His first few moments of waking touched upon him like a tormented dream. His whole body felt faint, as though it had been lost to him for an eternity and only just now had his mind finally found its way back. As he climbed closer into consciousness, ascending from a black pit deeper than any sleep into which he’d ever fallen before, he came to realize a number of things.
One: It was Jack, his dog, which had roused him from his slumber. As Rowan forced his eyes open, fighting against a seal of rheum, Jack wiggled where he stood on top of Rowan’s body. The dog cried, licking at Rowan’s face and clearing away more of the rheum, then began to bark plaintively. Rowan had never hear him bark with such a need in his voice. The dog seemed desperate and afraid.
Two: It was late enough in the day that the sun blazed full-force through Rowan’s window. That meant he had slept far beyond what was normal and natural for himself, and it meant that, for some reason, none of his housemates had seen fit to rouse him. Even if Garret and Delphine had, for some reason, decided to allow him to sleep, Delphine’s son Melark should have been tempted to awaken him by now, whether to play a game or to tell him about some “exciting” discovery he had mae or thought he’d had.
Three: He was agonizingly hungry. It was a hunger beyond anything he’d ever experienced, even during his time serving in the Lord’s army, when rations had been scarcer, at times, than anyone would have liked. The hunger gnawed at him from the inside. It felt like a vast pit had opened up in his abdomen, a dark, gaping hole which threatened to swallow up his entire body. The emptiness had spread into his limbs and into his head, leaving him weak and hollow. And the thirst — his tongue stuck to the inside of his mouth, dry and rough as sandpaper, and every breath he took pained him for its dryness.
Rowan shifted, the first step in his attempt to move from his bed. Jack jumped down from the bed, but he didn’t go far. He rested his head on the edge of Rowan’s bed, staring at him in longing. If Rowan was this hungry, and this thirsty, Jack might have been, as well. It felt like the thirst of days, if not more. Why had nobody awoken him? And why was Jack here, begging at him, and not one of the other members of the household?
With more effort that such a simple act should ever have taken him, Rowan pushed the sheets back from his body. He groaned as dust stirred into the air. It had settled down upon his body and his bedding, and now it infiltrated his nose. He sneezed, which transformed into a fit of coughing that his weakened body could barely manage.
He groaned again when the coughing had resided and he’d found the strength to fully unveil his body from beneath the covers. This time, his groan was one of disgust and disbelief. In his sleep, he had urinated and defecated into the bed. Both had long since dried, and so though it was mortified, he closed his eyes and continued to pull his too-heavy body from beneath his sheets. The mess seemed like the least of his problems. Something was very, very wrong.
He sat for a moment on the edge of his bed, catching his breath, and it was in this moment that his vision finally came to some sort of clarity. Jack pressed his head down on Rowan’s knees, looking up at him still, but Rowan barely noticed him, because another sight drew his full attention. Like most people in Orua, Rowan kept an altar to his favored deity, the one who he felt had the heaviest influence on his life: Saer, god of art, artifice, and invention. The statue, which Rowan had carved himself out of wood, was smoldering.
There was no fire to the smolder. It gave no sense of heat, and it had not spread to the wooden table beneath it, though the black smoke had written a dark stain upon the wall. The statue’s features had been melted and pitted until they were unrecognizable. The wood slowly curled away as lines of black smoke darker than the darkest night. Rowan shivered. Yes, something was wrong, and it went far beyond whether anyone had woken Rowan, and why he had slept for so long.
Rowan stood on trembling feet. His walk to his bedroom door was made all the more difficult by the fact that Jack pressed incessantly up against Rowan’s legs, making him stumble twice and turning those few steps into a journey. He hadn’t the strength to scold the dog, though, nor the heart. He was too focused on remaining upright despite the dizzy thrumming that pulsed through his head like a noise.
In the doorway, he paused. Noise. The sound of his own blood in his ears practically deafened him, but not because it was much louder than normal. Jack’s nails on the wooden floor, and Rowan’s own breathing and heartbeat — these were the only sounds. He should have been able to hear something of Delphine, Melark, and Garret, whether it be the sounds of their voices or their footsteps upon the creaking floorboards. Failing that, he should have heard something from the village outside: the echo of chopping wood, or the sound of one of the village’s few children laughing or playing.
There was nothing. The world had been drenched and drowned in terrifying silence.
Delphine’s door was open, as Rowan’s had been. All three of the adults tended to leave their doors ajar so that Melark could come to one of them, should he have need of them in the night. He most often came to Delphine, since she was his mother, but he sometimes came to Rowan for comfort. He rarely bothered Garret at all, though the halfling longed for it. Garret never spoke about it, but it was painfully clear he wished he could be a father figure to the boy.
