Another bit of my work in progress….
Words and images copyright CherylKP 2019
Paradise in Ashes
In the Mists of Dreams
M’na’s heart thudded inside her chest as she made her way through the forest. How could she have known Amhain would be deceived so cruelly and have his brother stolen from his arms? Her empty stomach jumped and rolled as though it might climb up her throat. She trembled as raw anger screamed louder than her fears, the culmination of all the horrors they had suffered in so short a time. She could not, would not, be defeated this way.
“A’rtine!” she called out hoarsely, the smoke and tears clogging her throat. The Mother of Domhan took a deep breath, the stark image of her infant son as a helpless captive of the Dark god looming in her mind. She steeled herslef to try again. Hot blood quickened her pulse, her breaths came in short gasps, and the fire in her soul fueled her resolve. She yelled again, this time sending her voice into the madness with a fury. “Artine, you damnable soul! Where are you, Ar’tine?” M’na knew he was responsible for the living nightmare they were in, that he beguiled her son and took her newborn child from the trusting child. How that poor boy must be suffering with guilt.
“You can’t worry about that now,” she mumbled to herself. M’na turned in circles, her mind racing as she scanned the smoke filled landscape for signs of life. She decided she would have to entice him out of his dark corner-but how? Though her mind was muddied with fear and her body wracked with pain, she knew her child’s life might depend on her outwitting the most shadowed soul in the Realm. M’na closed her eyes, took several slow, deep breaths and steadied her voice, focusing on sounding not just reasonable, but appealing.
“Artine, I..I know you are here. This is your handiwork, and I also know you would not want to miss a chance to..” She swallowed the bile working its way into her throat, along with any pride she had left. “You must be eager to see how successful your efforts were. I confess your creation reflects your supreme power.” M’na waited, hands pressed to her pounding temples, for any sign of his presence; but only the roaring fires that ravaged her homeland echoed back. Thunder rolled as wild jags of lightening cracked across the smoke filled skies. M’na was perched on the precipice of desperation, with her newborn child in danger and their perfect world crumbling around them.
“Why do you hide if you are not ashamed?” M’na tried a new tack with the vengeful son of Eternity. “Surely you aren’t afraid of a helpless female like me? Why do you hide in the shadows when you could torture me with your words?” M’na, always the clever one, kept the pretense up, driven by fear and necessity, taunting the dark one into the blazing light of his own making. Light was her only advantage, being the one place he was vulnerable.
“Son of Mac! I demand that you show yourself and answer to me!” She waited. A deathly silence descended like a blanket across the madness, enveloping her. She knew with every moment that passed her newborn could be taking his last breath and she grew impatient. Fear gave way to outrage as she bellowed, “Damn you, Ar’tine! What have you done with my SON?!”
Her world responded with awed silence, its Mother in peril, and waited for her next move. Her soft jaw went rigid, her arms hung limply at her sides, and her fists clenched and unclenched. She was finished being soft, easy, and loving. “Return him to me..now!.” She waited. Did she hear a muffled whimper? Oh, dear Mother, could that be Dochais? M’na’s heart caught in her throat, but now more ever she knew she had to be stronger than fear. She had to be stronger than the heart of darkness.
“He is of no use to you, and not even a boy yet. He’s..he’s so small…” M’na cupped her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob. She wouldn’t weep before him, she couldn’t sound weak, and refused to beg, knowing he would only hunger for more pain. “What danger is an infant to you?” She lied, knowing more than anyone else how much power the infant was born with, knew the power he held within his soul, and understood the hope that the Realm had with his birth on Domhan.
She held back the tears, refusing to be vulnerable before the bitter god, unwilling to quench his thirst for suffering. M’na hung her head, the weight of fear and sorrow pressing down on her heart and soul, and wept silently. In those quiet moments she heard it, at first nothing but a soft rustling, like the gentle flutter of leaves blowing across a dirt path. She cocked her head to the side, straining to hear more, and wondered if she was losing her mind. Long moments slid by and she was about to call again when the sound returned, coming from somewhere above. She peered up into the darkness, mesmerized by the glowing embers that glimmered as they drifted slowly to the ground around her, the sound floating down with them. Something about it all made her stomach turn. M’na covered her eyes, shielding them from the ash and ember as she gazed up into the unknown.
