Rating: General audiences
Warnings: Mild fantasy horror
Summary: Wisdom and Nuada explore an ancient ruin after dark.
Writing and art by me.
There was a chill wind blowing through the little graveyard, although with two of the three moons hanging bright in the sky above it, it wasn’t particularly dark. Wisdom crouched behind one large headstone, their small body entirely shadowed. They waited intently, peeking out to spy on the ivy-covered archway that formed the entrance. Several times, they thought they saw movement, but each time it turned out to be the flickering of the dappled shadows on the pathway when the wind blew through the trees overhead.
They had almost started to nod off when they heard soft footfalls approaching. They yawned widely, pressing their hand to their mouth, then leaned up and waited as the small figure made its way cautiously down the path and poked its head into the graveyard. “S-S-Song?” it called, a little tremulous.
Wisdom waited for a moment as the child shifted from foot to foot, wringing their hands, then leapt out from behind the grave with a yell. The other child shrieked and jumped about a foot in the air. They turned, about to run away, but Wisdom reached out and grabbed the back of their neck, almost unable to stand for laughter. “It’s just me.”
“You thrice-damned prick!” sputtered their friend.
“Aw, Nuada. You just squawk so cutely.”
“I thought you were a spirit!”
“Nope. Also, I’m not Song anymore.”
Nuada sighed. “Seriously? You changed your name again?”
“Yeah, I thought of a better one. Wisdom!”
“Are you ever going to actually settle on a name?” Nuada asked.
“Well, when I turn thirteen, I’ll have to, won’t I?” Currently-Wisdom shrugged.
“I dunno, if anyone could just keep changing it, it’s you.”
“When I turn thirteen, I will pick the most amazing name ever, so I won’t want to change it, and everybody else will think it is the best.”
“You think every single name you come up with is the most amazing name ever. And your most recent idea was Wisdom.”
“Yeah, well—well—someday I’m gonna be right, you’ll see. And what’s wrong with ‘Wisdom’? It’s to the point.”
Nuada sighed and patted their friend on the arm. “Nothing, Wisdom, nothing.”
“Anyway, are you ready for tonight?” Wisdom couldn’t stop themself from grinning. “I begged some cakes from Pat, and I snuck a bit of ale when she wasn’t looking. Tucked it all away in there.” They jerked their thumb behind them towards where a half-collapsed building rose in the stark white light of Naéve’s moon. It was so old that dark moss grew over all of it; beneath the moss, the white stone had been rounded by the passage of the years. If there had ever been a part of the structure that was made of wood, it had long since rotted away. The spire of an old bell tower still rose towards the sky, although the roof was gone and the top lay exposed to the elements.
“Um.” Nuada shuffled their feet. “I’m still not sure about this, So—Wisdom.”
“But it’ll be fun.”
“What if there really is a spirit, though? I’ve not courage like you do.”
“I’ll protect you!” Wisdom proclaimed cheerfully. “I’d not let anything bad happen to you, Nu.”
For some reason, the statement made Nuada frown and shuffle at the gravel pathway again. “Why’re you always saying that?” they asked, and Wisdom gave them a confused look.
“That you’ll protect me.”
“Because you’re my friend.”
“Yeah, but…eh. Never mind. All right, then, I suppose. If I die, I’ll not leave you in peace, though. So count yourself warned.”
Wisdom reached sideways and took Nuada’s hand before they remembered sometimes Nuada was a bit strange about physical contact, but Nu didn’t object, so they didn’t let go. The two of them padded hand in hand between the old headstones on either side of the path and paused inside the ruins of the church to retrieve the cakes and ale. Wisdom’s heart was pounding in their chest, but not with fear. They’d been wanting to stay at the church of Ulchabhán for probably the best part of a year now, but they had to admit it wasn’t the best idea alone. If any of the rumors about evil spirits were true, well, it’d be better to have someone else along. They doubted the existence of evil spirits, at least any that had the time and inclination to haunt this old Bridehive relic, but there might still be something interesting to see.
The narrow stone staircase was a pinched spiral like a very tall shell. Wisdom found themself walking a little closer to Nuada as they climbed. Nuada seemed to be pressing closer to them as well. Halfway up, there was a strange rustling noise, and Nuada froze with a soft squeak, huddling against Wisdom. “What was that? What was that?”
Wisdom swallowed hard. It suddenly occurred to them that maybe a few cakes and some ale plus the thick branch they’d shoved into the side of their belt were maybe not the best defense against hypothetical evil spirits. “We’re going to be fine,” they told Nuada, and their voice barely even wobbled, but they were clutching their friend’s hand so hard they could feel the bones shifting beneath their grip. Nuada didn’t complain.
The rustling sound grew louder, and Wisdom reached for their stick, breath coming short and hard. There was a scratching, too, and a soft moaning voice, too soft and drawn out to make out any words. “Come and get me!” Wisdom shouted before they could stop themself. Beside them, Nuada let out a soft gasp and cringed.
