Series

Book

Chapter Four - Ripples in the Cavern

Trem stepped back from his mother, and then stumbled backwards in clumsiness roused from shock and maybe fear. His eyes widened as his mother approached him, obliterating the scarce distance between them. The strong, flickering glow of the flames consuming the stable casted on just one side of her, setting her skin aglow as a fiery orange and turning her hair to look that much more like flames. The other side of her was darker, as if a shadow grew and crept out of her and then casted onto the grounds, stretching far, rather than her shadow simply being there as a separate, accompanying entity. Was he seeing his mother’s true, dual nature in the glowing flames and the dark shadow?

“I’m…I’m not sick Mother..” he croaked out, his feet scuffing something strewn in the grass as he made an uncertain shuffle back. It was gritty, like sand, or even salt.

“No, no maybe not yet. But you very may well be in time. I can’t let that happen. This’ll be hard on you, my son, but this must be done,” his mother said mournfully, the dancing and angry flames gleaming in her eyes.

“N-no! I’ll be fine! I’m tough, I survive things! I’ll survive this! Mother, why’re you doing this!?”

Bemusement spread across his mother’s face as she encroached upon him, gripping him firmly upon his sleeved forearm and dragging him forcefully towards the cider house. His heels dug into the grass, forming tiny rough trenches into the sod. His mother was small and slight of frame, even for a woman, but she pulled him with more strength than he ever imagined she had. He felt like he was being pulled by two muscled horses, or a piece of rigid metal machinery that could withstand hundreds of pounds of force and weight and budge not the least bit. Trem tugged and pulled in haphazard directions, fueled by fear and panic he never expected to ever have from his mother. His loving, caring, mother, like a stalwart pillar amongst a raging and tumultuous storm.

“Don didn’t even touch me! I hardly touched the horse too! It didn’t sneeze on me or nothing! Wait, no. I….I lied, Mom! I lied! I made it all up! I just, I just got confused…you know how I get with my dreams! It was all a dream, I just….just couldn’t tell until now! Mother, please!” Trem cried and pleaded, incredibly desperate to not be burned like the animals, or for whatever his mother was going to do to him. Somehow it was worse that he knew it was coming, rather than being blindsided by sudden flames as the farm animals had been. Did she think that was more merciful? More kind? He had no idea how she saw this. He could not understand, and he did not want to understand.

“It’s enough that you touched the horse, and was near the horse. I won’t take any risks with you Trem. I won’t ever. And I won’t take those risks with Keld either, not even Haun,” she answered solemnly.

“Do I mean that little to you Mother?! You won’t even give me a chance! Please, just a chance! Toss me into the wilderness if you have to! I won’t bother anybody! I’m fine with eking out my life as some person with long, twisting ears!”

She paused, and looked over her shoulder her red eyebrows raised high, like Trem was being absurd for begging for his life, for any scrap of it. Trem yanked and pulled as hard as he could, hoping maybe the sleeve of his shirt would make her iron grip slip, but it did not, not in the slightest. It only served to flare stinging pain in his forearm in a fat band, where her pale hand looked like the gripping talon of a vulture.

“Keld!” he cried, “Help me! Mother is going to kill me!”

His mother’s expression hardened like the flat of an imposing, iron anvil. That expression was not unfamiliar to Trem. It was borne of disappointment and exasperation, as well as frustration at Trem, whenever he did something particularly childish, of which said childish things or actions he typically was not aware of at the time. Only as he got older, or was properly chastised, did he realize the breadth of his actions, or words, whatever it had been. What was so childish about being desperate to live? About trying to do his best to get away, and get help? Would his brother betray him too? Is that why Keld was in the kitchen with him, to keep him there, so he couldn’t run away? They both were determined to kill him, to save themselves? They could not even try to save Trem, their own son? It was far worse than killing the animals, it made him sick and terrified, like this was all a world very different from his own.

