AuntieVerse Serial #1, 2016
Let me tell you a bedtime story, Dearest.
Not long ago, there lived a woman, aged and gray, twisted skin like dried yellowed parchment and hair like billowing clouds of gray dust settling in spiders' webs. She lived in a house, like so many do or dream, a creaking, ancient tomb with gauzy curtains in the windows and whispered secrets in the walls. Her children lived with her—some she borrowed, some she stole, some she caught...but all she loved. One after another, she housed a favorite child, her Dearest, and this one was no different—curious, brave, and loyal. A vicious pet perfect for Auntie's needs.
And oh, how Auntie loved her Dearest.
The sun was painting the sky bloody, washing streaks of white clouds into the west with brushstrokes of frothy pink when Auntie burst into the room one night, panting, her body shaking with the effort of her flight. The years had worn her, frayed her edges, but Dearest had never seen her so...mortal. Auntie could be cruel, could be impossible in her love for her Dearest. But she was never frightened.
Nothing frightened Auntie.
How her Dearest trembled in that moment—how they shook, feeling that curdling chill deep in the pit of their stomach, rising like bile to freeze the blood in their veins as Auntie hurriedly clasped their shaking fist around a tiny silver key. She babbled instructions, wiped their eyes, grasped their chin and shook them as though to shake out the devil.
There was no time.
And she was gone then. Like mist burning off of the morning grass, their Auntie was gone, the condensation curling on the window the only proof she'd ever been.
The moments crawled by like diligent ants beneath Dearest's skin, treading desperately toward tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and where was Auntie? They wondered idly, casting a glance to the moon that grinned down upon them, sickly tallow in the murky black oil of the night sky, blinding even the stars with that deathly pallor.
In the distance, dancing across the corner of their eye, they saw it: the flicker of torches.
In the distance they heard it: the revving of the engine and the snapping of weathered rope and the outlandish, bone-scraping cackle.
And then it was scrambling fingers and splitting flesh against the window sill as they tugged and strained—up, up, up! Out of the window and along the balcony and up, up, up the sliding shingles of this groaning, grumbling old house with too many doors and too many dreams. And then Dearest was at another window and the tiny silver key that stuck to their palm with sweat clicked easily into the iron lock. Up, up, up the window slid and Dearest slid as well, resting bare feet upon a blanket of dust and grime uneasily.
It was much like Dearest would expect an attic to be. Musty with the smell of centuries of disuse and heavy beneath a coverlet of neglect. Here and there Auntie had decorated with iron cauldrons, streamers of herbs, various sizes of brooms to fit whatever need she alighted upon. Jars stacked atop jars and if Dearest had all of the time in the world, they would tap along each one to see what slept in the gloom. Alas, there was no time. Upon the sill, Dearest found the note, hastily scrawled in rapidly drying red. Ah, instructions.
A long-toothed comb.
A rope of hair.
The other items were simple to gather. They lay in the great ebony wardrobe to the far side of the room and Dearest's only troubles were the scurrying vermin that parted like waves at their passing. A rope of copper hair that shone like the dawn, strung from the rafters amidst hundreds of its siblings, and it was simple to cut down with one flick of the crane-handled stitching scissors. The pearlescent comb glinted dangerously in the anemic light that spilled through the open window.
But the book...
At the center, neatly and matter-of-fact, lay a well-oiled leather tome, small enough to fit in Dearest's pocket, should they so desire it. All else in this room slumbered beneath desertion and disrepair, but this book...ah...it sat alone in its magnificence. Were Dearest to open it, they would find the delicate script of a younger, fresher Auntie, detailing powerful craft and any manner of--
They jerked their hand away, as though burned, and then advanced again, gingerly, reverently, and wrapped the book in its velvet cloth. It found its home in the bottom pocket of Dearest's rucksack, safe and sound for Auntie.
A shadow drifted across the moon and Dearest followed, into the west. Auntie had sent them to the swamps many times, often to their personal benefit...occasionally to their presumed death. The road was long and winding, but the beasts feared to tread beyond their marsh with that hunter about.
Had Dearest heard Auntie speak of him before? They were certain that they would remember, though Auntie often punished them for tendencies otherwise. Still, if this were a beast that could harm even Auntie...no, they mustn't think that way. Auntie loved them so.
