It’s thundering and lightning outside. The storm rolling in is warning everyone to take cover before it strikes. The fast moving storm is actually carrying very little moisture, so flooding is not a concern this time.
Getting struck by the lightning it is brandishing about, is.
I’m holed up in a small town pub with some wooish acquaintances. We’re all at least two beers in, though I’ve been savoring mine. It has been a long while since I have allowed myself to relax in public, and between being among folks I can speak plain with and the exhilarating storm outside, it’s a good evening so far.
The thunder is a little louder with each set of rumbles as the storm approaches. I feel the sound move through me and through my spirit. It is pleasant, like floating near the ocean shore. I feel close enough to my peers to feel safe, and far enough into the ocean to feel the rise and fall of passing power.
I don’t notice the conversation at our table has fallen silent, or that the other four wooslingers are watching me closely. Even though my eyes are open, I don’t notice anything in front of me.
A flash catches my attention. I hear someone whisper, “Watch her face.” I feel the rumble before I hear it. I close my eyes as the sound pushes through my body from side to side causing me to catch my breath as something like a whole body orgasm stills me and makes me indifferent to their attention.
“See. Something is in the storm, and she’s reacting to it.”
Another rumble. The storm is very close now. Even inside the sheltered pub, I can smell the approaching ozone. I have a cognitive awareness that something is off, that reality is not quite as expected, but I don’t care. The storm is reaching through walls and windows and bodies and clothes to wrap around my spirit with the embrace that comes with old friends reuniting after too long a mutual absence.
“I have a room upstairs. We better get her up there while she can still walk. Get her away from public eyes before someone misreads her.”
I don’t remember how I came from the table below to the two-chambered room above. My next awareness was the air suddenly tasting like freshly cracked black pepper and my skin itching as something I had become accustomed to being next to was forcibly removed.
I was sitting on a stool, shoeless but otherwise dressed, and surrounded by two hastily drawn, concentric chalk circles on the hardwood floor. Suddenly annoyed at everything that moved, breathed, or was in my sight, I looked around carefully before preparing to lambast everything that could hear with perfectly impious expletives.
A flash of light outside the window revealed the effect of high winds stampeding down the alley behind the pub. Four faces immediately turned to me in anticipation. The rumble held my feet to the floor and my butt to the stool as I shuddered from intense and uncontrollable shudders that chattered my teeth and gargled my forgotten objections out of my throat.
Two hands suddenly held my head still. “Speak to us.”
My eyes rolled and I was filled with a sudden longing to flee. To leave the room and return to the howling outside. To return to the storm overhead. To leave this body and pass through.
A long low moan answered the challenge.
“How much time do we have?”
“The storm cell has slowed. It’s going to be overhead for at least twenty more minutes, but I wouldn’t push it that far. Fifteen for sure!”
“Do we even know what’s riding her? Maybe we should let her and it go.”
“And miss this chance? No way! She’ll be alright after the storm’s gone, anyway.”
My eyes had stopped rolling as reason raced rage to the front of my consciousness. Reason won. Barely.
“Give me one good reason not to eviscerate you.” I looked up at the person standing behind me in the circle, holding my head still with his two hands and staring wild-eyed at the suddenly calm eyed stare inspecting his weak points.
“Um… You were ridden? And… we were isolating it to keep you from hurting yourself?”
“We… um… fuck… okay. We saw an opportunity for an elemental interaction and took it. We didn’t think you’d see anything wrong with it once it was over and…”
The building shook as lightning struck something very close by. The others jumped and yelped as I suddenly curled in as if overtaken by extreme cramps. I don’t know if they noticed I had fallen off of the stool. I was too busy overwhelmed by how deep into the soul physical pain could ingress.
As quickly as the strike caused the building to quiver in fear, the moment had passed and we all regained our senses. I sat up on my knees, still holding my hands to my stomach, and realized I was now holding something in my left hand that I did not recall holding before that last strike.
I caught my breath as I held the object up to my face to examine.
It was an iron ring, slightly less than 3 inches in width and about an eighth of an inch in thickness. As the others saw my prize, they made noises of triumph and/or greed. My anger returned with a deeper and hotter intensity as I became lucid.
It was a physical manifestation of the image of power given to me earlier. There were no alterations necessary to the image to transform it from a scribed marking to a physical talisman. On one hand, I was pleased to see that because a physical rendition would be nice to have. On the other hand, I felt used by my cohorts as I could not tell if this was something they were working for or just a twist of the dream.
Before I could speak, thunder reminded us of the storm outside. In the shuddering of my bones, I heard a voice speak.
Power hoarded is useless. But power used, uses the user. Which form of destruction shall ye choose? Statis or change?
“I haven’t seen that seal before. Toss it out of the circles to me.”
Oh yea, the circles. I look at the speaker and realize I am kneeling alone in the circle. The cohort who was previously holding me upright had exited unnoticed by me during the last strike. He now seemed either unwilling or unable to rejoin me.
“Oh sure, lemme throw the seal out of harm’s way. But what about me?” I waved the iron ring in front of my face teasingly.
“You’re too volatile. It would be best if you remained in the circles until the storm passed and you stop reacting at each meteorological fart. You know, you really need to learn how to police your head and stop being ridden by any zephyr that passes by.”
I am fully lucid by this point. The iron ring feels like any other iron thing would, warm where I have been holding it, room temperature where I have not. The four members of my cohort don’t feel unusual to my senses. The pub room could be any room over a loud bar. There is nothing of note about the scene except for the intelligence watching me from within the storm cell slowly rotating overhead.