Like Rowan had minutes before, Delphine lay in her bed. She seemed frighteningly still. Even in sleep, the eye stalks of an orose occasionally roamed, but Delphine’s lay still upon her pillow. Memories of the time before he’d fallen asleep were clouded by a heavy fog, yet Delphine looked just as he remembered her. She’d taken on her speedforme some time ago, and remained primarily in that forme. It turned her fur to tan-yellow and made her body lithe and flexible. She preferred it for hunting and traversing the woods.
Her full face, slimmed slightly by her speedforme, had an almost peaceful cast to it. For a brief moment, Rowan hated the thought of disturbing her; but then, he hated the idea that she might never awaken even more, and he couldn’t imagine facing the wrongness that had descended upon Orua without her. Gathering what little strength he had, he crossed her room, hoping that she was no worse off than him.
Jack stood on his hind legs to place his paws on the edge of Delphine’s bed, but he didn’t jump in. He was Rowan’s dog, mostly, and Delphine had never liked having him in her bed. He watched with surprising attention as Roward leaned over the sleeping orosian woman.
“Delphine.” Rowan’s voice came with difficulty, a whispered, cracked shadow of its true self. He worked his tongue around, attempting to come up with some spit to moisten his mouth. His head ached from dehydration. “Delphine. Wake up.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and shook. The act felt strange and unfamiliar. Had he ever shaken someone awake before? He couldn’t recall a time. He rarely touched Delphine, either. Theirs wasn’t that sort of friendship, and Rowan wasn’t particularly physical. Her speedforme fur felt stiff and smooth beneath his palms. She didn’t open her eyes. He felt her neck, and lowered his ear to her mouth. She was breathing.
Rowan’s breath was coming harder, both from the light physical exertion and from a fear that he wouldn’t be able to wake her up. “Delphine!” he said, pushing his atrophied voice to its limits. “You have to wake up.” He lifted her shoulders and dropped them, jolting her body.
All four of Delphine’s eyes snapped open. Her stalk eyes twisted and searched around wildly, though her main eyes focused on Rowan’s. She blinked. Alongside her yellow-tan fur, her orange eyes seemed to glow like the sunset. She blinked again, and again, until her eyes had reached some form of clarity. They filled with questions. Her stalk eyes turned to look past him, around her room.
“What’s happened?” she said. Like Rowan’s, he voice was weak, coming out as a mere croaking whisper.
Rowan released her shoulders. “I don’t know, Delphine. Something is wrong.”
Struck by sudden curiosity, he glanced at Delphine’s altar. Hers was to Quet, one of the Nine Gods of the Aurelian Ennead. It depicted a shrouded, humanoid figure wrapped in the snakelike body of a couatl. Rowan had carved this one, too, but unlike his altar to Saer, the small statue of Quet was not smoking. It had, however, begun to blacken at its edges.
Delphine pushed herself up onto her elbows. She turned her head, looking out of her window with her main eyes. “It’s… it’s so late in the day. Is that why I’m so hungry?” She made an obvious, forecul effort to swallow. “And thirsty?”
“I think we’ve been asleep for a while,” Rowan said. “More than one night. Maybe much more.”
“Where…” Delphine’s eyes widened, and her stalk eyes stilled their questing. “Melark.” She slipped out of bed, the lithe gracefulness of speedforme apparent even in her weakened state as she twisted easily past Rowan and stood. She stumbled only slightly. “Where is Melark?”
“I…” Rowan didn’t have time to continue the thought, though he wasn’t sure there had been a graceful way to finish it. He had given Melark so little thought. He’d thought only of rousing Delphine, so that she could help him overcome… whatever this was. But of course, he should have thought of the child.
Delphine seemed almost to forget about him. Certainly, as she made her way to the hallway with a determined gait only barely hampered by her weakness, she paid no mind to anything at all around her. She made no note of the feces clinging to the fur that covered her bottom, nor the fact that she was completely undressed from the waist down. Nudity wasn’t as taboo to the orose, but she still tended to cover herself when she left her room.
Rowan followed behind her with all the speed he could muster, though of course even on his good days, Delphine easily outpaced him while she wore speedforme. He reached the hall as Delphine was already ducking into Melark’s room. “He’s not here.”
She rushed out of his bedroom and continued toward the front of the house. In the front room, which served as both kitchen and living space, Jack had filled the floor with feces. Delphine avoided stepping in it, but barely. She turned the corner, turning her head about to search with both sets of eyes. “Where is he? Where is my son?”
