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Fantasy Speculative Fiction

The cattails that sprouted in the ankle-deep waters of the marsh were some of the hardiest plants that Mucilla knew. So, when she watched tendrils of rot creep along their stalks to the wilting spikes, she let out a happy laugh. Joy beamed from her warty face. The kind that only necrotic creep could bring. Cave living had grown stale, and it was such a blessing that her sisters finally agreed to release a blight on the land. This wasn’t just a passing scourge. It was wicked enough to bring heroes calling. She couldn’t wait.

Flemma creeped up behind Mucilla’s hunched form. “Vomira is starting to regret how far we pushed. This land’s lifeblood drains. We had better find a mighty sacrifice to return its fervor.”

“A meaty sacrifice?” Flemma’s words always sounded like mush, so Mucilla pushed a finger into her ear. “Is there any other kind?” A string of red and green wax pulled free, stretching an arm’s length. 

“Mighty! Mighty!” Flemma screeched as she eyed the wax greedily. “Though meaty is all the better!” Flemma laughed and danced in place. “I can smell death everywhere! Was that a toad? I think I just heard a toad explode!”  Black Thorn Marsh was suddenly a jovial place for witches and blood sucking parasites alike. Though not all men agreed.  

The woodsman, Tim, was especially vexed. Fields of once healthy crops withered before his eyes. The source was not complicated to decipher, black roots of decay grew from the marsh, leading to a cave decorated with purple vines of rot and pestilent burrows. When Tim broke open a mud-caked run with his foot, unnaturally large termites hissed and cursed him in devilish tongues.

“Hello?” he called at the mouth of the cave. An evil aura bloomed from the place and fear challenged Tim’s will like never before. He wanted to run and get help, but Tim was the help. He was who got summoned to strike down threats to the community's survival. His ax was a symbol of his station that even beasts seemed to recognize.  

“Help!” a gentle voice cried back from the dark, so Tim stepped forward. Deeper in the cavern, a stark-white light met him. It illuminated an altar, upon which a woman of radiant beauty sat. Her bright eyes were full of life. Her golden dress reminded him of fields of wheat before harvest. Her skin was without fault. The only flaw Tim could see was the cold iron shackles around her wrists and ankles. The rough bindings no more belonged on her than a fiend belonged on church grounds. 

“Stop,” she cried out before the woodsman could enter the light. “The false moon’s glow protects me from the horrors that surround you, but once entered, you cannot leave without the aid of the foul witch of this place.”

Tim looked around. He did not see any witches, though foulness did abound. “I cannot leave you in such a state. If I’m to be trapped with you, it would be better than you being alone.”

The beautiful woman sighed. “No, kindhearted man. If I’m to be saved, you must maintain your freedom.” She slipped off the altar and got on her knees. “Please help set me free. The witch that captured me and set this curse requires but a simple quest. Would you please grant me the boon of satisfying her need?”

Tim scratched his tangled beard and considered. “What do you know of the witch’s demands?”

“She’s an angry hag, slighted by the priest of Black Thorn parish,” the woman said while frowning at her image in a silver hand-held mirror. “I was but a homely farm maiden when she stole me in the night. Her magic sucks all that is wholesome from the land and pours it into me so she can cut out my heart and eat it, making her the most powerful force that Black Thorn has ever seen.”  

The woodsman took a knee, leaning on his ax for strength. “Your demise cannot be far off, my lady. I have never seen anyone as fair. Tell me, please. What is the hag’s demand?”

“The witch visited Black Thorne Township two weeks before in the guise of a medicine man. The family of Liam Clover requested that she examine the young man, for he was suffering wicked spells and pains deep behind his eyes. The witch knew of such things and prepared a surgery of the skull, but when the clergyman heard of her plan, he ran her off, screaming of black magic and blasphemies. He ridiculed her lack of knowledge of scripture and befouled her reputation the likes she had never seen. The hag demands the clergyman write an apology. When it is placed upon the altar, all will return to as before.” 

