Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The men toasted my departure, the rowdiest action any group had demonstrated thus far. As I continued scouting the village, I found some so stupefied that they didn’t even mark my passage. Most at least watched me walk by, but a few bore faces so stained by the numbing berry brew that they were practically bearded. Near the center of the village, however, I found the strangest of all.
Furniture surrounded an empty pavilion in haphazard piles. The hearth lay empty and partially deconstructed, several of its stones amidst the piles of chairs, tables, and trunks outside. In the middle stood a half-naked man, eating crushed berries by the fingerful from a bronze libation bowl. Stringy hair was a tangled mess on his head, twigs and mice bones twisted amongst the strands. Sucking blackened fingers, he watched me with sharp, gray eyes.
There was something…unnerving about the intensity of his stare. It took me until I reached the tumbled furnishings to realize that he simply wasn’t blinking. From the moment we locked eyes, and likely before then as well, his eyelids hadn’t shuttered even a fraction. Wide-eyed, unending stare, almost like a snake. I made it through the ring of chattels but paused at the threshold of the pavilion.
The man tilted his head sideways when he saw me, black juice dribbling from the corner of his mouth. “Hello.”
“Who’s sacrifice is that?” I gestured at the bowl.
The man shrugged and stuffed another mouthful in, sucking at his fingers. “Not yours. Not yours. Not yours.”
“So I gathered.” My skin prickled as I leaned across the threshold. Frowning, I pulled back. The man was clearly mortal, so it wasn’t his power at work, but something was. “Are you waiting for someone to claim it? Or claim you?”
He giggled, slurping up more pulp. “Cannot claim what has been claimed, can you? You can, but I cannot. Can I?”
“What does that mean?” I scowled at his chittering laugh. “Why is it that the only villager who will talk is the only one with no sense?”
He proffered me the libation bowl. “Bjurberry?”
“Is that what it’s called?” I shook my head. “Where do they come from? None of the trees I’ve seen in the swamps produce fruit like these. Or fruit of any kind, for that matter.”
He frowned at the bowl, which he’d almost emptied. “They grow here. Here, see?”
When he finished off the last of the bjurberries in the bowl, the pavilion flashed. A pulse, not unlike the one Ynyr had created, burst from the hearth and washed over our surroundings. The wooden pavilion transformed into a rough temple of red wood, dark earth covering its floor beneath a haze of sooty incense.
Behind me, the ring of discarded furniture crumbled into piles of coppery weapons in awful disrepair. Green patina coated dented swords, warped spears, and dull arrowheads. Punctured helmets lay amidst perforated kite shields of ancient leather. Thankfully, I didn’t see any bones among the armor, but the scattered piles radiated death nonetheless.
In the wake of the pulse, the humidity fled. Strange blue light glowed above the trees, which had lost their leaves and stood like skeletal sentinels in the swamp, a purple glow undulating in the waters beneath their roots. But, no, the branches weren’t bare. Clusters of dimpled bjurberreis hung from the branches, along with bleached rodent and bird skulls.
And walking towards us from the depths of the marsh was a copper-haired witch who didn’t belong.
“You have found our priest,” the Serynis Sister said as she approached.
“Him? He’s not exactly all there, so I don’t see how he could fulfill his duties.” I stepped to the side, careful not to stab myself on the rusty weapons. “And you’re an Ibithian entity. What are you doing in Sivarii?”
“Born of, but not belonging to.” Dark veins, jagged like lightning, wreathed her pale green forearms. Thick, juniper green leaves made up her new dress, and shinguards of shaggy bark wrapped her legs. What aura she had was pitiful, barely a fraction of when she’d ascended, and there was no sign of her sister. Her yellow eyes flashed as she reached the edge of the ring. “We were nothing but a transient horror to the Ibithians. No love to be had, no gifts to be given, driven away by those who should have feared us.”
“They drove you away?” I shook my head. “The Ibithians might be reclusive, but they’re very devoted.”
“Devoted to the hydra, but not to us.” She bared her teeth, which were all sharpened fangs. “Here, we find appreciation, terror, worship.”