There was something vaguely familiar about this place and this particular tree, although the entire forest was turning to ash so quickly she would have become easily lost. The tree, the seat of the hissing sound, seemed to be calling to her from some distant place. Its skin glistened in the light of the fires that blazed around them and M’na’s mind groped for the memory. Its bark was scorched and faded, with bits flaking off and striking her upturned face. She didn’t try to deflect them, feeling they were somehow purging her soul.
As she squinted into the dim, gray light she could make out a dark form that moved slowly down and around and down and around.. It shimmered in the pale light as it circled the tree trunk, winding closer and closer to the ground. The Mother of Domhan gasped as the dawning of what glistened in the darkness reached her numbed brain. She gaped in horror as the flame and fury of A’rtine’s madness was reflected back at her from the slick skin of the largest, darkest serpent she had ever seen. Nothing like it existed on Domhan, and she had seen every living creature that lived on her world. M’na stumbled back a few steps, her body subconsciously telling her to run while her mind forced her to stifle the scream that longed to escape from her lips. The serpent stretched downward, its body as long as the Tree of Creation was tall, and coiled around it so that the bare branches seemed like arms reaching to the heavens for salvation. M’na knew where they were now, but nothing in the place even remotely resembled her memory of the peaceful Garden where she first tasted the fruit of life, where her body had been awakened and she had returned so often for solace. What had happened to the beautiful tree that gave them all such precious gifts?
“What?” Hissed the glistening shadow, “No kisses to smother my face? Is your Mother’s love only for those who slid from within your womb?” A thick black knot unfurled from around the lowest branch of the tree and curled back towards M’na to rest on the end of the branch. The head of the serpent was magnificently, perfectly horrible, as only the god of darkness could have created. The head had two smaller knots on it that she prayed would not open, but it seemed her prayers were going up in flames along with her world. The serpent opened those knots to reveal eyes as black as a starless sky and yet they seemed to tug at her soul like grasping fingers. If only they would have remained so. When the serpent spoke again, its eyes glowed red like the heart of the flame, piercing her soul as though forged from its own fire. It’s slit of a mouth opened and a barbed gray tongue slid forward, nearly touching her face, flicking right in front of her eyes. M’na trembled, her body wanting to fail her.
“This is your world, Mother,” a small voice whispered. M’na averted her eyes to the ground where a single white bloom remained, partly covered in ash but brilliant as the moon in the sky. ‘He has no power here,’ the pure white blossom whispered as a burning ember singed its face, silencing her forever.
The serpent’s tongue made a clicking sound when it spoke, something which annoyed the Mother of Domhan, and was possibly the best thing for her in that moment.
“I..click…have decided…click…I rather like the reptiles of Inion’s creation..click, click.” The tongue instantly withdrew as did the voice of the serpent who continued to lie on the branch, staring at M’na with eyes gleeming. When the god spoke again, his voice boomed above the blaze and crashing destruction, filling the forest with his presence.
M’na trembled uncontrollably, her legs beginning to fail her, as bright red blood flowed in rivulets down the inside of her thighs. The childbirth, the flight into the forest to hide her children, battling the beast with Fireann…all would have buried a lesser human; but she had to finish this and show A’rtine he could not win. She wiped the blood from her thigh and held her hand out to the serpent as she struggled to regain control of her body and not lose her mind.
“Here! Is this what you want? I’ll give you a taste of my blood if it will appease your appetite.” Laughter rolled through the forest around her.
“Perhaps later,” the voice thundered. “But first, would you care for a piece of fruit?” A rustling movement from the branch returned M’na’s attention to the serpent. A thunderous thud filled the air as the back end of its body swatted a withered seed from the dying branch where it lay. The seed, so familiar and yet a mere ghost of what it once hosted, tumbled to the ground. The sound echoed through the trees and thundered in M’na’s head as it rolled over the ground and onto her foot. The weight of the small seed was so immense that she screamed in pain.