“Oh I ought to not tell you a thing Trem Imbernoc! How dare you! How…how just dare you!” his mother spat, her face blooming red with anger and tears glistening in her eyes, scattering the glow of orange light from the flames of the stable. Furious, she tossed her head forward and stomped ahead, making prints into the grass and dirt. She muttered scathing words in a tongue Trem did not understand. The sounds were smooth and soft, like brushing winds, but were fueled with waspy, scathing tones.

Trem was dragged along, and with his rooted feet digging two enduring trenches doing little of good to free him from his doom, he released while refusing to move. He did not think that action too far ahead, fueled by desperation as he was, and was then relegated to being dragged along on the ground on his front. He continued to call for help, and to beg his mother, to result in absolutely nothing. No one answered his cries, and his mother ignored him like he was a sack of too heavy leaves. Sobs raked through Trem, as he truly felt helpless while heartbreakingly betrayed to the degree it was like whiplash.

The journey to his execution stopped, the smell of fresh grass wafting around him, from the gigantic smear down his front by being dragged across the ground. He sniffled, his face covered in streaky, goopy snot. He looked up, feeling like this was the end, feeling like he should have amounted to something by now from these past eleven namesdays, but he had not, and now he was going to die as the pitiful, scrawny boy who got himself killed by his own self-inflicted misfortune, and by his own family whom was just trying to save themselves, even if in a selfish and overly cautious way.

His mother was looking down at him gloomily, the glowing light of the fires too far or blocked by something to cast onto her, unable to reveal her true nature at present. Trem glowered at her, unabashed by his sad and pathetic state. She was the one killing her own son. He had the right to cry like this. He had the right to scream and kick. She did not have the right to kill him! But she was doing it anyway!

Her shoulders were sagged, like she was feeling sorry for him, or she much disliked what she was about to do. “You foolish, foolish boy,” she said, the heated anger completely gone. “How could you ever think I would take your life for my own? I do everything for you and Keld, my sons, my children…my babies.” Her eyes were glistening with overflowing tears.

Trem stared shocked once again, his nose nearly numb with it, or else the overwhelming amount of snot.

“I would die for you, my little Trem. I don’t know how you could ever think I would hurt you, even in this circumstance. Please get up; you need to go into my basement so that you can be rid of the mutating disease incubating in you. This is where I do my alchemy, Trem. You know that. I know you haven’t been allowed in here, ever, how much do I know that with your begging, nagging and wheedling over the years, but this is where it is. Please, Trem, calm down. It’ll be alright…”

Trem stared at her for many moments longer; everything she said sluggishly sinking in, like his head was a fat, lumpy piece of coal. Finally she let go of his outstretched arm, and rather than run as fast and as far away as he could, he shakily rose, and brushed the back of his hand under his nose to wipe away the snot, earning a light cringe from his mother. It must have been unflatteringly gross. He glanced at the back of his hand, the snot making a very unpleasant sight. He glowered to himself, and kicked the ground a bit, and then hunched his back and shoulders and crossed his arms from under him.

“Whatever…” Trem muttered, scowling at the basement doors resentfully. His mother’s lips quivered in response, like she was trying not to smile, while feeling obviously guilty. Trem felt like a humiliated idiot, while he was also still partly afraid something very bad was going to happen. He either could not shake it off, or did not want to shake it off.

His mother stepped up to the double doors of the basement with a pair of thick handles, made out of two chalky colored slabs of stone which was an untraditional and uncommon material, set into the ground, and upraised at an inclining slant surrounded by smooth stone just at the edge of the house. Trem had always longed to see what was within, and try as he had, he could not be allowed in or get in. What was within the basement was not a secret precisely, but access to it was prohibited by his mother, and always had been to the extent of Trem’s knowledge. It was chiefly where alchemic concoctions were prepared, mixed, and whatever other steps and processes were involved. Not all alchemy was practiced down there, but anything as to the details and contents of the elixirs rested within the forbidden basement. He had been told it was for a number of reasons, the prohibition upon access, which had extended to beyond Trem. As far as he knew, it also applied to their father when he had been alive and kicking. One was the delicacy of the ingredients in general, and then delicacy of the preparation involved. It was vital that nothing to do with an alchemic elixir or potion was to be disturbed, from the ingredients to the mixture and concoction themselves. There was also the conditions needed, among other things Trem did not understand, nor want to, because all that just meant he couldn’t go inside. It curbed his desire to learn alchemy, and stifled the request in his throat to learn, because he simply could not see it done. It was mystical entity, kept out of grasp like the adventures in the tales of the Twin Libraries.

