It’s been several days since Neriah has felt the deathly chill that set nerves on end. As the days pass it develops into an ever-growing sense that something is out of place. What exactly she cannot quite put her finger to. This uncertainty is an uncommon feeling that has Neriah in a foul mood. One that Rook, her ever-present raven companion, finds disturbing.
So Neriah sits, rocking her front porch chair, smoking calming herbs from her long stem pipe, contemplating the meaning of her ill tempered thoughts, when an even more disturbing sight comes along. Her young disciple being delivered to her doorstep by Death’s very own emissary. If Neriah were more herself, she would have felt their arrival long before being seen at the crossroads. But she isn’t herself these past days.
The girl, Sarah, is obviously agitated with a great burden she wishes to share with the Old Woman of the Crossroads. Nothing else would drive Sarah to place herself into such hands as those currently holding the reins of the horse. Neriah and Robert’s greeting is simple, but full of shared understanding of the other.
“Old woman,” greets Robert with a slight bow of the head.
Neriah, removing pipe from mouth and blowing smoke, “Robert.” Her response is none too inviting, but respectful.
“I see you’ve brought me a visitor.” Indicating Sarah with a poke of her pipe.
“Yes,” helping Sarah out of the saddle with one arm, “and I’ll be returning Sarah to her mother as soon as her business is completed here. What time should I return?”
Neriah takes a thoughtful pull on the pipe and in a contemplative voice tempered with age and wisdom, “Oh, I reckon just before sundown should do us fine for time.”
Robert, never having unsaddled, makes to leave. Before he gives the horse the go ahead, Neriah asks, “How is that wee one of mine?”
Sarah is unsure as to whom Neriah asks of, but she can only assume that it is Vaush.
Robert’s look is one of dispassion, “Well enough. Before sunset then.”
With no more than a slight flick of the reins and a heel to the flanks, Sarah is left in the care of the Old Woman.
Recognizing the barely contained worry lying just below the surface of Sarah’s character, Neriah offers the ubiquitous cup of tea. Only after steamed herbs have had their chance to work on the girl’s nerves does Neriah ask and receive the full story culminating in Sarah’s visit. With it comes a better understanding for her own distress and the reason for why Sarah has brought the flute. The girl wishes to find Quail, her missing friend and his family. Same as she did her father not all that long ago.
Unfortunately, Neriah has a troubling feeling that this search will not be as easy as a simple tune. No, this search will require a greater magic, an older more complex melody that has not been played for many a generation, a song that could open this young girl to several unseen dangers. Neriah will need to proceed with great care in the preparations for what is to come.
The Old Woman sets Sarah to practicing the more simplified version of the searching song she taught her only a month earlier. While the girl plays her flute in the kitchen, the sole part of the house she’s been in, Neriah shuffles off to the larger room of the crossroads cottage. With no small amount of time passing, Neriah returns and instructs Sarah to start playing the song that calms. It has the quick effect of centering Sarah’s thoughts and even helping the old woman feel more confident about what must be done. Feeling the two of them are as prepared as they can be, Neriah ushers the young girl into the back room. Given her limited years, a sight beyond any she could imagine greets Sarah.
The room is obviously the largest available in the cottage. Scattered about the walls are a multitude of crafts depicting the human form, animals, and the unknown. These are mostly made from different herbs and flora gathered from the local forest. There are also several skeletal remains, some readily recognizable and others not so obvious to the uninitiated. Various skins and furs hang about the walls and rafters. The room smells of freshly burned herbs, moist earth, and animals.
What is most obvious about Neriah’s sanctum is the heavily drawn double circle in the middle of the wooden flood. A floor if one were to make a careful inspection of would discover it to be constructed of a single piece of planking. Surely, the tree this came from was a giant among giants. The double circle looks to be stained to permanence and is anchored by four white candles at the cardinal points. Between the two circles, one within the other, are several archaic symbols. These sigils look to be created from colored sands, and in some cases, dried blood. In the center of all this rests a single fancy gold tasseled pillow of green silk. To Sarah’s eye, in this room of utter strangeness, the pillow is the most incongruous object.
Sarah is made to sit upon the green pillow, being careful not to smudge any of the floor’s artwork when entering. Neriah then begins chanting as she walks the circumference, igniting each candle with her approach. Her rhythm changes ever so slightly with the final candle lit. Taking up a position opposite Sarah, Neriah sits outside the circle where she finally instructs the girl to begin playing the searching song.
It takes Sarah very little effort to slip into the meditative state she’s come to recognize as being different from just playing. Neriah begins to add her chanting hum to the flute’s searching melody, altering it ever so slightly at first. It is a change Sarah quickly picks up and mimics. The two slowly work the piece into greater and greater complexity until Sarah feels her very essence slip from her physical body and out of the confines of the cottage.
Sarah’s greatest loss is that of her friend Quail. Her focus is on finding the boy first. With this recognition comes direction of purpose at the speed of thought. She feels herself sweeping across the landscape. So fast in fact, that the features of the land become nothing but blurs of color. Forests and open grasslands become great swaths of variant green, lakes are flashes of blue, farmed land a patchwork of browns and greens. Only when she enters the great Umrass Expanse does the land become the uniformed color of desert sand. And with the color of sand, there is the feeling of absolute and certain destruction.