“Alas,” hissed the voice. “it would appear..click..that the fruit has all been picked from the tree. You creation lusting humans have sucked the very life from your willing host.” The serpent lifted its body and thumped the tree again, shaking the forest floor as debris fell like rain around them. M’na clung to sanity by a mere thread, her rage building inside.
“What have you done with Dochais? I told you long ago that I would never hate you, and I will never be as you are, no matter what you do to us or…take from me.”
“But you already are, my dear. You sought to kill my beloved As’me, even as you pretended to wish her to live again.”
His words struck M’na in the chest. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you didn’t know? That trio of Light pushers in the Realm-your god and goddesses-convinced her to sacrifice herself just to save your friends. Yes. Even as the unworthy female, Eagna, screamed to give my daughter new life as her own child, the soul of my As’me conspired with Inion to change the plan, to deceive me!! No longer will we have the reunion we had been promised, never will we be reunited. She was innocent. She longs to please those in the Realm and they are my enemy. There is no love for me there but from As’me. Now she has conspired with them and so has betrayed me as well. And you call them, ‘Mother’. If I suffer, then we all suffer, Mother of Domhan, for still I do not have the love of my creation-my own Daughter, As’me!” He cried out in desperation. He cried..
M’na sensed a shift in his energy, his essence softened slightly as he spoke painfully of the past. “If only you had remained as you did the day you shielded me from Inion on that night so long ago. Championing the dark god that Eternity forgot. If only you had kept your promise. If only Love were truly there for one such as me…”
M’na opened her mouth to speak, her true heart’s desire to console, plead, reassure, and love…anything to reach the dark reflection of Eternity; but A’rtine was mired in his misery.
“No! I have been lied to enough! Now hear me, Daughter of Deception. I must forever live without my creation, without love. And now it is your turn to share my fate. The infant is gone. You will never see him again. And soon, I will be rid of your first born as well.”
M’na needed more time. She had to stall him and reach Amhain before A’rtine kept his vow.
‘Show no fear, M’na,’ her inner voice urged. ‘He mustn’t sense fear in you.’
“You are right, A’rtine. We all failed you. I failed in my promise to you, made so long ago now. But I never forgot it. All that has happened is my fault, and not anyone else. I thought I was helping, protecting Domhan, but I made a mistake. Just give Dochais to me and I will leave him with his Father. Then I will go with you. I will do all that I can to make this up to you. Together..we can bring As’me back.” Silence. Did that mean he was considering her offer? In her uncertainty she plodded onward, tangling the threads of deception like a noose around her own neck. “I want to see your world, what you created. A’rtine, I would do anything for..”
The serpent rose from its perch and struck at M’na viciously, its fangs slicing the air within a breath of her cheek, sending her stumbling back and onto the ground with a thud. She coughed through a cloud of black ash that rose around her face but never stopped glaring at her attacker who was now nose to nose with her. Anyone watching the scene would have thought them similar in ferocity. The serpent’s tongue flicked at its prey and M’na refused to flinch when it touched her skin.
“You would do anything to save your sons,” A’rtine hissed vehemently. “This is not about your love for me, M’na. No one in the Realm or on your world loves me.” The serpent’s eyes glowed like embers and flashed with every word its master spoke. If the god was as unlovable as he claimed, he did nothing in that moment to change the situation. “But I don’t need your love. I just need the power over you. I need to see you as empty as I am now.”
M’na’s right hand bled where it pressed into the jagged edge of a broken branch, a severed limb knocked brutally from the Tree of Creation by Damanta’s fury. Her fingers slowly wrapped around the rough wood, her grip so tight that her knuckles turned white. With eyes locked on those of the serpent, she rose slowly, moving only those muscles necessary, yet graceful as ever.
‘She is so lovely’, thought the Dark One, recalling how she tempted him from the first time he watched her through the glistening mists over his lake of sorrows on Domhan Eile. She once moved across her world with breathtaking grace, powerfully beautiful yet inexplicably delicate. The serpent’s body uncoiled from its perch and loosed its grip on the tree, never breaking eye contact with M’na, completely mesmerized by her gentle brown eyes.