Standing before the chalky pair of doors, their handles twice as large as any hand would be grasping them, he no longer wanted to know its secrets, to even view the dimensions of the basement, but if he had any guess from the way he had been dragged over to the basement, he had no choice. Warily he glanced at his mother, whom was watching him more placidly. Apparently that look Trem gave her was enough to prompt her to take a step closer to the basement double doors, her boot just at the bottom rim of the upwards slant of them. Trem could not fathom how his small, slight mother could yank open those double doors of stone. They looked as if more than the weight of the equivalent iron, but he sourly reminded himself of the strength his mother just showed mere moments ago, dragging him across the ground, the power digging trenches into the grass with his rooted and resisting heels.

Gripping both handles in a pale hand each, Trem’s mother pulled with force, and the double doors ominously creaked open, sliding all the way open nearly on their own after that initial pull at a metered pace. He wasn’t sure how, maybe the stone had a weight much less than the appearance gave off, or it was something alchemical entirely. A waft of curling gray white fog puffed out upon the opening of the doors, and drifted back inside.

Trem’s mother stood aside the gaping doors, like the maw of a great beast lying in wait for an unaware and unobservant victim to be its prey with its depths shrouded in dark and shadow, leaving what fate awaited to the imagination of the blinded victim trapped within, with time being what would ultimately reveal the horrible answer.

“…Do I have to?” Trem asked reluctantly, his eyes feeling like pools of dark how wide they were. He couldn’t muster the will to move, to take a single step towards those doors. “Do I…really have to? I can’t just…take some medicine can I?”

His mother looked upon him both gently and sadly, as well as with remorse. “Yes, my son, you really have to. I wish this was not so hard on you, but it could be worse, much worse, and I think you know that by now…past that panicked scare of yours. Without this alchemy you would succumb to the mutating disease that is…” she said as if Trem would start thinking she meant killing him in the broad of daylight all over again.

Trem nodded slowly, taking approaching steps to the rim of the gaping maw of the basement. He stared down into the roughhewn stone steps, like it was a sophisticated witch’s dark lair. It was dark, too dark to see, which made it feel like she was trying to make this unnerving and scary on purpose. The rise of the buildings and the angle of the sun prevented any light from streaming directly into the opened basement, resulting in such darkness. Although, it was strange that the stairs were dark to the degree he could not see much within. Yet instead of complaining or even asking about the light, Trem asked, “Why hasn’t anyone named the disease? Is there a particular, specific reason for that, or am I just going to be continually kept in the dark, while this is affecting me most out of anyone else on the Ruby Orchard?”

In the shade between the house and the cider building, with long shadows stretching into the orchard from the burning stable, his mother looked much like a silhouette beside him, her colors darkened and dimmed as if washed out with blacks and grays. “It was something to be avoided, I admit. It is the ancient, and little spoken of Gnarl Rot disease. It sleeps within you for a long while, and then more violently erupts in stages. You should be alright, provided you take to the inoculation. Which, my son, you will, do not fret.”

“It sleeps? Shouldn’t…why is it so rare? What does it come from?”

His mother’s face seemed to fall further and therefore darker into shadow. “Being so rare, and well snuffed out despite its virulence – which is actually precisely why it is so aggressively snuffed out – it is difficult to say where exactly it originates. It’s been long suspected to originate from within the Great Divides, and deep within the cracks beneath the earth. No, not the fissures and rifts the quakes break open, but it’s possible…it’s always been possible a quake could open a pocket containing the disease. It’s so poorly understood, and so dangerous to understand, that that could not even be true. Any of that could not be true, but that’s…that’s what’s been long suspected. And little anyone has been interested in pursuing the heart of the matter, just so long as we keep any outbreaks under control.”

