Silence. Apart from her labored breathing, there was an absolute stillness hovering in the air. Velry stood frozen in the niche she'd found, her cold fingers gripping the base of the weathered statue as if at any moment the giant stone would move to betray her location. In between every precious gasp of air she listened intently, not quite brave enough to peek her head out the alcove to scan the vast room. Was that a footstep? A muffled word floating around the corner? No. There was nothing. Not even an echo drifted to her ears. Only the stillness.
She knew something was wrong. It had to be. Things were never this easy, not anymore. For the past year, she'd been a prisoner, struggling to stay alive in the dark recesses of this crumbling and forgotten palace, a relic from the Age of Decadence. Every moment was an impossible battle, and every excruciating second was a painstaking fight. As she gripped the rough stone, Velry closed her eyes, fighting back the tears that she could not afford to let fall. Not now. Just thinking of the agonizing torture she endured in this place brought forth something much more painful to the forefront of her mind, memories that would slow her down if she lingered on them for too long. She remembered happiness and her simple little life back in Deems, the memories of which served as the only anchor capable of keeping her tethered to the land of the living. She was just a farmer's daughter who lived on the outskirts of the village. She had little knowledge of the world outside because she lived in blissful ignorance. So when the strangers came, she did not know just how much to fear them. How could she know? She was only fifteen and all of those fifteen years she'd spent sheltered by her mother and father. It was by a chance that she was even in town that night…
"Hurry up! We're going to be late!" Velry could almost see the impatience as an aura around her little sister. She chuckled, knowing that Sarry was more excited than anyone else in the house, even though it wasn't her own ceremony they were going to.
"If I didn't know any better, Little Sister, I would say that you're in some sort of rush to see me married off." Velry took the last hair pin from the table and fastened it very carefully, and perhaps a little too slowly just for spite. "If you want me to go, you have to learn to be patient. Come now, try it. Breathe in… and now breathe out." A sideways glance from her seat revealed that Sarry found no amusement. In fact, with a characteristic huff, the younger girl turned in a dramatic swirl of tattered skirts and exited the one room house they lived in as if it were a grand ballroom, and she the center of attention. Just as well, though, since this golden moment of solitude was probably the last she was going to get.
After all, tonight was the celebration of Starfall. Just like last year, and ten years before that, and a hundred years before that, the goddess Naiona unpins the stars from the black blanket overhead and lets them fall to the ground. She'd never been to one of the celebrations in the village before, but her father said that the villagers gather together because it was a beautiful reminder that the Goddesses and their Lords still watch over the mere mortals below. Of course, Velry thought that was all well in good, but he never could give a straight answer as to why the event evolved into an elaborate matchmaking and wedding event all rolled into one.
Given the circumstances, she figured she would have been more nervous, or maybe even terrified. But as she picked up the tarnished silver mirror, something that had been passed down through her mother's family, she saw a girl- no, she saw a young blonde woman with resigned expression and a tired smile.
The silence was broken when she heard a footstep on the hay strewn floor. "Are you ready, dear?" The young bride angled the mirror to see her mother standing in the doorway, as regal as ever with her thick silver hair pulled up into that intricate bun that only she knew how to do. As they made eye contact in the reflection, Velry knew it was time to go by her mother's raised and expectant eyebrow.
"Come now, you need to pray so we can be on our way."
"Mother," Velry said, rising from the chair, "I don't think the Goddesses and their Lords care whether or not I find a dashing young husband tonight." Walking to the windowsill, she paused as she decided how many of the small prayer candles she wanted. Hmm, we're running low on these. Mother will be in a panic if she runs out, she thought to herself as she grabbed three out of the dwindling pile.
"Darling, we are living in an age of peace and prosperity. The Goddesses and their Lords have nothing else to do but smile down on you for tonight's festivities. After all, this year, they're unpinning the stars just for you."
Velry laughed quietly at her mother's devotion. The heavens were not falling solely for her, of that she was sure, but she couldn't help but respect how much her mother actually believed it to be true. Shaking her head with a smile, she walked over to the wall where her family had painted deific images upon rough cut boards the size of her hand. If she hadn't grown up with the figures since birth, she wouldn't have any idea which was which. Artistic finesse was not something anyone in this household possessed. Holding the three candles in her hand, she bowed her head to each of the twelve crudely painted figures and said in a bored, yet well practiced manner, "I approach thee, Goddesses, most humbly and ask that you grant your Lord Consorts permission to hear my prayers as well."
From behind her shoulder, at an annoyingly close proximity, Velry heard, "You could act like you mean it." Velry rolled her eyes, much preferring the Goddesses to see her impudence than her mother.
At the base of each board, her father had attached pieces of metal and wire that formed makeshift candle holders. After years of use, the wire was nearly invisible through all the layers of melted wax, though some had more buildup than others. She considered the images carefully, and after a small deliberation, decided to place candles upon the plaques of Goddesses Zelah and Erelel, as well as the Lord Gilmithrie. Velry figured, from her perspective, beseeching the deity of love and fertility, as well as the Goddess of Protection couldn't hurt, and for added measure, the Lord of Fortune. Her mother seemed pleased as well, judging by the rare silence in matters of religion.
The silence soon fled as her mother cleared her throat in a somewhat impatient manner. She felt a small, but strong hand on her shoulder and Velry knew that there was no more stalling. Her mother guided her out of the house and into the dusky autumn light. Outside, she saw her father, already leaning on his hand carved walking stick, and Sarry sitting upon an old stump with elbows on knees as if she'd been waiting for hours. This was it. They would walk into town soon and the festivities would begin. Every eligible maiden and every eligible young man would be there, and as tradition dictated, they would be wed under the falling stars, in the eyes of the Goddesses and family.