I frowned. It wasn’t impossible for deities to migrate from their place of conception and establish themselves elsewhere. Malia had mentioned that the Stitcher was fostering worship of the swamp horrors, which would lay a foundation for the Serynis to set herself—themself?—up on. But the Weeping Queen still held the lands, and a confused and floundering pantheon made for a poor new home.
Keeping her distance, she picked her way through the degraded weapons and accepted the empty bowl from her priest. With a flourish, she refilled the bowl and pressed two fingers to his forehead. He smiled as he faded from this strange place, taking the bjurberries with him.
I watched as she entered the primitive temple unopposed. When I reached the threshold, I swept my hand past it carefully and found the same minor resistance as before. This time, however, the warding betrayed its source.
The Serynis glowered at me. “There is no need to flaunt your superior strength. We saw plenty before our rebirth.”
“Where is your sister?” Subtle currents played around my fingers, which still trailed in the ward up to the top knuckle.
“We are as we were.” Her golden eyes glared at my fingers, still embedded in her ward. “Please withdraw yourself.”
Pulling my hand away, I met her glare with a smile. “What’s your pantheon, then? This land is inhabited, and though the Weeping Queen is racked with grief, I’ve yet to see her withdraw her claim to the region. So have you pledged your allegiance to her?”
“It was not her, but her husband, that we sought sanctuary from. A new patron has taken us beneath his wing, but he demands—” Black vines bled from her veins, coalescing into a thick spike she grasped in both hands. She brandished it like a weapon, staring me down and trying her best to be intimidating. “What he demands is of no concern of yours. Why are you here? Have you come to slay the survivors? Mock us in our homelessness?”
“You youngsters are always so full of yourselves.” I snorted as she pointed the spike at me. “I didn’t come to ‘finish you off,’ I didn’t even know you were here. If you really want to continue where we left off, we could, but unless you make yourself an enemy of Carthage I’ve no need to fight you now.”
“Strange, given how eagerly you slew our coven.” Her eyes flashed.
“You were trying to steal my son.” I pushed the point away from me with a finger. “Why do you think I didn’t chase you? The threat was gone.”
Her brow furrowed. “That mortal? But he was no get of yours. Not even a passing resemblance.”
“He has my blessing, and I have raised him as my own.”
At first I thought her shock was about my revelation, but then I heard thrashing in the water behind me.
The Serynis’ black-haired sister breached the water, brandishing a mottled, coppery sword. Surrounded by orange will-o’-wisps, the merrow snarled and slashed at the ghostly lights. A breathy moan filled the air, floating beneath the witch’s enraged cries.
Although the witch was still as pale as a corpse, she had developed more fish-like features since our last encounter. Webbed fingers struggled with the slippery hilt of her sword, gills fluttered on her neck, and eyes a uniform cloudy black made it hard to tell where she was looking. From the way she staggered, she still had her legs, although she’d grown a spined tail that helped her balance.
There was something strange about the orange balls dodging the merrow’s swipes. They taunted more than enticed, vibrating with every wordless whisper they uttered. Rather than trying to lead the piscine sister deeper into the swamp, they bobbed and weaved around her head, flitting up out of reach, never dipping into the water.
The Serynis behind me growled, shivering with rage as she watched the will-o’-wisps provoke her sister. “Not again.”
“What are those?” As I watched, the spheres expanded, mellowing from orange to yellow as they grew.
She pushed past me with a snarl. “Leave.”
The merrow sister slashed a light in half, scattering its pieces like a blown dandelion puff. Sparkling, the particles swirled back together and skittered away whole. A new ball replaced the old, taunting from a slightly further distance. As the merrow’s rage grew, her bond with her sister became visible, a glowing, murky green thread connecting their chests.
In response, the spheres also brightened, turning a light yellow. Peach-tinted aura clashed with the mossy energy radiating from the Serynis. I’d never seen any deity take the form of a will-o’-wisp, but they must’ve been from the way they were able to resist the Serynis’ power, pitiful though it was. They pushed against each other like toddlers fighting over the same toy.
The image dissolved, leaving me standing in the ring of scattered furniture once more.