“…You mean, under control, as in…killing whatever is infected,” Trem said grimly.

“No, not…not always. Not in your case. You should…you will be alright my son, with my alchemy,” she answered with a quaver in her voice towards the end.

“Should be. I should be alright. I’m starting to think you…to think maybe your potions haven’t done this before Mother.”

“That’s where you’re wrong Trem. They have, and far longer than I’ve been around as well,” his mother said with absolute certainty, so much so that Trem did not even think to question it in that moment.

Vastly reassured from his previous petrified state, Trem stepped down onto the stone stairs, and then before he made it to the second step, his mother spoke, “There will be light at the bottom. Just keep your hand to the wall, and be very, very mindful of your step.”

Trem continued, taking one slow step down at a time, feeling the edge and surface of the step before letting his weight down onto that foot, and then doing the same, and then the same again continually at that slow pace. His hand pressed to the roughly hewn wall, the stone cool, and dragged along it as he went down, providing stabilization and a more sense of awareness about where he was in the pervasive dark. And why wasn’t his mother coming down after him? It wasn’t like he knew what to cure himself with, or what to do.

It took twenty short steps to hit the bottom, where he only knew it was by the bottom from the lack of ability to push his foot down and past further. More dark, more grey, with lumps and angular shapes in the darkness. So much for any light, huh? Trem thought to himself.

Something touched his shoulder, making him jump and yell out, and then he realized the silhouette was just the shape and size of his mother. She sighed sufferingly at him; somehow she had descended the stairs without making the slightest of noises. One would think this basement would echo, or at least the stairway, but no, and neither the sound of his own footfalls either, but those he did hear.

A soft light began to glow overhead, so dim at first Trem wasn’t sure he was seeing anything at all. And then it glowed stronger, its intensity sluggishly magnifying like it was a small animal rousing from a long and deep slumber, realizing it was time to get up and do what it needed to do, like a firefly. Except the light overhead, several feet overhead, came from a series of blocks made from a milky white stone, its surface lumpy like it was freshly cut and ripped out from the ground. The blocks were broader than they were tall, making them look like squares from below. Although the blocks of opaque stone glowed light into the basement, the light remained dim still, making Trem feel like he was in a cavern rather than in an actual home, even though the basement was not actually their home anyway.

At his feet, a grey white haze hung with the depth of several inches, obscuring the stone flooring that with the scuffing of his boots felt smoother than the walls had. He slowly looked about the place, seeing that this was a main chamber of sorts with four other closed doorways leading elsewhere. There was an assortment of things stashed against the walls, amongst and on top of thick stone tables, looking like the same stone the walls were made out of. There were large, cast iron cauldrons with rounded lips, scattered across primarily tabletops and shoved into corners. Trem would know them no better than an iron pot but for the bulbous nature of the cauldron and the rounded lip of them, seen rarely by Trem, described to him by his mother and otherwise only in stories, as the cauldron of a witch brewing curses or something like that. There were also boxes of varying small sizes, made out of thin paneled wood and thin sheets of metal. Everything was in shades of greys, blacks, and dull whites, because of the dim glow of light. Altogether the place looked like dust would be at home here, sealing the deal on the suggestion the basement was little used like it was more for a halfhearted storage than a place of arcane, eldritch alchemy.

Trem glanced at his mother skeptically, wandering glumly into the chamber with his hands shoved into his pockets. “I don’t see a glowing pot or potion.”

In return, she gave him a dry look, “I have known about this for perhaps the past hour, scarcely more. You really think I’d just have it out here, lying in wait for you?”

“Well yeah, you must have been planning to take me here!”

His mother stared at him. “The first thing I did was burn the stable. It has really been that urgent.”

Trem looked away. “Yeah, well…”

“Well what?” his mother asked imperiously, interrupting his pause to gather his words.

