It was a hot, sticky day in midsummer. The village green could be more accurately called the village yellow, grass sickly from the heat. Even Abrams' goats looked wilted, listless as they grazed in the shade of the big oak. The old men were sitting beneath the canopy of the store porch, fanning themselves and drinking beer from Martin's cold cellar. I was fetching water from the well, with Gabriel's firefox kit, Spark, gamboling at my feet. Spark was the only living thing that didn't mind the heat.
The old men watch everything that happens in Granville, always alert for any new gossip. They noticed the cool breeze blowing in from the east and welcomed it, leaning back and closing their eyes to savor it. Spark lifted her head, ears pricked, and yapped at the wind. I sighed and splashed water from the well bucket on the back of my neck to cool off. The whisper-thin membranes of the wings I don't have spread to catch the cooling air.
It was that, and not Spark's yips, that made me look east. I can feel my wings, flicking and shifting like a dragonfly's at my back, even though I know they're not real. But I can't usually feel things with my nonexistent wings.
What I saw made my breath catch in my throat. I knocked the bucket back into well, took a step back, screamed, turned, fled.
A storm of tentacles boiled behind me. They chased the dust of the road before them, sent the air churning ahead of hundreds of thick black sucker-laden ropes that quested through the village, snaked through open windows to invade the small houses, along paths, under and over the goats. Searching. I could not see where they began, whether they belonged to a hundred creatures or just one. The eye traveled back but there was nothing to trace them to, just more tentacles all the way to the horizon.
No one else saw them.
Martin turned to Old Bill on the porch as I hollered, "Dark One! Dark One!" What else could it be? We'd all heard the stories, of towns torn apart and looted by the Dark One's monstrosities. Until now, his presence had not been felt in our province -- but I knew in my bones this could be nothing else.
"What's gotten into that fool boy now?" Martin said, and then yelped as a tentacle snagged on one of the canopy posts and pulled it down on top of the men. They cursed and struggled out of the canvas as the tentacle roared past them. Even then, they did not see it. It did not touch them. It was not looking for them.
I saw because I kept looking over my shoulder in my headlong flight. I needed to know if they were still coming my way.
They were, faster than I could run. I veered between houses, wove into Georgia's apple grove, trying to lose them between the trees. Spark fled with me, crying and baying at my feet. I don't know if she saw them too, or if she'd just been infected by my panic. Whichever the case, they were still closing, snapping like whips at my heels. I heard the roar of the river and knew I was nearing the cliff that runs at the back of the orchard. But they were right behind me.
I leapt off the cliff. Maybe the wings I don't have will catch me, I hoped wildly.
But the tentacles did instead.
They coiled tight around me, trussing my limbs together, covering my eyes, gagging me. I think I fainted of fear once or twice, regaining consciousness still encased in those sucker-covered bonds. I don't know how long they carried me, or if anyone in Granville ever saw them.
When they finally set me down, it was inside a strange and wonderful room with a ceiling like a sky filled with stars, every star a candle flame. The walls were lined with bookshelves. Windows hung in midair about the chamber, looking onto fantastic landscapes -- a purple ocean, fields of red grain under a pale yellow sky, a world of shadows and flame. On the far wall was a mirror that reflected the room as if everything in it were made of granite, and I were not there. The floor shimmered like the surface of a lake on a still day, and yielded like soft flesh under my feet. The tentacles placed me on one of several squishy plush chairs before the mirror, and then withdrew through vast metal-bound oaken doors. The last tentacle closed the doors behind it.
For some minutes I lay where they had left me, too stunned to move. When at last I recovered some semblance of my wits, I moved across the weirdly soft floor and called out, "Hello? Is anyone there? What do you want with me? Why did you bring me here?" I tried the doors, but they were sealed and would not budge. "What did I do? Why me?"
No one answered.
I turned from the door. A serving cart was beside the group of plush chairs. It held a decanter of wine and two crystal goblets, and several covered silver trays. It had not been there moments ago. Wary, I approached it, lifting first one of the covers and then another. Dishes of spiced rice, cubed chicken drenched in cream sauce, vegetable pastries, and sweets lay beneath. "Why are you doing this?" I whispered. I wasn't hungry.
A sound by the door caught my ear, and I whirled. A young man with wings like a crow's and a ruff of ivory horns sprouting from the skin of his neck and shoulders stood before the doors. He wore trousers and a gray tunic, cut loose around the shoulders and open at the back to accommodate horns and wings. "Hello, Eric."
I squinted at him. "Do I know you?"
The crow-winged man smiled. He had even white teeth in a round, pale-skinned face framed by unruly black hair. I liked his smile, pleasant with a touch of self-deprecation. "We met once. Do you not recall?"
Ivory horns and wings are not the sort of thing I'd expect to forget ... "Oh! Oh. By the Three Ladies! Kerringer."
"You do remember." He nodded, walking down the steps before the door and around the hanging windows to join me.
"Yes ... sorry. I was very drunk at the time. So the Dark One got you too? Curse our luck." The memory of how I'd met Kerringer all came back in a rush.
It happened the previous autumn, at the stone circle outside Marinton. My friends and I had stopped at the Greenhorn tavern on the way home from a very profitable trip to Cemeran market, and we'd drunk far too much spiced rum and fizzy cider. It was late at night, and I was staggering about outside in search of the outhouse, which I'd missed by at least half a mile but was, in that stubborn way drunks have, sure it must be somewhere nearby.