The sun rose lazily and Dearest hid from it. Who could trust the pale pinks and melted sherbets that oozed across the horizon at their ease? Dearest slept fitfully in thicket and brush, traveling by night on wracked and weeping soles. After two days, they found it finally, tucked in the hollow of the bright blue bottle tree at the swamp's entrance, shimmering and sparkling in the hazy beams of moonlight that peeked between the clouds. The tree was massive but the note was very small and pinned to a tiny fabric doll that looked rather like Dearest, if they were prone to flattery.
They scanned quickly and then sliced a ribbon of fabric from their nightshirt, lashing the doll to their waist tightly and tucking it beneath their clothes..
So the beast had a name. The Hangman...Auntie would know what to do. Auntie would protect them. Dearest merely had to wait for their Auntie and she would slay the beast and all would be well.
Auntie said so.
Taking the comb from their pack, they approached the water's edge, one slow step after another after another after another, until green moss and mud oozed between each toe and licked at their ankles, up their calves and shins and knees until the sucking at the waist was too great and they stopped.
Then, with one heave of their chest, they hurled the comb deep into the deafening silence and staggering darkness of that swamp, where their head felt heavy with cotton and their senses struggled to keep them awake. The comb landed far away, unseen and unheard, but the ground began to churn and rumble and then the pearly trees shot forth like so many shining fangs, chasing the starlight between the swaying branches of gnarled willows and chewing smaller, weaker life in their wake. Dearest gripped one and let it pluck them with an audible, wet pop from the clutches of the black mud and up, up, up they shot as well, settling on the branch of a luckier swamp tree. They watched the Forest of Teeth climb the sky and knew that they could sleep through the day unharmed. The Hangman would not get them here, at least not until moonrise.
When the sun shrank in the distance and the glistening forest, like peeled fingers, shrank with it, Dearest climbed from their perch and began again, ever west, trudging through mud that mouthed hungrily at their feet and past nightmarish beasts that shivered fearfully in the dark. The cave at the center of the swamp was one they'd seen before, one that Auntie had warned them away from. They stopped several feet away from its yawning maw and peered into the black throat of the earth, then started when the glint of moonlight in crimson caught their eye.
This wasn't right. Auntie should be here, waiting for her Dearest. Instead there were smears and pools and stains of coppery red that stretched to the water's edge, rivulets of crimson swirling into muddy whirlpools that lapped at Dearest's ankles. They flung their body forward through Auntie's blood and their suffocating cloud of terror, tripping and sending blood and filth through the air like rain. Desperately clawing through the mud they screamed into the darkness, sobbing, biting their lip to mix blood and tears and mucus to ruin their shirt. One soul-sucking fistful after another and—there! Buried far beneath a swinging, slack noose...a mud-stained note, crumpled and filthy, soaked completely through and saved only by some small enchantment that Dearest could feel dissipating between their fingers.
Dearest opened it carefully, so as not to tear the delicate paper, and read the instructions that they found there with shaky breath. Auntie was gone—Auntie was in danger. Auntie needed her Dearest.
They had to go!
They had to find their Auntie!
And then the wind was kissing up their bare, wet arms and a shudder wracked their shoulders. Hot tears pooled and ran unbidden and unburdened down their chattering jaw and it was all they could do to keep from collapsing.
What if Auntie was dead?
They should hide!
They should run!
A twinge of pain as the doll at their waist radiated heat against their skin. The wind nudged the noose above Dearest's head, sending it swatting against frame of the monstrous stone gullet. Thwack, thwack. Thwack, thwack. Thwack, thwack.
Dearest traced its movement wearily, heart pounding a deliberate, primal tattoo that sent their stomach pounding. Then they reached up and unwound it from its perch, sniffling as they wound it and secured it at their waist. The Hangman had their Auntie...and he was sending a message. If she were dead, he would have left her body, or built a pyre. He would be waiting here for Dearest...which meant Auntie needed to be alive and Dearest had to come for her. This was an invitation to a game, a hunt, and Dearest needed to play by his rules, to seek him out and fight on his terms if they wanted to see Auntie again.
This noose was a warning, a taunt, a trap, and the Hangman knew Auntie and her Dearest would be stronger together than apart. He needed Dearest worn down, desperate, and for Auntie to be all the closer to death before he killed them both. This was all a game to him.
But Dearest was very good at games.
Especially when the Hangman had already given away his best pieces.
With the rope of copper hair unlooped from their shoulder and tightly coiled around a steadfast stone, Dearest descended into the gaping mouth of the cave, eyes adjusting slowly as they slid through the shimmering tresses and down to an unwelcome and almost certain demise.
