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Excerpt: The Prince and the Scarecrow Witch

Begone, the leaves sighed in graveyard voices, as Yaksha labored his way through the Abysswood. Begone, silver prince. You’re so far from home.

He could hear the trees rattling their old bones overhead, high above the narrow, rooted path he trod upon. The air stank of rain and camphor and dirty magic. He could sense the shadowfiends slinking about and stalking him in the thickets.

His trek had been miserable, and endless. The bugs were a ceaseless swarm about his face. His anger had been a slow build for basically the entire time he had been making his way through here, and thus far, had been containable. Now, however, now at the final stretch, he could feel it straining to explode outwards. It wasn’t going to be long before he cracked–and the target of his rage was absolutely going to be the dried up old witchcunt who lived in this place.

Yaksha made a growling sound under his breath, and kept plodding his way along. Above him, many voices called out his name.

“There is nothing speaking to me right now,” he muttered to himself, not for the first time, as he gathered up the end of his longcloak to better navigate the sudden, stone-smattered, uphill swing of the path. He swiped at the sweat on his brow, a useless gesture. “This is a cursed place, and I am hearing the glamors of a repulsive, plebeian necro-witch.” He punctuated his self-assurance by slapping at a large mosquito. He caught it, and it exploded into a disgusting smear of purple blood on his tunic.

The trees and the plants made a sound like chattering teeth. Something large muttered beyond the treeline. He could hear heavy footsteps crashing through the underbrush that lined his path. In his determined effort to ignore whatever it was, he blundered directly into the flying object that darted out suddenly from the tangle of branches.

“What do you seek, silver prince?” cawed a decomposing, nearly-featherless crow in a woman’s voice. “What do you seek?”

Yaksha frowned at it as it hovered directly in front of his face. There were blind glass marbles where its eyes should have been, and its wings made soft, meaty, whooshing sounds as they beat the air. Its rotting flesh was riddled with crooked stitchmarks. The smell was offensive.

“What do I seek?” Yaksha began, in a dangerous snarl. “I do not seek. I demand that my subject performs her duty in serving the fucking crown.” The rage was a dull, aching pulse inside his skull, now, and he felt a savage, instinctual desire to snatch the bird out of the air and twist its neck between his hands. The crow laughed silently, and black smoke spiraled out of its open beak. Then it was gone, as quickly as it had appeared.

He was at the top of the hill, now, and at the edge of an overgrown glade. Now that he was out from under the trees, he could finally see the sun, and it was little more than a blob of orange sickness in the sky that painted everything in sallow, unsteady light. It was a wrong kind of sun, and looking at it made him feel ill. Yellowing grass came up as high as his waist. Letheflowers grew huge and wild on vines that wrapped around the trees, their massive blue thorns dripping with mind-poison. The occasional gnarled, dead tree twisted out of the ground here, and hemp nooses hung limply from their empty branches. The Scarecrow Witch’s stone shack was half-concealed in the foliage. Dark green smoke drifted lazily out of the chimney.

Yaksha was about to stomp through the threshold without knocking when he noticed that the door to the shack was swinging outward from the inside.

It creaked abominably as it did, and did not stop moving until it was all the way open. Yaksha could see the faint, yellowish haze of a fire inside, and smell something sour and earthy blow out on a hot breath of wind.

For a moment, he felt hesitation, but the anger quickly overwhelmed it.

He strode past the threshold, with all of the arrogance of his station…and then, inexplicably, was at the edge of the glade again, looking at the shack with its plumes of green smoke curling into the orange sky.

Slowly, ponderously, again…the door began to creak open.

“No,” he said.

The leaves sighed, and chattered, and moaned, and laughed.

Begone. Begone, silver prince. You’re so far from home.

Far above, he heard his name rattling in the branches.

“There is nothing speaking to me right now,” he muttered. “This is a cursed place, and I am hearing the glamors-”

Realizing what was happening, he clamped his hands over his mouth to stop the words from coming out.

The air before him shimmered, as if in the presence of an open flame. Beyond the rippling veil, he saw corpses hanging from the nooses in the trees. Corpses that had not been there a moment ago.

What do you seek, silver prince? What do you seek?

Dead voices chorused in unison, and one by one, the cadavers turned their skulls his way.

Yaksha forced the side of his hand between his jaws. Hard.

Cartilage protested inside the grip of his bite. The pain exploded shortly thereafter. He clamped down as hard as he could, for as long as he was able, and finally, when he could stand no more and released himself, there were purplish, crescent-shaped gouges in the flesh where his teeth had been. He saw these illuminated in the orange-yellow firelight from the hearth.

Soft music filled his ears. A woman singing. Yaksha did not recognize the song, or the tongue it was sung in. It was a marching tune of some sort.

He looked around for the source of the music. The wall opposite of where he was standing was lined with rickety shelves, and the shelves were packed with the corpses of woodland creatures, all in varying states of decomposition. In between the dead things, there were countless, haphazardly arranged jars, all stuffed with flowers and powders and vile, sludge-like fluids. The air stank of rot.

“What do you seek, silver prince?”

He had been so intent on studying the gruesome menagerie before him that he had not noticed that the singing had stopped. He looked in the direction of where the soft, childlike voice had spoken, and saw now that there was a…woman sitting before the hearth. His eyes told him that it was a woman, at least, but his mind rebelled against that assertion, curved in the direction of animal, somehow, despite the evidence of his vision. She was sitting on a wooden stool with her back turned. Her black hair was matted, greasy, and tangled, and hung almost all the way to the floor. Looking at her, the stink of the rot seemed to shift as well, shift towards turned earth and wet fur, towards freshly-spilled blood and iron, all the smells of pain and death–but that too, faded. A cauldron smoked on the flames.