“Hey! Couldn’t you give me a second?” he wandered further away from her, hunching his shoulders like he had to keep a safe distance from her. “You’ve been near me, touching me even, and you still are. Are…are you going to inoculate yourself too?”

His mother’s lips twitched into an impish smile for a split second, seen even in the dim light. It was entirely unfamiliar on his mother’s face, so much so it shocked him. It was gone just as quickly as it came, leaving her face impassive, and in comparison, it looked like a mask to Trem. It was puzzling. “I am already inoculated as can be,” she answered succinctly.

“O-oh..?”

“Go in that room, just behind you. I need time to prepare this, undisturbed, so you’ll have to wait after you receive the preparation.”

Trem turned away, walking through the doorway. It was closed before, a door made out of the same stone as nearly everything else but the lights. It was starting to feel like his mother really was a witch, being as the door opening all of its own was inexplicable. Unless…he was already starting to get sick. It was not a stretch that the Gnarl Rot affected the mind to the degree of hallucinations from the whole of what he had been told. And this was not a case of his imagination getting ahead of himself, such as with the sneering face in the flames of the lightning struck tree.

Trem looked about the room of the same dull, roughly hewn stone, with a made and sheeted bed set against the wall with a plump pillow on top. He padded over and plopped down on it, sitting on the edge of the bed. Before him was a table low enough for a child to sit at, such as a boy of his height, with a few chairs, and there was a night stand by the bed. Carved from and into the wall, in the shape of a deep egg cut in half from top to bottom, was a cold and empty hearth. It was strange in any sense of a fireplace to not have logs, coals, or even flaked debris, or an errant smudge of ash and soot. It was to the point of cleanliness that it appeared never used, with its metal mesh doors propped open, folding back in on themselves on either side like bent paper or thin leather.

So, he was sitting in a sick room then, the kind in the family house that those ill rested and stayed in, whether or not it was for more than a day to recover. He kicked his boots at the floor, staring down at the low lying hazy mist. Far as he knew, that was not normal to have in a basement, maybe even a cavern making an entrance into a stubby and short mountain.

What would even cause this kind of mist, seeping into everywhere whether the doors were closed or not. Did it seep from the ground, originating from vents, its presence only stout and coalesced enough to gather at a height of some inches? Was it fueled by some open cauldron filled with a magical potion that spread this mist, passing through doors with no hindrance? Did that mean then it had healing properties? Trem wondered a lot about this, and continued to consider what else it could be, as all he could be doing at the present was wait. Maybe the greyish mist was the result of a temperature and moisture difference from the stony earth beneath, the basement itself, and the open surface many feet above, with so much open space of air that was the depth of the placid sky.

This drew Trem’s thoughts to the burning stable, of the dying or dead animals, their plight had seemed so little compared to Trem’s urgent alarm at the safety of himself. Without hesitation he would have cast the horse into the fire, if that meant truly the survival of himself. He could not, or did not, consider the pup Ren in this self examination. That was too painful to get near, like hovering a hand very close to an ardently hot flame, except in this case it was teetering his whole body right upon a roaring inferno. His mind chased around the mere thought, preserving him from the bright and far reaching pain. Trem wondered if this meant he was dark hearted, to be so willing to sacrifice the horse, and many more of the farm animals, to ensure his survival. Was it cowardly and cold? Was it wrong? Or was it just natural, human nature? The actions of his family seemed to say to Trem that the proper decision to be made would be to burn the animals to ensure not just their own survival, but the survival of each other, their loved ones. But those actions did not say how Trem should feel about it, and with what kind of heart the actions should be undertaken. Would the animals, whom essentially sacrificed themselves so that the Imbernocs could continue to live, be respected or revered? Or would they never be spoken of, in an adamant attempt at forgetting a heinous and cruel deed, or maybe even apathy and disregard about the end of their existence, and therefore the meaning of their once existence entirely?