The Hangman had counted on Dearest's dependence of Auntie, that Dearest would exhaust their tools and talents in their search for her. He planned to exploit that weakness, so Dearest could ill afford to be weak.
The climb was slow and goose pimples prickled delicately upon Dearest's skin, raising every hair as the air around them cooled. The stench of muggy damp and the acidic tang of spilled blood far above their head was replaced with the metallic chill of slick stone and slumbering nightmares. Again Dearest felt the burn of terror snake through their blood and set their stomach heaving, even as their feet softly touched upon the slippery surface of the bottom of the cave.
They released the rope of hair gingerly, fingertips lingering against the silken strands like a memory. Somewhere, deep in the tunnels lit with only the ethereal blue glow of creeping larvae and night fungi, the rumble of slow, even breathing echoed.
Dearest took a deep breath and braced themselves, then one step led another led another led another and they were advancing.
Dearest toed along the slick stone, careful of their footing, and tread past great, towering mushrooms and through the midst of angular, clicking night crickets in fancy dress and ill-fitting human faces. They warned Dearest with their eyes, one after the other, and Dearest nodded in silence, not even slightly tempted by the sickly smelling treacle tarts and warm cups of sugared teas.
Down one looping endless tunnel after another they tread, scuffling as silently as they dared, water splashing as it rose with each tentative step. Dearest clutched the sliver crane-handled scissor to their chest, breath catching unevenly in the gloom of the caves, ears straining for the vibration of snores beneath the incessant drip-drip of condensation pooling on the ceiling and sinking to the ground with delicate plinks. The droplets landed once or twice behind their ear, earning a shriek and a hastily clapped hand over their own lips.
Had they woken?
Had they heard?
Ears straining in the wavering eerie glow, Dearest crept forward inch after agonizing inch. The stagnant water sloshed with each step and when they rounded a final corner, they were hit--smartly and suddenly--with an overwhelming wall of stench. The blue glow dotted the walls of the gaping cavern now, weakly illuminating the multitude of oozing sacs strung from the dripping ceiling like so many meaty stalactites. Dearest clapped a hand to their mouth again and struggled to swallow that sick that bubbled up their esophagus.
A rustle and hiss nearby and Dearest was scurrying behind a stone, cowering in the shadows. They hurriedly gulped a breath of air and held it trapped in their lungs, hands shakily gripping at their belt to snatch the silver scissor and clutch them to their chest.
In, two, three, four.
Out, two, three, four.
The cavern was dangerously silent now, and Dearest dared for the briefest of instants to flicker their gaze upward, in the direction of that scaly horror that glided towards them.
There it lay, head swaying to and fro hypnotically, orange cat's eyes wide and glinting in the stillness of the cavern. Above them the sacs pulsed and stank, behind them the tunnels curved and crossed...but here, Dearest was safe. Here, Dearest was protected. Here, Dearest was lo---
Dearest jerked back when they heard the doll scream inside of their head--when had they risen and walked to the serpent? They stumbled and raised the scissors, thrashing wildly when the serpent stuck, engulfing their body easily in her mouth. Strike after strike after strike and the snake fell limp. Dearest clawed their way upward, toward the blinking dimness, coated in blood that sizzled and spat in the cool, damp air.
Quickly, quietly, Dearest splashed water pooled at the cavern's entrance on their nightclothes, thankful that the caked mud and grime of the swamps offered some mediocre protection. The scissors hissed in their hands and grew warm, but otherwise were unmarked by their deadly duel with the massive serpent. Dearest collected a scale for good measure and approached the great shattered stones lining the wall again.
The eggs, forgotten and fossilized after centuries, were too heavy and too cumbersome to break apart. Dearest gripped the edge of a fragment that would serve their needs and scraped the jagged edges against the slick wall to round and smooth them. The action left scratches that gouged both the cavern and the stagnant air.
Come and get me.
The fine hairs on Dearest's neck lifted mere moments before they heard the scuttling of legs that brought death for them. They darted to the side, rolling the shield on top of them as they moved, and the spider dropped atop the onyx, skittering and striking with a scream that shook the cave walls.
Dearest squealed beneath its weight and snapping pincers, then struck at a spindly leg with those scissors, slashing at an exposed joint.
Oh, the sound it made.