“Bewitchment of a prince of the royal blood is punishable by death,” he snapped. “I could have your head for what you’ve done.”

She giggled softly.

“Have my head, then, silver prince.” The words were a shade above a whisper, soft as poisonous flowers. “I’ll have the skull for my apothecary. I told you before, you know not where you tread. The Abysswood is mine, and death is no end here. You come on behalf of the Stormfaith. I read as much in the lightning.”

She rose to a creaking stand, and let her arms fall to her sides. It took most of his self-control to not react viscerally when she did. Her hands were wretched claws, long and sharp. She produced a wooden ladle from within the pockets of her rags and dipped it into the cauldron, humming softly as she stirred.

“Then you should have also read that Lûnwath has fallen,” he answered. “You should have read that the crown demands your service.”

“The crown can demand all it likes,” she murmured.

“What did you say?”

“Sit, m’lord. It would honor me to serve you.”

He considered seizing her by the hair and putting his sword to her throat, forcing her to comply– but he was suddenly very cognizant of the physical toll that the hike had put upon his person. His skin felt heavy on his bones. The stool by the fire seemed so inviting. He actually sighed as he lowered himself onto it. Did the shack really stink of decaying flesh, or was the cauldron bubbling with more…pleasant aromas? Fjordgrass and chostranor? Flowers and herbs from the wilds of the north, homecountry of a sloe-eyed chambermaid with two missing fingers. Purple smoke and lullabies. Exhaustion and confusion overwhelmed him. He sat and was quiet and let the flames warm his skin.

The witch had procured two wooden cups, and was ladling the contents of the cauldron into them. She wordlessly placed one into Yaksha’s hands, and took one for herself before sitting directly across from him. They were so close that their knees were nearly touching. The fire did not produce enough light. He could barely see her face. It made him uneasy.

“I must say,” she said, slowly, “that I serve no god. Surely this was explained to you?”

Yaksha nodded. Ilína had explained–no, Fjӧr had explained–he had to think of the two of them as one, now–about the bloody origins of the Scarecrow Witch’s power. There was a reason he was here and not in a temple. A sworn sorcerer of the crown could not tread the same paths as this blasphemer, and he had a long journey ahead.

“Well remembered, my prince,” Sameara whispered, in her delicate Mystaran accent. He could see her dark, almond-shaped eyes in the glow of the hearth. Where the witch had gone, he could not say. Nor did that seem to matter.

“Now drink.”

Yaksha lowered his gaze to the cup nestled in his palms. He could have sworn that before it had the consistency of sludge, but now he saw that it was nothing but a cup of ekrolsower tea, lavender-colored and innocuous. The very same that was served to him as a child. He raised it to his lips, and drank deeply. Warm nostalgia rushed down his throat. There was a gritty afterthought to the swallow, something like sand, but he ignored it.

“The Stormfather has informed me that in order to free Lûnwath, I must retrieve the daughter of the prophecy,” he said. “And for that, I must entreat the lord of the Underplane. Whoever that may be, presently.” There was a gentle warmth inside of him that wasn’t there before. He felt talkative, even amicable, and for once…for once, the dull throb of his ever-present rage was absent. Contentedly, he swallowed another sip.

Across from him, the shape of a woman (shape of a wolf?) was raising her own cup (with her claws, with her dreadful claws) with her soft, pale hands. The pinky and the ring fingers were lobbed off of the right hand. An accidental poisoning, long ago, before she was apprenticed as an apothecarian. Sameara, who’d taught him to catch fish in a trap, who’d taught him which roots if ground to powder could soothe a toothache and which leaves would lock up his throat and strangle him to death. She was ten winters in her grave, and yet also she sat before him, sipping tea. The flames danced orange and yellow and green. The walls swelled and pulsed and whispered.

“Such a brave prince.”

The air shimmered and swayed. A ringing filled his ears. Before him, Sameara’s (the witch’s?) face elongated and stretched like wax on a taper.

Yaksha didn’t mind. He finished his tea.

“I swear to you, I will guide you true. There’s one in the Blightfields who owes me a favor. It’s an old, old debt, one he has been yearning to repay. He will aid us. We’re leaving now, sweetling. Breathe in tight. This is going to hurt.”

Pain exploded so fiercely in Yaksha’s guts that he fell over screaming. The cup tumbled from his grasp, spilling its slimy dregs on the floor. The agony was so overwhelming, he forgot where he was, who he was. He screamed. And screamed. And screamed. Nothing existed but the pain, he was suspended in its nexus. An eternity passed, and finally, it subsided. He blinked at the shadows writhing on the ceiling. He wondered what the sour, acrid taste in his mouth was, and then he felt the vomit on his chin.

“You poisoned me,” he realized.

“Yes,” said the impossibly tall, swaybacked shadow above him. Two wolfyellow eyes winked malice through the haze of the smoke. It raised its arms, and it seemed that the whole of the world was filled with the shadows of its horrible claws. Claws to rend, claws to tear, claws to kill.

“How else to reach the Underplane, but to die?” she whispered.

The last thing that Yaksha saw, before the poison eviscerated him from the inside, before the pain became so intense that he forgot how to breathe, before his bowels voided, before his jaw locked shut against his screams– was the witch puncturing the side of her neck with her claws. Blood rained forth in a downpour as she collapsed beside him, drenching them both. An icy paw of a hand enclosed around his, and helplessly, he gripped onto it.

There was nothing now but the hard knot of agony deep in his intestines. He couldn’t move his limbs anymore, he couldn’t feel the throb of his own heart. Copperwet on his tongue. Icy sweat of her palm in his.

And the firelight was dimming.

There was nothing.

Her voice chased him into the dark.

“I’ll see you on the other side, my prince.” 

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Fantasy, Fiction, Horror