Jack had torn apart the kitchen, seeking food. All that was to be seen were the piles of his feces and the scraps of food he’d managed to pull from the cupboards for himself. In the back of his mind, Rowan felt a small part of him emit respect for Jack’s resourcefulness, but the rest of his brain was as occupied as Delphine with the question of Melark.
“Melark?” she called, and he echoed her, but no response came. She turned to Rowan, ferocity plain in her eyes. “Check the backyard. I’ll check Garret’s room.”
Rowan could only nod. He went back down the hallway. At the end of it, a door led to their backyard. Curiously, someone had set the deadbolt. Rowan frowned. They never went through such precautions. Orua was a tiny village, which for whatever reason its residence aggrandized by calling it a town. Everyone knew literally everyone else. To break into someone’s home, or to steal from it, would have required sheer insanity.
Rowan opened the door and stepped into the backyard. As he’d expected, it as empty. Their small well, which Rowan had dug himself, and his tool shed, which he had built, were the yard’s only features. He’d fenced it in himself, because on the few times he felt like being outside, he wanted to do so unobserved by his neighbors. The only sign that things were different out here was the grass, which had grown up — well, it had to be several weeks worth of growth, though he could honestly say he was no good at guessing such things.
“He’s not in the backyard.” Rowan closed the back door behind him. Already Delphine was shepherding Garret out of his room. The poor halfling looked half-dead; Rowan imagined he must look much the same. It was only Delphine’s determination to find her son that energized her above the other. It had to be.
“What’s going on?” Garret asked.
“Something’s wrong,” Delphine said, a statement which seemed more obvious each time someone said it. “We’ve been asleep.”
“It does seem as though we’ve slept in,” Garret said. “Though as Alrhea says, a good night’s rest is worth more than its weight in gold.”
“Rest has no weight, Garret,” Rowan said.
“I dunno. I feel pretty heavy right about now.”
“Garret,” Delphine said, looking down at him. “We can’t find Melark. The thre of us were in our beds, but he’s missing. I know he went to bed last… night? When we did. His blankets are all mussed, but he’s not there.”
“Melark is missing?”
“Yes!” Delphine said, exasperated. “We have to keep looking.”
She turned on her heel and set out for the front door, her footsteps heavy.
“Hold on,” Rowan said, though he followed after her. “We don’t know what’s out there. We don’t know why we were asleep.”
“I don’t care,” Delphine said. “Melark’s not in the house, so he has to be outside.”
She slammed into the front door. It, too, had been locked. She growled as she unlocked it, then pushed it open. Rowan and Garret scrambled forward to meet her. She had reached it far ahead of them, but just outside, she froze.
Rowan reached her, with Garret close behind, gasping for breath. Melark sat on the swinging bench just outside. He knew it was Melark, because Melark was the only orosian child around for leagues, but the boy’s appearance shocked Rowan. He was awake, for one thing, and sitting stiffly upright. He stalk eyes were frozen in a forward gaze, unmoving as Delphine’s had been in her unnatural slumber, but none of that was what Rowan found disturbing.
Melark’s fur was a deep, bloody red, a red as true as though it had poured from Rowan’s own veins. Warforme. Melark had never taken a forme before, not as far as Rowan knew, and he’d know the boy Delphine had given birth to him right here in Rowan’s home. Rowan had only ever known him in greenforme, the forme in which Orose were born and the one in which they spent most of their childhood, until they learned how to walk the paths to other formes.
“Melark,” Delphine repeated. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
“Say something,” Garret said. Rowan glanced down at him. The halfling barely reached Rowan’s waist. He stood just a bit higher than Jack’s shoulders. Garret was trembling, though from weakness or from fear, Rowan couldn’t say.
Melark’s head turned toward them. His stalk eyes turned with it, but the rest of his body remained eerily still. His eyes widened when he saw them, and Rowan’s eyes matched them with a widening of their own, because his angle of view had hid something else about Melark, something more disturbing even than his shift to warforme. In the center of his forehead was a small black stone, sunken into his flesh. The fur around it glimmered with wetness — blood, though its color made it impossible to distinguish from the fur of warforme.
Delphine moved toward him. “Melark? My love? What’s wrong?” Rowan felt a sense of foreboding as she neared the boy. Something was wrong. Still. Again. He didn’t know. Everything around him was just so wrong, and it was the only word his fatigued mind could think of to describe it. Then Delphine reached out to touch Melark, and things got worse.
Melark’s body spasmed as though jolted awake.
“What —” Delphine began, but she got no further. Melark’s lips drew back into a snarl, revealing the sharp teeth granted by warforme, and he dropped from the bench and then lept, full force, toward Delphine, claws out. She screamed.
“What are you doing?” Garret shouted.