The woodsman frowned. He was more apt to slay a fire breathing dragon than pry an apology from Father Fair. His quest was upon him, though. He had to try.  

***

Mucilla pulled her shackles free and shifted back from the putrid form of the beautiful woman as her sisters stepped forward to join her. “Well done,” the most wretched of the three laughed.  

Vomira, the eldest sister, wasn’t quick with praise, so Mucilla was especially proud. “This is such fun! Why must we wait for your pride to be injured before causing a stir?” 

“Plagues are not a trifle,” Flemma chided. “Without the proper sacrifice, Vomira will be pulled into the mire.” Flemma and Mucilla cackled at the thought while Vomira wrung her hands.  

“Won’t you be mad if the woodsman returns with a letter?” Mucilla teased her eldest sister. “Had you gone as a medicine woman, I would say there was no chance, but you chose the guise of a man.”

Vomira frowned. “It was the only chance the poor boy had. Fear not for my fate, little sister. That clergyman will find succor enough in his holy book’s verses that he will find no reason to pen an apology. Flemma, prepare a wretched guise. We shall need a new maiden upon the woodman’s return.”

***

Father Fair leaned against an angel statue when the Woodsman found him in the church graveyard. Liam Clover’s mother lay weeping on a fresh grave while his father stood quietly, a distance away. “Father,” Tim whispered. “I have found the source of the blight. I shall need your assistance to destroy it.”

The haggard clergyman turned his eyes to Tim. “A pastor’s job is never done. What do you need? Holy water? A blessing?”

Tim pitied Father Fair, he was pulled to the needs of others morning, noon, or night. Blessing the sick, dead, or disturbed had no schedule. “None of those, Good Father. I merely need you to write a letter.” Tim went on to explain the situation.

Father Fair flew into a rage. “Apologize? To the charlatan that put this poor boy’s soul at risk?” He stormed towards the fresh grave. “The boy now has a chance at redemption. I will not apologize!”

Tim grabbed Father Fair and led him away from the grieving mother. “The whole township is going to suffer. The blight is spreading through the cropland. If it gets to the vineyards, they may never recover.”

“God does not treat with fiends, and neither shall I!”  

Tim was confounded. The solution was so easy. He just needed the holy man to write a letter and maybe fib a little. “An apology is against God? Even if it just says you could have been more polite?”

Father Fair stared daggers at the woodsman. “More polite to a hag? You would have me invite them to dinner and wash their wretched feet?”

That sounded like scripture. Tim was already bested. He wished he could read the language the scripture was written in so that he could understand better. “For the village.”

“Really, my son. It seems that I’ve underestimated the challenge you face in comprehending the words of our Lord and shall redouble my efforts in guiding you. Find me in the morning. I shall work overnight to equip you with the weapons of holy war. You must face this witch and destroy her. In the Name of the Lord.”

***

The following day, Tim set out for the witch’s lair with a farmer named Walter and armed for righteous battle. Father Fair provided holy water, a blessed crucifix, and phrases known to wilt witches, though Tim and Walter forgot them before they had even left town.  

The blight concerned Tim deeply, Walter more. “Everything is gone,” the farmer said. “This season’s crop turned to mush. Black flies fill the air. If I get my hands on whoever did this, they will not live through the night.”

“Caution,” Tim counseled as he picked a path through mucusy slime. “Whoever caused this is more powerful than I’ve ever seen.”

“This is worse than what you described,” the farmer said, growing less ardent by the step. “Should we come back with more help? Organize a mob?”

Tim peered into the cave. Father Fair gave him what he said that he would need, and he held his trusty ax. “This is my job, Walter. I understand if you can’t go on. Go back to the town and wait for my return. If I do not…” The words hung in the air like the sweet smell of fermenting swamp that surrounded them.

Walter looked back and forth. “I’m with you Tim. You don’t have to face this alone.”