Screaming again in a pitch that chilled Dearest's blood, the spider retreated, skittering to and fro, to and fro, and Dearest was on their feet, following. They slipped when the puddles--more blood than water now--stung their heels and the spider struck then with the advantage, slicing with its bladed legs.
Dearest ignored the pain in their feet and now the gushing wound in their shoulder. They could not hold both shield and scissors with the slick blood soaking their shirt. Worse, even if they survived, they could not climb to freedom. Dearest groaned, deep in their throat, and as they limped awkwardly along the cavern wall, an idea born of delirium and desperation formed.
The spider approached, roaring as only a spider can, and Dearest shrank back, cursing as they tucked the crane handled scissors carefully into their rucksack and their fingers brushed the noose as their belt.
How old was it?
Would it hold?
The spider shrieked again and charged and Dearest met her and threw all of their weight behind that shield, knocking into that bleeding leg and sending the spider into an awkward flip onto its back. Then they darted forward and climbed, looping the loosened noose up, up, up and around those pincers and one skittering leg, putting out a glaring red eye with their fist when she snapped at them. The spider struggled and heaved, but Dearest had locked their thighs to the sides of her abdomen, leaning forward to throw off her equilibrium.
The spider skittered, stumbled, and stilled.
Dearest waited a breath or two and dug in their heels, awkwardly balancing the shield between their chest and the bristling thorax. With a vicious jerk, they were steering the spider toward the entrance of the cavern, and when she tilted, as though to shake off her rider, Dearest mercilessly pressed a thumb into the ruined mess of an eye, gritting their teeth against the scream of pain that stirred the air like a trapped storm.
Streaking along the damp, weeping walls, past the tea parties and salons of the denizens of the deep, and up, up, up the spider carried Dearest, jerking and shuddering and howling its pain when it tried to slow.
Dearest rode her through the swamp, beneath the shadowy tendrils of trembling trees and the shuddering sighs of otherwise silent beasts. West, ever west, chasing the sun.
Chasing the Hangman.
Dearest found the first finger at the edge of the swamp.
The doll shifted against their skin and its voiced echoed in the weary still of Dearest's mind.
Dearest followed them. All ten fingers enshrined on stones. All thirty or so teeth glittering like pebbles in the tall grass. The tongue that dried in the hollow of another bottle tree. The locks of hair tried to branches that swayed with every fickle breeze, like sooty cotton waiting to be plucked.
It was the eye, set gently in a glass case with a note pasted to the side that set Dearest's jaw. They read the cramped, curt words that scratched across the surface of the paper like broken capillaries, then crumpled the note. A single, high-pitched sob that sent the spider scurrying nervously and Dearest felt a nudge at the recesses of their consciousness.
The doll nudged again, louder, until Dearest pulled that dark leather tome from the rucksack and scanned the binding thoughtfully. With a careful hand, they opened it to the elements--the blistering wind that sped with each turn of a page and the rain that pounded sideways at Dearest's chest and back--scanning restlessly until the doll was silent. Dearest tore the page from the book without so much as a second glance and carefully folded it away. Then they scooped the glass box and Auntie's eye and tucked that away as well.
The Hangman was waiting.
Dearest took the bait, riding past the swamp and the plains and forgotten fields. Past pain and fever and sleep. The spider trembled and shuddered with the savage effort until the red glow at the edge of the world--a camp set in the ruins of a once powerful ring of mage stones--loomed, reaching into the night sky like the stretching arms of a maddened congregation.
At the base of the hill, Dearest waited, though they knew that time was short and they would soon succumb to blood loss and exhaustion. Too true, they played the Hangman's game, but Dearest entered the fray not as a pawn, but a knight belted in moon-bleached blood, chained in heavy loyalty, and spurred by tireless desperation. And as their eyes traced the flames that licked at the oily heavens above, setting them alight and spreading with the breathless joy of the damned, Dearest knew that was how they die as well.
Dying for Auntie.
The climb was quick, quiet, over too soon. Dearest wondered briefly if everyone rushed to death, one swaying step at a time. The spider listed frequently but trudged onward, shrieks and groans of agony mere whimpers now.
It was better this way. Dearest wanted the Hangman to know they were coming.
Surely, swiftly, Dearest reached the top of the hill and when the spider set one last shaking skitter at the entrance of the camp, they saw him.