Something swooped down from the crumbling stones above, wings barely even moving, and Wisdom let out a long breath as the vast white owl nearly brushed against the tops of their heads. It glided in a majestic arc downwards, following the curve of the stairs, and Wisdom just watched until it was out of sight. “Saint Naéve,” they breathed.
“I thought we were dead,” Nuada gulped, then giggled nervously. “Huh. People say there’re evil spirits here. I guess they’re not so brave. Didn’t anyone ever stop to look?”
“I think I need some of that ale now,” Wisdom said, very proud that their voice didn’t wobble at all. “Let’s go up to the top and have a picnic.”
The women’s moon had reached the horizon by the time they stepped out onto the top of the tower, leaving only the wermen’s moon still hanging high in the sky. The mostly exposed surface was windy and chilly, but part of the original stone wall still stood a few feet above the platform, so Wisdom pulled Nuada down into the lee of it before setting their makeshift club to the side and laying out the cakes and ale.
“Things taste better after you’ve been frightened near to death,” Nuada said, meditatively, as they started chewing on one of the two large sticky-cakes Wisdom had swiped from the batch Pat had left cooling on the windowsill earlier that day.
“They really do,” Wisdom agreed. “I’d not have thought that. It’s nice how you feel after, though, when the fright’s gone.”
They passed the ale back and forth. It was thin and watered-down but good, and even a few swallows warmed their face and dulled the sharp edge of the wind. “I’ve not seen you in a few days,” Wisdom said, after they’d spent a little time in companionable silence. “Wasn’t sure if you were going to be here tonight, either.”
“Sorry.” Nuada ducked their head. “I got in some trouble last time I went—home—with my trousers wet.”
They were always a little vague about their home life. Wisdom had sometimes wondered if they had a parent who beat them—they’d seen that make other children cautious, quiet, withdrawn. Pat threatened to beat Wisdom occasionally, but she wasn’t serious. Usually, she couldn’t even keep herself from laughing about whatever it was that Wisdom had done to warrant it.
Nuada and Wisdom had swum together, though, and there were no signs of bruises on Nu’s back or legs, so Wisdom decided there was probably nothing wrong, just Nu being Nu again. Some people were just naturally nervous. Wisdom wasn’t one of them.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here now,” Wisdom settled on, leaning companionably against Nu, who shoved at them but, after a moment, sighed and curled against them. “So’re we really watching for spirits?”
“Sure,” Wisdom responded lightly. “’Course, there’s also this gorgeous view under Naéve’s moon, and these nice cakes, and my favorite pers—”
A punch so light it was more like a tap. “I get it.” Nu yawned. “S’nice.”
They drowsed together, as Naéve’s moon rose higher. The landscape laid out before them was a tumbling patchwork of orchards and farms stretching to the silver ribbon of the river, and beyond that, the feet of the jagged mountains split the dark pine forest, the spines of the great dragon Lind arrested in stone before he could shake the world from his back. Every so often, thin, wisp-like clouds scudded in front of the risen moon, sending dappled shadows chasing across the two children.
As Wisdom drifted in and out of consciousness, the women’s moon jumped jerkily about the sky. Then, for some reason, they were solidly awake, as if something had brushed chilly fingers down their neck and back. Nu was curled into them, shivering violently and murmuring incomprehensible words beneath their breath. Wisdom, frowning, glanced to the side to see that Nu’s face was an unnatural pallor, and a quick press of a hand to their cheek told them that the flesh was icy-cold.
“Nu?” Wisdom said, and Nu’s eyelashes fluttered, opening to reveal dazed dark blue eyes.
“Uh? Wis?” Nu’s words were slurred and sloppy.
Wisdom got up on their knees, trying to figure out what was happening, and that was when they saw it—the thin, misty tendrils sliding with no apparent barrier into Nu’s left side, trailing off towards a vague, shrouded white figure that seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
“Get away!” Wisdom shrieked, grabbing their stick and waving it threateningly. The figure did not appear to notice. Wisdom swung wildly at it, but the blow did not connect—it passed directly through the creature and half-stunned Wisdom from its heavy, jarring impact with the crumbling stone wall.
Stumbling backwards, dropping the stick, they put their hands beneath Nu’s shoulders and heaved them backwards. The tendrils stretched like strands of slime but did not break. “Nu!” Wisdom cried. “Nu, come on, you gotta wake up, we gotta get out of here!” The other child stared at them, no comprehension dawning in their eyes. “Nu, please,” Wisdom moaned. They managed to tug Nu farther backwards, but they were afraid of trying to go down the stairs if Nu couldn’t walk properly. They might break their neck.