The pitiable creature never saw the branch in her hand, never noticed the slight smirk playing at the corners of her mouth, and had no time to recoil as she effectively brought the limb forcefully down on its head. It fell to the ground hard, casting the Essence of Artine out of its body, leaving the god momentarily confused. M’na gasped, trying to catch her breath and recover. After a few seconds she heard a crackling sound, the air turn cold and wet, and she knew it was time to flee the Garden, hoping he would have no power over her once she left it behind. Her mind urged her onward as she struggled to find that familiar place of retreat when something flew over her head. M’na’s heart skipped several beats, fearing the worst.
“He has no power over you anywhere!” the agitated voice startled M’na. When she turned back for a quick look, a huge white owl dove at the serpent, her sharp talons flexed, and dug them into its eyes, putting out the flame of life within. M’na found the strength to keep running and did not look back again, knowing the goddess mother was with her. As she passed beneath the broken, fading arch that once marked the perfection of Creation’s Garden, her mother’s voice carried over the terrifying din of the forest. “Conceal yourself from him, daughter! While you still have time!”
Conceal myself? M’na’s mind raced with her feet, but her head was pounding each time a foot hit the ground. The sky above exploded with real thunder, heralding the storm of all storms. Streaks of wild lightening spat across the black canopy. With only her family in mind she raced towards an unknown end. All that existed in those moments were the sounds..the panting, the thumping of foot to ground, her heart beat, the heavy breaths..conceal myself.
“You cannot hide from me.” The voice seemed inside her head though she could feel hot breath on her neck as suddenly racing at her side was the wolf. It was the same wolf who had taken her child- it had to be! Where was Dochais now? The wolf had nothing in its mouth but a thick, red tongue.
M’na held out hope her infant was safe, while her thoughts turned to her firstborn son and beloved Fireann. She feared for her companion, for how could he hold off the fiery beast for so long by himself? Though she pulled a few paces ahead, the breath of the wolf was hot against her legs, its hunger enveloping her. It snarled and drooled, tempted by the smell of blood on her skin. Ahead of her on the path was a fallen tree, blazing from the kiss of the beast.
‘I can’t stop,’ she thought frantically. ‘Not now.’ A cold gust of air hit M’na in the face, her body vibrating with unexpected energy, the burst that she needed to push on. She leapt!
Her mind was clear and strong, her body suddenly without pain as she bounded over the blazing obstacle, as though borne on the wind. She heard a painful yelp as the wolf brazenly leapt into the wall of burning wood behind her, only to be slammed to the ground. Feeling victorious, M’na kept running, her body more agile, fresh hope rising from her heart. She blinked, unbelieving, as the clearing to their home came into plain view. The Mother of Domhan breathed more easily as she ran on, the wind whipping through her hair, her senses heightened. Suddenly she could see it all clearly-home, or what remained of home. Yes! There was someone there; but the beast was, thankfully, gone. She slowed as she drew closer, almost able to make out details in the failing light.
As she slowed to a halt, her head seemed to split in two. Then he was inside it, his mind mingled with hers. How could he molest her now, when she was so close to her joy? Cruelly, like a sharpened axe, his words sliced into her heart and echoed throughout the hallows of her soul.
“Finally returned to your beloved Fireann. Alas, my dear, he was not equally matched for a fight with my pet. Such a pity you will never lie with him again.” M’na’s heart crumbled in her chest as A’rtine taunted. “You know you cannot hide from me, any more than the moon can hide from the night.”
M’na forced herself to look at the clearing where there were not one, but two figures. Her soul wailed to see her beloved Fireann lying in the wet ashes-broken, blood stained and still as stone. His firstborn son knelt over him, gently stroking his Father’s hair and lovingly rubbing his lifeless chest. Young Amhain’s head was bent, his body shaking in the darkest of sorrows. The weight crushed M’na’s heart, stealing her breath, and the light was snuffed as she fell into the arms of darkness…
to be continued….