The spider surged to a stop beneath the tattered banners that fluttered in the heat and wind and Dearest took a moment to drink in the Hangman. His eyes were alight with the fury of passion, like embers sunk into a sharp cheekbones of a polished skull. The skin was yellowed and stretched tight like weathered bones over a skeletons that was too...everything for it. This could not be human, could not be a man--and yet Dearest knew in their heart that it was.
Were there men more monstrous than Auntie?
He waited patiently for Dearest, pacing like a cat that was growing increasingly bored of its plaything--a broken and bloodied old woman at his feet. Dearest hated him in that moment, and the rage that surged to their fingers gave them strength enough to twist the noose a final time pulling up, up, up, and locking their thighs again as the spider thrashed and twitched and thudded against the packed earth. Dearest climbed down then, eyes trained on The Hangman, never daring to drop their gaze.
Lip curled in disgust, The Hangman could only trace Dearest as they staggered to the side, reaching for those silver scissors and the onyx shield. Dearest grinned wolfishly, the beast so near death that The Hangman had trapped.
The battle, like the climb, was brief and I can scarcely remember the details.
I do know that The Hangman gained the upper hand, shattering the onyx shield against the earth and thrusting Dearest's arm into a campfire, fingers deep into the gushing wound in their shoulder and fist tight in their hair--as though the tools of his own pets could have ever stopped him. Didn't they know that he nurtured those beasts from birth?!
I do know that Dearest bit and scratched and clawed and tore his face to ribbons, snipping his forearms and sides with those venom-stained scissors, hearing him shriek and watching him falter in each blow that collided with Dearest's battered body.
I do know that the Hangman, head swimming and body listing like a withered rope in the wind, took the rucksack when Dearest curled into a ball,
heaving it high above his head and gripping the black book reverently, lovingly kissing its pages and petting its script, eyes burning. Didn't Dearest know the power they'd tracked through the swamp and filth all this time—the unlimited power, the unbridled force at their very fingertips?!
All his now. All his and if he could only find the right page---
I do know that the doll screamed then, so shrilly and painfully that Dearest's ears filled with blood and their head sang and when they opened their eyes, they saw that broken woman worming her way around The Hangman's knees and ankles, face bloody and eyeless and horrifying as she tugged with all of her might and the two of them and the book and rucksack collapsed into the roaring fire behind her.
I do know that the last of her magic fueled that fire and it burned until the moon began to set, even after Dearest snatched up a single dirt-covered eyeball in the dust crawled down the hill and the doll had long ceased screaming.
Dearest stumbled into the kitchen of that old, grumbling house days later, staining the wooden floor and polished cabinets in their wake. The blood was thick with pus and mud and other disgusting fluids that Dearest had waded through to get home, get that eye and her doll to safety.
The doll lay on the table alone now as Dearest opened that blood-stained page with trembling fingers.
Auntie's Favorite Chocolate Cake.
It was when the sun's fingertips nudged the whispering grass in the houses' lawn that Dearest was carefully nipping the doll's face, creating a tiny mouth. They took a tin fork and carefully, so carefully, carved one piece after another.
A bite for Dearest.
A bite for Doll.
If one morsel was particularly slimy or salty, or the consistency was more jelly than baked batter, the doll did not complain.
By the time the sun kissed the tops of the window panes, Dearest was being nudged awake. The touch was gentle but insistent, as only an anxious child could manage and Dearest was startled to realize that was indeed the case. The doll sat beside them, swinging their feet idly, eyebrows knotted in confusion as they traced the plate thoughtfully with a single, chocolate-stained finger.
“Where are we?” they whispered conspiratorially.
Sitting up in their—her chair, the woman smiled, touching her own cheeks with careful disbelief. She raked her gaze over herself, quite grown, quite whole, save for an ache in her left eye.
“Why,” she began, feeling the familiar words weigh on her tongue, “we're home.”
The child sniffed and tilted their head. “Who are we?”
A smile, slow and joyful and showing far too many sharpened teeth. She set delicate talons against the soft skin of the child, pricking it like a ripe peach and watching crimson juice run down her arm with a delighted shiver.
“I'm your Auntie and you're my Dearest. And I love you very, very much.”
Story time is over, Dearest. Finish your cookie and climb into bed.
Remember to clutch that pillow tightly.
Shut your eyes.
Dream of the deep, dark caverns and skin stretched tight on dead men's bones.
Dream of swamps that drown you in sorrow and flashing bottle trees.
Dream of madmen's laughter and self-serving sacrifice.
Dream of fire swallowing the sky.
Sweet dreams, Dearest. Auntie loves you.