I clasp the seal between my hands and feel. In my mind’s eye, I see flashes of places and whiffs of scents. There is the Boneyard and the Ravens circling overhead. There is the Birch Grove of the Antler Crowned and Green Masked Figure. I see where lightning has struck a tree causing a branch to fall at a scared woman’s feet. I smell old feathers and smouldering embers. I smell rich wet dirt and thick flowing sap. I taste ash upon my tongue. I feel a large bird alighting on my shoulder, its talons ripping open barely healed flesh.
I am reminded of my names.
“I will not hold still so my grave can close over me. Give way, bitch.”
The other humans in the room looked at each other with whispered questions. They had not heard the storm speak to me. They did not know the importance of the iron image. “Um… who you talking to?”
The talisman became hot in my hands. In the Boneyard, the Ravens are descending towards my waiting form. In the Birch Grove, [the lord of that place] approached the waiting sacrifice. The scared woman has picked up the branch and the cast-off transforms into a barely worked wand. The large bird bends over my chest and plunges its beak into my chest with intent of reaching my heart.
I start shuddering as I knelt in the chalk circles laid down on the hardwood floor of a pub that did not exist. I feel my eyes shift in my head as I open my mouth to answer the fading images of the cohort who were never here.
My screams soon change into harsh corvid pronouncements.
In the Boneyard, I fall to my knees under the weight of so many Ravens. The force jars something from deep within and I become nauseous. Before I could think of restraining myself, I am leaning forward and vomiting. After each embarrassing heave, I cover the stinking mass with dirt from around it and shove the doughy mess into the flames in front of me.
I understand this is part of the process of changing me. I have to get rid of what hinders me, and if this is the form the process takes in this realm, then I’m just going to have to continue vomiting until even my toes are empty.
In the Birch Grove, [the Antler Crowned and Green Masked figure] ends his slow approach in front of me. I know without looking that behind me is a grave mound. He tells me to turn to face it. I do so, and see three fist size rocks on top of the collected dirt sitting together as if making a triangle. Between them were what appeared to be merely gnarled pieces of dried wood looking like roots at first, but I realized they were combined with shattered bones.
He tells me to place the iron talisman on the rocks. I do so, with the talisman “facing” me. I realize there is something missing. With that same realization came understanding of where the missing feather was going to come from.
“Long you have thought your world held compartments. This container for this thing, that container for that thing. But just as a polyglot can insult you five ways in the same sentence, so can the world interact with you through various means for the same purpose. There will be a time you cannot [do as you normally would do]. Here then, is a new word in a different language for the same thing as you have been accustomed to.”
He placed his hand on my right shoulder, and even though I was standing and attentive, my eyes closed and I fell straight to sleep without falling down.
In the Boneyard, the purging is complete. Now empty, I feel hollow and cavernous. The Ravens are quick to capitalize on the sensation. They force me to remain kneeled and leaning forward. I cannot see behind me, but it feels they are jumping onto, and into my back. Filling me with corvid thoughts and corvid desires and compacting what is human of me into a smaller and smaller space.
In the Birch Grove, I hear a voice. “[Weaver], light the Fire.” My eyes open but it is not I that sees but something else, something that contains “Weaver” but also contains so much more. I kneel and extend my empty right hand. With a snap of my fingers, a long black feather becomes, and that feather is laid to rest on the iron talisman. Upon contact it bursts into flame and melts between the spaces of the talisman onto the dried roots underneath it. The roots take to flame immediately and in turn inflame the shattered bones.
[The Antler Crowned and Green Masked figure] and I watch as the iron talisman is engulfed in the flame burning on the grave in the middle of the Birch Grove. I had an idea this was necessary, but I did not understand why.
In the Boneyard, the Ravens have stopped filling me with themselves and have pulled away to grant me space again. In the exposed dirt, I have used the shattered end of an ulna to carve a palm sized image of the talisman into the dirt. Operating solely on dumb instinct, I cut my arm enough so that blood flows but not enough to make the blood flow perilous. (Though if I had remembrance of germ theory at the time, I would argue that just being around mounds of rotting bones was perilous in and of itself.) I filled the ground carving with my blood and set that blood on fire.
I felt something searing into the depths of myself.
It didn’t hurt.
It felt like relief, as if a wound was finally healing.
In the Birch Grove, the feather, bones, and roots had long burnt away, leaving only ash to cover the iron ring, supporting rocks, and working area of the grave mound. He patted me on the shoulder and I knew to take up the cooling ring. He lifts a hand to stop me from raising and tells me to gather the remaining ash as I could and to rub that ash into the now roughened surface of the iron talisman. “Even if you must gather up the dirt to gather up the ash, for really, there is not much difference between the two.”
I do as commanded and the iron ring quickly cools to the ambient temperature. He then commands me to hold the ring in my left hand and to squeeze it with the same vigor as if to resist someone trying to pry it out of that hand.
I do and I feel a sudden “pop” and a lack of resistance in my fist. I open my hand to find the iron ring is gone. Instead there is the image drawn in my palm as marks of ash left behind by the imprint.
“Now even if the image is taken from you, or any physical make of the talisman is stolen, it cannot be used against you. Should any other take it, it will be to them to negotiate their use of it. But their terms will not involve you.”
He turned me to face him. His mask was made of large overlapping green leaves that flared out so that I could not tell if his antlers sprung from his head or were also a separate headdress. “Because this is how you entered this place, this is how you perceive it. So will you continue to perceive it until your understanding changes. This image is but one step towards changing your perception. However, until you use it in the manner it was given, it will profit you nothing. Power hoarded is useless. But power used, uses the user. Do you understand?”
I could not speak. I nodded my understanding.
“You claim you do. Either you will, or you will not.”
With a movement so fast I could not register it, he pushed me backwards onto the grave mound. The grave opened under me and swallowed me whole, snapping shut once my feet were within.
With a start, I woke up feverish and sweating.