At first the sensation is only one of unease, but as she pushes further into the Expanse the feeling turns to a solid knot of dread. She knows turning back is admiting defeat and the loss of a friend, but to push forward is to invite possible confrontation with something that feels akin to Death itself. Sarah refuses to give in, pushing forward with the stubbornness of youth the world over. Her determination takes Sarah across the very heart of this blight upon the landscape; it is all she can do to drive herself forward, but forward she goes. Eventually, the feeling begins to subside. She leaves the dread behind, with the understanding that she must confront it once more on the return jouney.
Though she has traveled on, whatever was seeking Sarah is not so easily left behind. For Sarah begins to sense a slight tug upon her essence, a drawing upon the cord that links her to her physical self, playing her like a harped string. Each touch causes a bruise to her young psyche. And with each pluck there is the recognition that the performer craves to sever the string and claim it for its own instrument.
Somehow Sarah knows her ability to sustain such punishment is limited and if she is to discover Quail’s whereabouts, it needs to be accomplished quickly. She pushes forward at an even faster pace, till finally she enters into an area of deep greens and ancient colors. Her progress slows, the features of the world come back into focus, and Sarah finds herself in an old growth forest with towering trees.
For the first time since taking this mystic journey Sarah feels the presence of Quail close by. He is definitely here and within reach. But so is something else. And for the second time Sarah is confronted by a being far beyond her novice abilities. Only this one is bringing itself full forth.
Whatever is coming, it is heard by Sarah before it is ever seen. The voice is old and terrible to behold. What language it speaks is unclear, but its meaning is understood.
“He is mine. Leave now or die. And take that accursed flute with you.”
Sarah doesn’t know enough to be scared into silence. With the certainty of a child knowing what is theirs, Sarah yells back, “He will never be yours! Quail is my friend! I will not leave him behind!”
Knowing she has more than overstayed her welcome, Sarah makes a hasty retreat, just before the long, gnarled claws of Mother closes around the space she once floated in. Sarah knows she has tempted Death again, but must do so one final time before she is safely ensconced in her shell of a body.
The journey back is one of even greater speed. There is no searching to slow her down. The location of her own body is a certainty. Just as it is certain she must thread the gripping gauntlet of Death that awaits her in the Expanse.
The plucking upon her essence has never stopped, only intensified with time. Sarah knows whatever is at the other end of the constant irritant to her soul that it is awaiting her return; seeking to snatch her in its unforgiving grasp and render her spirit to oblivion. To simply try and pass through on speed and luck alone is to invite catastrophe. Sarah must do something more to insure her survival, but she possesses little in the way of skills to thwart something so powerful. All she has is her music and sheer determination not to fail.
Time and again Sarah has turned to her music as a source of refuge. It is to her music she turns once more. Mentally playing a soft, calming tune, the song enters her physical self where it is played upon the flute in Neriah’s cottage and echoed back down the thread of Sarah’s essence. It has the desired effect as the plucking upon her soul slows so slightly in pace and intensity. At the crucial moment Sarah presses her progress to its greatest urgency, just enough to slip through the ever so late clutching grasp of doom.
Sarah has passed the point of ruin and quickly speeds home to her awaiting body. Her return is none too subtle as she mentally slams home. It is enough to jog her body rigid just before Sarah stops playing and slumps to the pillow.
Neriah wants nothing more than to rush to her young charge, but knows such action may not be the safest for either of them. It is only with careful questioning and tears that prove Sarah is still in touch with her humanity that Neriah breaks the containment spells encircling the girl.
The journey has been long and taxing, and already it is past the time of sunset. After some quick discussion and Neriah’s insistence that all questions be answered on the morrow, Sarah is whisked away to the waiting Robert. Who in turn, delivers Sarah safe and sound, if not late, to her fretting mother.
For Sarah, the next day does not begin until well after the noon hour. Her mother has left Sarah to sleep, giving full credit to Neriah’s written words for her daughter to rest as much as possible. Sarah is greatly appreciative for the opportunity to sleep and when she awakes, drink the medicinal tea the Old’ Woman sent along with Robert. It sooths the aches of both body and soul.
Sarah spends some small time with her mother talking, but nothing is asked of the previous day’s activities. Again, bowing to Neriah’s instructions to leave such talk until after she and Sarah have had a chance to discuss the events of the girl’s astral travels. Neriah recognizes there is much Sarah does not understand about the experience and wishes to save both mother and daughter any unnecessary anxiety with unanswerable speculation. Still, curiosity gets the better of the two and the topic can’t help but worm its way into their conversation. Neriah’s concerns prove to be true and soon the subject is tabled for more mundane and pleasurable talk.
It is not long before Sarah begins to feel the effects of the tea and the call to rest. Sleep comes rather easy, but not before an echo of the previous day’s experience plucks at her psyche. Like picking at a scab, the brain can’t help but poke at the mental bruises that have been left behind.