< Return to The Sliver Part 5
Kait paused, her mind still struggling to understand what was happening. She stepped towards her brother, but Calos called out pointing towards the floor.
She looked down, her eyes following a soft splattering sound. Her breath caught in her throat.
The sliver was not just a piece of a thorn. Somehow, the thing had grown and thin tendrils whipped at the air and ground, slapping against the stones and blood. It bounced as if the flesh and blood had given it unreal life.
“That… that… was in… me…” Keirn whispered.
The demonic seed slapped some more, bouncing like a fish out of water. It eventually strayed close to the firewood where the thin tendrils stopped striking stone and hit bark instead. Filled with an unnatural purpose the tendrils wrapped around the wood digging into the surface. The thorny seed sucked against the bark, imbedding itself within the fibrous remains. There, it appeared to take root, new tendrils cracking from the seed’s surface and wrapping around the wood.
Kait watched in horror as the firewood was quickly enveloped within a green mass. The wood shook from the ordeal splintering beneath the strength of the plants crushing grip.
Calos immediately sprang forward, rapidly snapping his palm against the piece of wood. As if sensing his approach, some of the tendrils unfolded attempting to wrap around his wrist with their thorny grip. However, the strike came so quickly that they snapped only the empty air as the chunk of wood became airborne. It struck against the floor once before skidding into the dying embers of the fire.
There was a popping and crackling as the flames leapt upon the new fuel. The fire burst into life as a sickening squeal arose. The sound persisted for a few seconds as the three watched the flames burst along the green plant, running all along its length and turning it into charcoal. The squealing then ceased.
Kait hurried to her brother, who had already begun tying his blood soaked cloth around his open wound.
“Are you alright?” she cried.
He looked up at her. Gone was the wildness that had greeted her earlier, replaced by weariness and a hint of relief.
“I got it,” he smiled before his head fell back and his eyes closed.
Kait and Calos picked him up and lay him close to the fire. Calos padded up his bedroll as Kait tied a clean bandage around his hand. She used a damp cloth to clean his arm and face as best she could.
“I’ll stay up and watch over him,” she told Calos. But he shook his head and refused to go to sleep. The two of them stayed up watching over him until sleep snatched Kait from her persistent vigil.
When Kait opened her eyes, she was greeted with the bright morning sun. She slowly raised her head, half wondering if the events swimming foggily in her mind of the previous night had just been a bad dream. However, her heart began to beat furiously as she rose from her slumber.
She was lying alone in that empty inn.
Neither Calos nor Keirn were anywhere in sight. Keirn’s bedroll was still unrolled on the ground, rumpled and carelessly laid aside. Kait reached around for her bow, affirming its proximity, before she quickly tossed on her over coat. She was just clasping her cloak when Calos strolled casually into the inn, a few large branches tucked under his arm.
He gave her a quizzical look as he walked to the fire, threw a few fresh pieces of wood on, stoked the flames and stirred the softly boiling pot.
“Ummm… where’s Keirn?” Kait asked.
Calos pointed out the door. Bow and quiver in hand, Kait walked to the empty entranceway.
The town was still deserted, small whirlwinds of dust kicking along the dried streets. Kait looked up and down the main throughway then ducked back inside the inn.
“Where exactly is he?” she asked.
Calos sighed and waved his hand at the door. Kait frowned.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me?!”
Calos chewed his lip, and then smiled. He produced a pool, scooped some of the cooked wheat into it and offered it politely to her. Reluctantly, Kait dropped the subject and turned to eating the meagre gruel that was breakfast.
She was almost done her bowl when Keirn strolled in.
“Finally. I thought we would have to toss a whole day’s travels because you weren’t going to wake up.”
“Where have you been?!”
“I see Calos made breakfast. Great, I’m starving.”
Keirn walked over and took the offered bowl. He ignored his sister’s queries until he had finished of the gruel and washed its bland taste away with a healthy mouthful of water.
“You had me worried sick, where did you wander off?”
“Well, by my estimation,” Keirn said, leaning back against his crumbled bedroll, “I suspect that the source of all our troubles is not too far from here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That plant… thing that had unceremoniously been incubating in my hand,” Keirn said, his voice biting with bitterness. “I’m fairly certain I’ve located its root system.”
“I’m sorry… what?”
“Last night, after you had fallen asleep, I was given the chance to think over everything that had occurred. I’m fairly certain that I had been infected with some bizarre parasitic plant life that imbeds itself into other organic flesh to obtain nutrients and grow. What I had was just a feeler of the damn thing. But, since it is a plant, it must have a root system in order to obtain water. If we destroy the roots, the plant should shrivel and die. Just like plucking a weed.”
“Wait, so that thing that… you had… there’s more of it?”
