving.
Unwilling to call what she thought was a bluff, Morana stayed quiet. The door slammed shut, and she was alone with her thoughts again.
It might’ve been a few hours, or it might’ve been days, but the woman returned.
“Hey dear, softened up already?”
“Hrmph,” Morana said.
“I’m Luna Walkenburg. What’s your name?”
“Morana,” Morana muttered.
“See,” the woman said as she gestured. Morana didn’t follow. “You can play nice if you want to.”
“Where is the fool who bound me here,” Morana demanded to know.
“Carver? No idea. Stalking the black forest for trophies to drag back to civilization, I assume.”
“Any demand you make of me,” Morana said. “Can by definition not include any form of protection for this ‘Carver’. I’m dragging him to hell when I leave here.”
“Demand?” Luna asked.
“In the contract. For my release,” Morana explained.
“Dear, I’m not here to negotiate your release,” Luna said.
“Not before I make you a fine housemaid.”
Morana laughed. “That’s preposterous.”
“It’s really not,” Luna said. “After you’ve been in that circle for some months you’ll be so bored you’ll beg me for some household chores. And dear, I’ve got eternity- just like you.”
“What,” Morana said.
Luna did another curtsy. “You’ll fetch a high price. Not a lot of lampade slaves on the market. And you’re cute, and I presume somewhat warmer and less stiff than vampires.”
“You will burn forever,” Morana screamed. “Fed to pale fire, soulless bitch. Find solace in the fact that the afterlife for your kind is an endless, empty void as I torture you to death the very second I get out of this circle,” she yelled at the vampire.
“Alright,” Luna said. “We’ll talk again next week.”
With that, she left the room.