The white light that Tim remembered hadn’t changed, but sticky patches of red decorated the altar and floor. A new woman lay crying on the stone ground, shackled to the altar, failing at staying out of the red puddles of blood.

Walter rushed forth but Tim grabbed him. “You cannot. If you enter the light, you will not be able to leave.”  

“Maiden, tell me, please,” the woodsman called out to the woman. She was pretty, but not as stunning as the woman he’d met before. “There was another here, just yesterday.”

The witch’s prisoner weakly pushed off the ground, her lip quivering. “The hag ate her heart, and other things too. She made me watch.” Tim thought he knew what it would feel like to have his heart eaten when he looked in the fair maiden’s sad eyes. “She wanted me to see what would happen if you failed again.”

Tim was stunned. How did this woman know he failed? How did the evil witch know he didn’t have an apology letter with him?  

“Ate her?” Walter squeaked as Tim let him go to take his ax in two hands.

The scared woman looked to the altar with revulsion. “I’ve never seen anything so vile. She killed her right there. I could feel her power grow with each bite. She got so strong, stronger than one man could ever fight.”

“The witch, I see her!” Walter cried as he pierced the pale white veil. Immediately he stumbled and fell into a pool of blood. His hands and knees stuck to the sticky muck, and he fought to crawl towards the maiden’s side.  

“No!” Tim yelled, not daring to follow. “Where is this witch? I’ll fight her.” He fumbled his ax as he tried to grab the crucifix around his neck. “I’ll smite her down. I am God’s chosen and shall defend you.”

“The witch told me that she would not fight you. She demands the preacher be brought here.” The woman crawled to Walter as he wilted. “A letter will no longer suffice. She demands to see him in person.”

“The preacher will not come!” Tim yelled more into the cave than to the woman. He prayed the hag would show her face.

“Then I am doomed, and your friend will suffer the same as me. You have to bring the preacher, or the witch will grow stronger.”

“He will not come. It’s written in scripture.”

The woman’s sobbing stopped abruptly. “Written in scripture? How’s that?”

Tim spun around nervously. “How can I know? Such learning is beyond me. I’m not here to debate holy texts, I’ve come to face the witch.”

The woman began crying again in earnest. “Turn back, good woodsman. The witch is too strong, and I quake to think of her power when she eats your noble heart! If not for me, bring the clergyman for the good of the world. Maybe with him by your side, you’ll be a match for the witch.”

The woman kept up her pleading while the woodsman searched fruitlessly. Her logic didn’t change but his resolve faded, and her pleas finally took root.

***

When the woodsman returned to town, an angry mob had formed on the church stairs. “You caused this!” more than one townsperson yelled at Father Fair.

“Nonsense,” the clergyman yelled, trying to outmatch the crowd. “Devilry is at play here.”

“They offered a truce,” Liam Clover’s father yelled.  

The preacher pointed to Tim as he entered the church grounds. “Our savior returns. Tell us of the demise of the fiend!”

Tim’s eyes were puffy from tears. He mourned Walter already. The poor girl was as good as dead. The preacher was adamant the day before. He knew the scripture. He knew what would happen. The hag had not been defeated and Tim knew it was his own fault. If only he remembered the foreign words. “I’ve failed you.” 

The crowd roared with confusion.  

“I could not find the witch and she grows stronger.” Tim dropped his ax at his feet. “She has eaten one poor soul and has two others in her clutches.”

“My vineyard is decimated. Give in to her demands,” a town elder yelled.

“She demanded a letter, but no more. Now the presence of the preacher is required,” the woodsman said.

The crowd went quiet. “A letter?” the elder echoed.

“It is the way of the devil. They want something small to start, but their demands will only grow. We cannot give into the fiend!” the preacher shouted, trying to take control.

“My life’s work destroyed…” the elder said flatly as others murmured to each other.