“Yes, and I believe it’s in the farmstead to the south of us.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, it certainly couldn’t be living in this desolate waste and I contracted the sliver between the farmstead and this village. As we had already encountered animal life in the woods, it had to be the farmstead. Course, I went this morning once dawn broke to check it out.”
“All by yourself?!”
“Well, Calos had to tend the fire and you were sleeping.”
“What if… you got seeded again?!”
“Psh,” Keirn said dismissively. “Now that I know what I have to keep an eye out for, I’m not worried. Come, finish your breakfast. I hope you liked it; it’s the last of our food stores.”
Keirn then stood, grabbing his sword and walked out of the inn. Calos shrugged and poured the ashes of the previous fire to douse the current flame before following. Kait ate the remainder of her breakfast and joined Calos outside, stomach still growling.
Keirn picked up a torch he had left on the stone well and checked to insure it was still burning strong.
“You aren’t planning on going there, are you?” Kait asked.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, there are the obvious dangers for one.”
“Come now, I would think you would jump at the chance to help your fellow man.”
“But you wouldn’t.”
“I’m wounded!” Keirn mockingly exclaimed, clutching his breast. “Now, if you’ve got your stuff, let’s go. If we’re quick, we can even get a half day’s travel before we have to make camp.”
He then turned, strolling boldly from the town. Calos hurried after and Kait was left with no choice but to join them.
They crossed the waste and reached the hill, Keirn never slowing his pace. Kait jogged to keep up with him.
“Do you even have a plan for killing this thing? You don’t even know what it is?”
“It’s a plant, what more is there to know? Destroy the roots, kill the organism.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about going to its center when a simple thorn nearly drove you insane.”
Keirn stopped and rounded on his sister.
“I wasn’t insane. I was just concerned about infection. That is all.”
He resumed his course.
“Can’t we just continue on our way? This thing is behind us.”
“Technically, it’s ahead of us,” Keirn replied, waving his torch in the direction of the hill.
“You know, your pigheadedness is really tiring some days!”
“You’re welcome to go home!” he called back.
They continued on, Kait spending most of her time shooting hateful looks towards her sibling. However, anger turned to worry once they climbed the hill and began the treacherous descent down its steep slope. She had forgotten how difficult the thing had been to climb and stumbled multiple times even without the added weight of her pack slowing her down.
Keirn made a show of wrapping thick cloth around his hands before climbing and the others followed as best they could in the path that he blazed. A couple of times he unsheathed his sword and stabbed furiously at the earth. Those moments, Calos and Kait made sure to give the spot he attacked a wide berth.
After the treacherous climb, they faced the fence. However, this time around, there was a section that had been collapsed beneath a rather large broken branch.
“I’m assuming that was you?” Kait asked.
“I had to cross it again.”
They climbed over the fence and skirted around the cornfield, sticking to the long grass that separated the field from the woods.
As they drew closer to the farmstead, Kait noticed that the roof seemed to sway in a manner untouched by the wind. There was still the thin wisp of smoke escaping from the chimney, but it was much smaller now. The green colouration also became defined as they drew close and Kait felt her feet falter.
The entire building was wrapped with green tubules that poured from every hole and space in the stone. The windows were completely wrapped by the plant and the straw in the roof was mostly gone, replaced by the writhing green tendrils.
This was a much more mature plant then the one removed from Keirn’s hand. All along the walls, what could have been mistaken as individual climbing ivy was instead great leaves sprouting from the sinewy stalks.
“I wonder how it seeds,” Kait whispered to herself, half forgetting the dangers that had preoccupied her mind before. Thus, as they circled the farmstead, gauging the best entry point, Kait spent her time looking for buds or cones that the plant could use for reproduction.
“Here we go,” Keirn muttered. There was a storm cellar entrance that was framed in iron. Tendrils broke through the wood but most of it was gone and the plant seemed reluctant to wrap around the iron frame.
“Everyone ready for this?” Keirn asked. He frowned slightly. “Kait, if you want, you can stay out here.”
“No,” Kait said quickly, her curiosity peaked. “I want to go inside.”
“Very well. I suggest we keep our weapons ready. If the seed’s vigour is any judge, we may have to defend ourselves.”
With that, Keirn kicked in the remainder of the cellar door. The tendrils snapped back as he pushed his way in, the torch held out in front of him like a ward, his sword held back ready to strike anything that came near.
They stepped down into the cellar. There was an incredibly earthly and sickly sweet smell. Kait couldn’t identify it, but assumed it was coming from the masses of green vines that stretched along the ground. Most of them ran up the stairs into the main household but a large portion was wrapped about a hump in one corner of the room. Keirn approached cautiously, the torch constantly flicking from side to side as if he expected tendrils to shoot from the shadows at any moment.