“You son of a werman!” They flung themself into the tentacles and gasped as icy cold burned through their chest. “Let Nu go!” It was colder than anything they’d ever felt, colder than touching the metal fence outside Bridehive Church in the winter with their bare hand. It hurt worse than the time they’d fallen flat onto the stove and had a lopsided burn from their neck to their belly button for weeks, but they kept themself positioned between Nu and the monster. “Leave them alone,” they gasped, reaching blindly for their stick again. They couldn’t find it, and it was so cold, and it hurt so much.
Nu’s hands flopped onto their shoulders as the two of them collapsed into a little heap on the damp stone, both shivering and curling round one another, even though there was no warmth to be had. “Stay b-b-behind me,” Wisdom panted miserably. “M-M-Maybe we can get down the s-steps if w-we c-c-c-crawl.”
“W-Wis?” No use. Nu was too cold to understand what Wisdom was saying.
The two of them were probably going to die, Wisdom realized, and they couldn’t do anything about it except curl around Nu and try to shield them with their body, even if that wasn’t enough. “Curse you,” they spat at the thing, and they shut their eyes, shuddering with cold, and tried to just hold onto Nu.
And then there was an unearthly scream and a burst of blessedly warm air, and the huge white owl from before swooped between the two of them and the shrouded figure. Wisdom gave a huge gasp. Beneath them, Nuada blinked slowly and started to shiver more violently.
The tentacles rippled and dissipated hurriedly. The shrouded figure raised a blurred arm and pointed it at the owl, but the white feathers puffed up and the head snapped forward fast as a striking snake. The figure made no noise, but it recoiled, boiling upwards and outwards like wavering smoke encountering a heavy wind. Wisdom, still trembling, managed to scoot backwards and drag Nuada along, until the two of them were pressed against the wall.
“Wh-Wh-What’s happening?” Nuada asked, in a very small voice. The owl reared back and beat its wings at the now-retreating figure, hissing almost like a snake. The figure wavered, dipped its head slightly, and then dissipated into the dark night. The owl bristled, shaking all its feathers back into place, then turned to the two children.
“I-I-If you wanna hurt them, you have to get through me f-first,” Wisdom choked out. They tried to find their stick, but it had gotten lost in the confusion, so they clenched their hands into fists instead and tried to stand up. It didn’t work very well. Their knees had the consistency of wet dough.
The huge bird tilted its head to one side. It reached its head towards Wisdom, who gritted their teeth together trying to stop them from chattering and barely managed not to shut their eyes. Somehow they didn’t flinch, and then they heard a soft cheeping noise and felt the flutter of a beak carefully moving one errant lock of hair back into place. The owl nipped tenderly at their nose, ruffled its feathers again, and wandered a little ways away to take off in another flurry of white motion.
“S-S-Saints,” Wisdom managed limply.
Behind them, Nu stood up. “I g-guess we found the evil spirits after all,” they said. “I th-thought we were going to die. Also, y-you’re the bravest person I ever met.”
Wisdom gave them an incredulous look. “I’m not brave,” they said.
“You are, you know.” Nuada managed a thin, shy smile. “I know about bravery. You’d—you’d make such a good pr—spear.”
“Psh.” Wisdom waved a hand. “Me? Nah, I’ve not the attention span for something like that.”
“You could be a hero,” Nuada insisted. “A soldier. Defending the city against invaders.”
“Isn’t that what the Protector is for? Besides, I don’t know if I’m a werman. Though I guess I wouldn’t care too much anyway. There’s some nomen and women heroes in history, right?”
“Bridehive doesn’t much like them.”
“Oh, so what. There’s other cities out there.” Wisdom smiled, staring off over the darkened landscape. They didn’t want Nu worrying about them leaving, though, so they only looked for a moment longer, then turned back. “We better get to ground. Don’t want to be here if that thing comes back.”
“Right.” Nu wasn’t shivering as hard anymore, thank Naéve. “Right, yeah, good idea.”
Although Wisdom found themself glancing nervously over their shoulder every time the wind so much as whispered on their way down, the two of them reached the little churchyard at the base of the tower without incident, although they didn’t let go of each other’s hands either. They’d nearly made it to the gate as well when Nuada let out a squawk.
Wisdom jumped sideways, once again reaching for the stick they didn’t have. “What is it, is it back?”
“No—no—just. Look!” Nuada was pointing to one of the old tombstones at the side of the path. The silver light of Naéve’s moon was still enough to light it up. It was ancient, clearly—so old that if there had been any lettering on the little round slab that constituted its base, it had long since worn away, and the carved stone figure resting on top of that was almost entirely effaced. Despite that, the crooked outstretched wings and taloned feet were still visible. They’d seen that posture only a few minutes ago, when the vast owl drove off whatever the thing was that had been feeding on Nuada.
“What do you think it means?” Nuada whispered to Wisdom.
Wisdom chewed on their lip before answering. “Someone likes us?”
Copyright © 2018 by Mertiya. All rights reserved.