Trem clasped his hands together and rubbed them over one another uncertainly, like their wringing might help to sort out his thoughts. He gripped harder and harder, his hands in a contorted and iron clasp, the enacted force was to the point his tendons and muscles were stretched taut, the knuckles white with strain and the few prominent blue veins bulged. His arms shook with the effort; his hands ached with crushing pain. Tears burgeoned in his eyes, blearing his vision with a mild blur. His face felt hot, particularly at his eyes, under them, and his nose. There were no longer any wondering questions in his head, no pathways cut from logic to discern how he should act and feel about what had happened, and what kind of boy it revealed him to be. There was just overwhelming, exposed pain rising and bubbling out of his chest in shaking sobs, and that also radiated from his face. It made him feel like he might be crushed under the weight of his own sorrow while also hinting at a disparate rift nestled within his turmoil that gave a sense of freedom from a stifling oppression of burdens that had beared down upon him from this day, and from many more in the past.

Eventually the pain receded, like a tide ebbing and slinking back into the dark and distant depths whence it came, and also like a gaping crack in the earth closing shut, mending in a way that had not been possible before the fault and rupture had been exposed and released. The tears had dried up, leaving his face feeling hot in blotches, and the sobs had eased until they ceased entirely, his back releasing from its taut and hunched position, like the muscles had wanted to curl in on themselves, contorting in a way that might find relief from pressure and torture.

Trem dried his face on his sleeve at his forearm and looked up, the room no different than last. He sighed into the quiet, his gaze wandering. The door was closed. He had not closed it behind him. There was something particularly disturbing about that, like there was something here, unseen, but there wasn’t. It was just him and the mist. And had not time passed enough that his mother would be ready with whatever medicine or elixir it was? He groaned, his eyes down casting to the haze of grey and white mist.

Trem reached down in a whim, trying to grasp at the vapor. His hand disturbed the mist, swirling it outwards from his hand like a slowly growing whirlpool, rippled like corrugated metal. Trem stared at it, feeling unease as this eddy continued to spiral out into the mist of the rest of the room. The ripples were ridged like peaked waves, and when they struck the stone walls, they bounced back, creating new ripples. The opposing sets of ripples, radiating in different directions, struck each other in eerie dissonance. Their interactions were of many, some overcame the other in their moment of strife and flowed on, lesser than it was, like the ripple that lost took flesh and blood out of the ripple that won, making it smaller, yet strong enough to continue on and find another fight; others clashed against each other, smushing together, and then flung outwards into another spiraling ripple to begin entirely new and separate collisions; others more congealed together, growing thick and grey, and rippled inwards into the room, speeding back towards Trem himself, the originator of this whole display.

It was maddening beautiful, so much so that Trem stared at it all, frozen with his hand still dipped into the low lying mist. All these collisions and clashes occurred an innumerable amount of times again, as the ripples that survived would flow or radiate onward or outward, creating this chaos so many times and at so much at once Trem could not keep track of it all. He could not fathom to think what more would happen if he dipped his hand into the mist again, or if he did something else.

And so, Trem punched down into the mist, his fist sinking deep within. Fresh and new ripples arose quaking from the impact, the peaking, jagged waves as high as spires as they spiraled out into the room, colliding with the oncoming and lesser ripples of earlier. He watched in wonder as a whole new ordeal of chaos played out on the surface of the mist, done all just by him.

And then his fist felt pulled, still submerged within the mist, and when he looked, the hazy mist was opaque and no longer translucent enough to see vaguely through. A chill washed over him as he felt something bony grasp his hand. It was as cold as the icicles that formed on the eave of the roof and the edge of the windows during the middle of winter, when the patterns of snowflakes windows, filtering the view of the outside world from within the house into a wonder of winter. This deathly cold thing was nothing as pleasant. He yelled out as the bony hand pulled, and this time, Trem fell forward off the edge of the bed, plunging into the mist. He expected, and spread across the truthfully hoped, to hit the hard of the stone floor that might just knock him clean cold, or else leave him with nasty dark bruises and a dull blooming pain.

But Trem did not strike the stone of the floor. He fell through where the floor should have been, plummeting onwards like he leapt from a cloud in the sky.

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