The tendrils forming the hump seemed the most active, slowly wrapping and squeezing together. The sickly smell seemed to rise from that area of the cellar. Slowly Keirn held his sword over the mass. The plant didn’t seem to react, though how it would Kait didn’t know. After a moment’s deliberation, Keirn plunged his weapon into the heap.
Several vines severed at the thrust. Those cut but still intact recoiled from the blow, snapping into the darkness and retreating through a collapsed portion in the cellar’s wall to the safety of the shadows beyond.
A peculiar liquid oozed up from the darkened heap, pooling over the remaining vines. The tendrils that hadn’t recoiled continued their steady strangulation. Keirn lifted his sword to the light, the dark ooze revealed to be a sickly red.
“Blood,” Keirn muttered. He bent down and cut away at more of the vines. Several snapped away while Keirn removed a portion of the plant. He stepped back once he had cut off enough to see beneath the tendrils, a look of revulsion on his face.
“What is it?” Kait asked. She moved closer but Keirn pulled the torch away so she couldn’t see clearly.
“Let’s keep going,” he muttered. He stepped carefully towards the hole.
Kait lingered a little, trying to see through the dark at the heap. But she couldn’t make out anything distinct with the torch’s light vanishing. Also, there was a stomach turning squelching as the vines continued their binding. She took a deep breath and followed the other two.
The room they entered appeared to be the wine cellar. Most of the casks lay broken and covered in the vines, which continued into rough hewn rock beyond. The trio didn’t linger long sensing that what they sought lay in the unshaped earth.
The vines didn’t cover this tunnel as much as they did the farmstead. They formed a thick, slowly moving cord in the centre. Keirn stuck close to the dry earthen walls. Calos and Kait followed carefully in his footsteps. The tunnel began to gently slope downwards.
“Do you think it dug this?” Kait asked.
“No, I think this was part of the farm,” Keirn muttered.
The tunnel bent sharply then opened up into a spacious cavern. Water, from an underground river, trickled out of a small mouth in the western wall, forming a short waterfall that splattered ominously.
The vines coalesced near the center of the room, wrapping about themselves until they formed a large pillar crowned with a single broad white petal flower. A peculiar luminescence emanated from the petals, casting off a ghostly glimmer that lit the cavern on its own. Three enormous stamens emerged from the center, casting off soft golden flakes into the air.
Unlike the tunnel, the vines spread out to ledges carved into the walls. Water trickled down these smoothed outcroppings that appeared to have been hand carved. Leafy protrusions grew from these elevated pools, each slightly different than the rest displaying a remarkable variability in leaf size, colour and texture.
“I think that’s it,” Calos whispered.
A loud scratching echoed behind them and the three all turned around. The long trail of vines was rapidly slithering down the tunnel, a large bulk transported within their grasp. The trio jumped aside as the large mass was yanked into the cavern, pulled towards the flowered pillar in the center. Once it retracted within the folds, the plant began to quiver and shake. The stamens released even more pollen as the pillar’s base expanded until the lump was dragged into the dead center of the plant.
The vines then constricted into themselves, a ghastly crunch ensuing. The red sanguine poured from the numerous spaces between the vines, rushing down the stalks and painting them deep scarlet. The plant convulsed a few more times before the petals drooped; satiated.
“This is it,” Keirn said, stepping boldly forward, brandishing the torch in his hands.
“No wait!” Kait called.
Her brother paused.
“You can’t just kill this creature.”
Confusion painted Keirn’s face.
“It’s not evil, don’t you see? It’s just another organism, struggling to survive against the harsh trials of its days?”
“Kait… it kills people.”
“That may be, but there are many plants that abstract required nutrients from insects and the like. Are you to say that we must hunt them and kill them because that is the only way for them to survive.”
Keirn shook his head.
“Are you saying we should let this… thing live from some misguided sense of morality?”
“What makes us different from animals if not the realization that all life is precious and needs protection? This plant could very well be unique, the first amongst its kind. You can’t just set it on fire because of the ways it needs to eat.”
“Yes, I can, just watch.”
“But why?!” Kait cried.
“Because,” Keirn said, with steely determination, “it gave me a sliver.”
And before she could react, he pitched the torch with all his might. The flame flickered as it soared through the air, landing squarely in the stalky center of the creature. Immediately, the green vegetation caught alight. That same, eerie shrill filled the air as the flames engulfed the plant. Tendrils snapped violently in the air as the flames ran up and devoured the plant and its enormous flower.
Keirn watched long enough to feel satisfied the thing was toasted before he turned and beckoned the others to follow. Kait whispered a silent apology before turning and leaving the plant to its fiery funeral.
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