Melark fell upon Delphine, his warforme-claws scratching at her in a series of wild, unpracticed blows. Delphine caught the child by his shoulders, but he still clawed at her arms. “Melark! Stop! What are you doing?”
Blood dripped now from her forearms, though she ignored the wounds. At Rowan’s feet, Jack growled and tensed as though about to leap at the boy. His lips crept up over his teeth in a bizarre imitation of Melark’s own expression. Rowan pushed the dog backward and shut the door in his face, which Jack didn’t like. He began barking violently, scratching at the wooden door.
Rowan pushed past Garret and swung around Delphine. Melark snapped at her like a rabid animal. Rowan could see tears in her eyes as she fought to keep him away from her. He grabbed Melark from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. The boy fought with more strength than Rowan had ever felt from him. Of course. Warforme strengthened his muscles. In his weakend state, Rowan could barely contain him.
“Do something!” Rowan said.
“What do we do?” Garret asked. He stood, frozen, by the door.
“That stone,” Delphine growled. “It’s the stone.”
She set her gaze upon him. Rowan regarded her with something like horror, because he’d never seen her face take on the expression it now held. Anger, determination, and terror stormed behind her eyes. Even with the bright coloration of speedforme she seemed darker, suddenly, and more dangerous.
“Delphine —” Rowan said, in warning, though what words he meant to speak thereafter he would never know.
With a speedforme-swift motion, Delphine’s had lashed out toward Melark’s forehead. Rowan knew, immediately, her intent, though he couldn’t see how she could be successful in tearing it out. Outside of warforme, orosians had mere fingernails, hardly more durable than a human’s. And yet… Delphine’s jaw tensed, and on the other side of Melark’s head from what Rowan could bear witness, her fingers met the flesh of Melark’s forehead.
The boy writhed, and it was all Rowan could do to continue to hold him. All the strength of his mind and body was bent toward containing the boy. He heard Melark scream, and Delphine mirrored it, though hers was a scream of rage and terror, and his was one of pain. Then Melark went limp in Rowan’s arms, and all three of them fell to their knees.
“Garret,” Delphine said weakly.
“Yes,” Garret said. “Yes, I’m coming.”
Then Garret was there, standing over them, muttering words of pleading to his goddess, Alrhea, the Goddess of Healing. He pressed his hand to Melark’s head, and the ragged wound where Delphine had torn the stone from his head closed. Yet Melark’s eyes did not open.
“Melark?” Delphine’s voice came once more as a weakened whisper. She reached out to touch his face. “Melark? Wake up.”
“The stone,” Garret said. “Give me the stone.”
Delphine handed it over. It was a small, black thing, roughly spherical, though not quite: the sides were made up of flat planes. Melark’s blood still moistened its surface. Delphine didn’t take her eyes off of her son, who had yet to stir, but Rowan and Garret’s gazes fell upon the stone.
“Maybe removing it wasn’t enough,” Rowan said. He could feel the boy breathing, where Melark’s weight rested on his legs.
“It’s an evil thing,” Garret said. He held it with discomfort, as though it might sink into his own flesh at any moment.
“We need to destroy it,” Delphine said. “Inside. Let’s go inside.”
Together, she and Rowan hefted Melark’s body. Garret opened the door, and Rowan briefly tensed, having forgotten about Jack’s sudden violence. But the dog had calmed down, and now only followed them to the couch, where they laid Melark down. Jack sniffed at the young orose, but didn’t bother him.
“I’ll get… a hammer?” Rowan said.
“Sure,” Delphine said. “I don’t know what else to try.”
Rowan rushed to his shed in the backyard, grabbed a hammer from among his tools, and returned. On the way back, he nearly ran into Garret, who was coming out of his room with a small vial.
“Holy water,” Garret said. “That stone is evil. This can’t hurt.”
Rowan shrugged. In the living room, Garret set the stone down on the floor. Rowan lifted the hammer with a grunt. It was not all that heavy, but he was, especially after all of their exertions. He brought it down on the stone, as hard as he could muster, but to no effect. The stone didn’t even bounce: it simply dented the wooden floor.
“We need something harder to smash it on,” Rowan said. He should have thought of that before.
“Let me try this,” Garret said. “It’s water from the church.”
Gingerly, Garret picked the stone up between two fingers. He set the vial down on the floor and, after a second’s hesitation, dropped the stone into it. The result was not what Rowan expected, not in the slightest. The holy water frothed, suddenly, as though taken from rest to a boil in mere instants. Garret scrambled backward, falling down upon his bottom, as the water erupted into steam laced with black smoke. All three of them stared, shocked. Then the reaction was finished, and the bottle, cracked and empty, sat empty and seemingly innocent upon the floor.