I stumbled into the stone circle then, with its pool of still water at the center. I was so drunk I didn't even recognize where I was at first; I contemplated relieving myself in the pool. And then I saw a man's hand outstretched over the pool to pluck a dark fruit growing from a vine rising at its center.
"No, don't!" I cried, sobering in sudden horror. "Watch out!" I flung myself upon the man to stop him.
"Clumsy oaf!" he snarled. "Get off me." He flung me aside. I didn't notice his strange wings and horns until we grappled. Well, it was very dark. And I was exceedingly drunk.
"No, no, you don't understand, it's poison," I tried to say. I suspect it came out rather less coherent than that. "It'll burn your hand. See the stones? 's dark magic!"
"Of course I -- wait, why do you care?"
"Why wouldn't I care?" I asked, bewildered.
He mantled his wings as if that were an answer. "No one cares if a monster gets hurt."
I squinted at him. "I care."
If I'd been sober, I would not have given the true answer. "I have wings too," I said in a drunk's carrying whisper. Fortunately, there was no one else around to hear.
He raised an eyebrow at me and rolled me onto my stomach. "Just how drunk are you?"
"I do!" I felt my intangible wings twitch and flutter, uselessly. "No one else can see them. Feel them. But I know they're there. All the time. I can't tell anyone. They'd think I'm crazy. Probably I am crazy."
"Everyone can see mine," he grumbled.
"Really?" I turned my head to look at him. "Does that make it better or worse?"
He regarded me thoughtfully. "I don't know."
"Huh." I wriggled until I was lying on my side, and offered my hand. "M' name's Eric."
"Kerrington." He shook my hand, then rose and pulled me to my feet. "What are you doing out here, Eric?"
"Looking for the outhouse?" I waved my hand vaguely. The ground attempted to catch me, but Kerrington got to me before it.
"I see. I think you've gone a little out of your way. Let's get you back on track, shall we?"
"Oh, I'm fine." I leaned on him. "Lemme get m' bearings." The pool swooped alarmingly towards my face. "And make the world hold still, will you?"
"Righto. This way, Eric."
I didn't make it to the outhouse before vomiting up several coins' worth of good liquor, although I did manage not to do so on myself or Kerrington. He mopped my face with his handkerchief, helped me find the outhouse, made sure I wasn't going to fall in, and waited to help me back to the tavern entrance. He stopped outside the inviting puddle of light from the door.
I patted his shoulder awkwardly, scraping my hand on one of his horns. "Oops, sorry ... gotta bit of blood on you," I apologized, trying to clean it off with my sleeve. "Come on in, 'll buy you a drink."
"I think you've had enough for both of us already. Go on now." Kerrington straightened me up and pointed me to the door.
I held his hand. "Nooo, nooo, you should come meet my friends."
"I don't think that's a good idea, Eric."
"Awww." I pouted, but he was unmoved. I shook his hand as firmly as I could manage. "Thanks for helpin' me out here," I told him. "You're a good man, Kerrington. You be careful now, 'round them stones. Don't get yourself hurt."
He smiled at me then, that pleasant self-deprecating smile. "I won't."
In the Dark One's chamber, Kerrington was looking at me askance. "Got me?" He glanced to the untouched decanter. "Are you drunk now as well, Eric?"
I shook my head. "No, I've not had a drop! I -- " All the blood drained from my face and my eyes widened. I fell backwards into one of the chairs. " ... you're one of his?"
Kerrington looked to the serving cart. He smiled again, but it was sadder this time. He unstoppered the decanter and poured two goblets of wine. "Not exactly." He took both goblets in hand and offered me one. "I am him."
My mouth opened and closed like a fish trying to breathe air. "... why? Why are you doing this to us?"
The crow-winged man did not meet my gaze. "As they've sown, so shall they reap." He put the goblet into my hands.
My nerveless fingers nearly dropped it. "But ... but ... me? What are you going to do to me?"
This time his gray eyes did look to mine. "You, too, shall reap the harvest you planted. There is a storm coming, Eric. I will not allow you to be caught unsheltered in it."
I gaped at him, unable to reconcile the nice man who had not laughed at my story of nonexistent wings, who had helped a drunken fool gently back to his lodgings, with the evil being behind the destruction of entire communities.
The Dark One turned away and moved to the door.
He was nearly to it when I cried out. "Wait! Wait." I stumbled after him, though this time it was tears that blurred my vision and fear that made me clumsy, not drink. "What about my family? My friends? Please -- please, don't do this, sir."
He stopped, wings mantling, his back to me. "My name is Kerrington," he said, quietly.
"Please, Kerrington," I whispered.
He turned his head sideways, his raised chin almost brushing the horns on his shoulder. "I will spare your village."
And then I was alone in that vast alien chamber, and my remaining pleas went unanswered.
(Cards from the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn: The Fool (SFW) (the version I pulled is not available online -- it has a woman looking over her shoulder as she jumps off a building, with spot gloss insectile wings and pursued by spot gloss tentacles that are only visible when tilted to the light), History (SFW), and the Seven of Cups (NSFW). Prompt by minor_architect.)