“Given to God! In exchange for our eternal souls!” The preacher showed resolve in the gaze of his accusers. “We must destroy the witch, not agree to her demands.”

“It’s in the scripture,” Tim said, defeated. “But I don’t understand.”

“Trust me!” cried the preacher. “This is for the best.”

The mob did not agree. Men started running everywhere at the elder’s command. Several stormed the parish steps and took the preacher by the arms.  

***

Outside the witch’s cave, forty angry residents of Black Thorne Township looked up to see Walter hovering unconscious over the opening. Their torches did not light the night nearly as much as they hoped. Slime and muck covered most everyone up to their elbows, the way had been treacherous.

A wicked cackle came from deep inside the cave. “A trade. A preacher for a farmer and life to your lands.”

The crowd stood dumb until Tim realized that the town needed him to take charge. “What of the Maiden?” he yelled down the entrance. 

“You have done your part, good woodsman. She will be set free.” Wisps of purple black smoke came with each word.

“Don’t believe her,” Father Fair muttered. “Don’t do this. I’m sorry.” The town elder hit him in the side and he yelled into the witch’s lair, “I’m sorry!”

“How can we trust you?” the woodman yelled into the cave, sure that it was too late for apologies.  

The witch cackled once more. “An agreement. In writing, writing that you can read and understand.”

The father of Liam Clover stepped forward and yelled, “Could you really have saved my boy?”

“I would have tried,” was all the witch replied.

The crowd murmured as a raven flew from the cave. It held a parchment that the woodman read. He thought a long minute and read it out loud, “The preacher shall face my judgment, and the land and your farmer shall be restored.”

The first beautiful woman stepped into the cave entrance. “No maidens were harmed in the making of this pact.”

Tim was confused. He was certain she had been eaten. He wasn’t so sure about handing over the preacher.

Father Fair yelled to the crowd. “You don’t understand! It’s in the scripture. I’ll show you!” He begged anyone who would listen.

The debate did not last long. The preacher was pushed forward into the arms of Tim. “Why didn’t you write the letter?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Father Fair blurted. “You would not understand.”

The choice wasn’t easy but was obvious to the simple woodsman. He would take the simple path. The one he could understand. He walked Father Fair to the beautiful woman. Tim had so many questions, but when Walter descended into his arms, he returned with the mob to Black Thorne township.

***

Mucilla sat on a rock, watching cattails sprout. Healthy spikes of new life appeared before the townspeople made it all the way home. Her feet danced giddily, filled with a pride that could only be fueled by new life.  

Flemma sat beside her and handed her a steaming bowl. Mucilla held it under her hooked nose and breathed it in. “I’m so happy to be out of that disguise. She made me wear it twice.”

Vomira stood at the entrance of the cave. “Take a bite of that. It’ll make it all worth it.”

Mucilla plopped a spoonful of steaming sludge on her tongue and closed her eyes tight. “Oh Vomira, I need to learn to make this. It is devilishly delightful.”

Flemma finished another bite. “Why won’t you share the recipe? Is Preacher Brain Stew that difficult to make?”

Vomira cackled and shrugged. “Well, it’s hardly reading scripture.”

April 20, 2023 02:29

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7 comments

22:31 Apr 26, 2023

Loved this, a believable world built in a very small time, thoroughly well written and enjoyable

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Jeff Schulte
00:13 Apr 28, 2023

Thank you. I really had fun with the prompt.

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Mary Bendickson
06:26 Apr 23, 2023

You built a wicked world alright.

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Jeff Schulte
18:12 Apr 23, 2023

I hope that's a good thing 😜

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Mary Bendickson
21:48 Apr 23, 2023

Yes, it was all right!

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Prijanga Selva
13:49 Apr 22, 2023

I love the way you started the story. It got me really invested because I could already imagine where the story takes place!

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Jeff Schulte
18:13 Apr 23, 2023

Thanks! I rewrote the start frequently. I'm glad it landed.

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