"You didn't!" Velry laughed, doubled over at the thought of Old Man Jenkins resting cozy in a fresh pile of horse dung.
Mathias grinned and nodded, placing a gentle arm around her waist to support her. "I kid you not, I really did. He told me to let go of the rope, so I did and he went flying backwards, right into horse shit. The man hasn't said a word to me since."
"I- I can't believe that," she said, raising up, a single tear coming from her eye as she gasped for air. She looked at him, and while he grinned wildly, she could tell he was serious. He appeared too proud to be making it all up. She wiped her cheek and his smile seemed to soften as he looked at her, his mirth fading into something else Velry couldn't quite recognize. They'd been having a wonderful time, more fun than she'd actually expected to have. The moment she got there with her family, Mathias came up out of nowhere and looped his arm around hers and whisked her away from her father. She was more than shocked and a little bit scared. Velry looked behind and was confused by her mother's smile and Sarry's look of disbelief, the look she wore most often when things never went her way.
Gazing into his brown eyes now, she wasn't sure what the older boy was staring at. "I'm sorry, is there something on me?" She said, self-consciously wiping away a stray hair.
"Oh, just a little starlight, that's all." He slowly grabbed her hand and after a moment's pause, he led her away from the secluded spot they'd found and into the bigger crowd. She followed him easily, curious as to where they were going. Trusting him to lead her, she looked up into the sky and saw more than a hundred stars painting crosshatch lines across the night. She couldn't help but smile. She'd always seen the god-sent spectacle from the comfort of the farm house, but never at the actual Starfall celebration. Velry was sure there were as many lit prayer candles as there were falling stars placed around the village square tonight. They were attached to any and every surface that could be found, though they were more heavily concentrated on the raised platform the carpenter had made for the occasion. Looking down, Velry noticed that Mathias was leading her to that platform, the Altar of Starfall. She stopped altogether, forcing her partner to look back in confusion.
"That's- that is the altar, Mathias. Come on, let's go find my sister. I'm sure she'll love to hear that story about Old Man Jenkins." She turned to go back, but his hand held tightly to hers and even though she tugged insistently, he wouldn't budge.
"Velry, tonight is Starfall," he said softly, pausing until Velry turned around to look at him. "I've come to this celebration three times, and no matter how much my father tried to force me, I refused to talk to anyone here before tonight. You want to know why?"
She did not meet his gaze, but instead, looked at the mole at the base of his neck. "Why," she said, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was going.
"Because the last three years, you weren't here," he said, lifting her chin to meet his gaze.
Velry tried to hide her smile, looking away so he couldn't see her blush. "You've never met me before tonight, Mathias." And it was true. She'd spent so much time on the farm that she could probably count on her hands the number of trips she'd made to the village proper.
"Exactly. I've spent my whole life here, day in and day out, and I see all these girls day in and day out. But you, you're new to me. And you're funny, and beautiful. Velry, will you come with me to the Altar of Starfall and be bonded with me? With the stars as our witness and the world as our stage, will you become my mate?"
Velry stared, partially dumbfounded and partially inept at forming any sort of coherent language. Where were the Goddesses when I asked for a pet griffon? Damn them for answering now, she thought, painfully aware of her slack jawed expression. As she tried to make her mouth cooperate, she saw Mathias spin around quickly, scanning the crowd around them. What was he looking for? He didn't even notice as she was nearly knocked to the ground when an older woman shoved her way through the crowd, mouthing something, but Velry was too dazed to really hear anything.
Suddenly she was moving. Mathias had become to move, dragging her quickly away from the altar. "What's going on," she asked, though from leaving her mouth stupidly hang open for so long, it felt like she'd stuffed cotton in there. He didn't seem to hear her, though. He was dragging her pretty quickly, and she saw that the crowd was moving with them. Her senses were starting to return after he'd so rudely swept her off her feet. With each step, she was becoming more and more aware of her surroundings and then, she finally heard the screech. She heard the ear splitting shriek that was ringing through the air, the sound that was capable of drowning out the panicked screams of the villagers. How had she not heard it earlier?
Quickly looking around, she tried to find the source, but all she could see were the backs of heads or frightened faces. Where was her family at? Were they safe? Were any of them safe? Erelel, protect us, she silently prayed, hoping that this prayer would also be heard. Looking ahead, the crowd was beginning to thin out as they scattered into different nearby buildings. Velry heard a fierce cackling take up harmony with the appalling scream and the villagers took to matching their own cries with the mysterious and horrific symphony.
While it seemed like ten lifetimes had passed, they had actually reached the Temple of Lords within a matter of moments, the nearest building to them. A middle aged woman stood at the door waving people in, her face grim and determined. When Mathias and Velry entered the building, she could tell it was near capacity. They couldn't hold many more, and Velry could tell the woman was painfully aware of this. Thanks to some unknown power though, the people stopped coming in, having found refuge in other buildings. The woman, seeing this as well, closed the door and placed a chair under the knob to prevent entry.
"Back away from the windows," came a shout from behind. Old Man Jenkins, eyes wide as a frightened mule, waved everyone towards the center of the room. Already being in the center, she and Mathias were quickly compacted until Velry, already of short stature, felt like a child trapped in a sea of bodies. She needed to get out of the center, needed to get fresh air because the lack of space was suffocating her. She jerked her hand out of Mathias's and weaved and shoved her way out until she was face to face with one of the windows of the village temple.
The small moment of victory was short lived when she saw the carnage outside. Many of the prayer candles had gone out from the rushing crowd, but enough were still sparkling in the darkness to reveal five or six bodies scattering the lawn and surrounding paths. Bile rose up in her throat as she saw her neighbors laying there, some of them still alive and screaming to the heavens in agony. There was so much blood. Candlelight glistened off the seeping pools, pouring from injuries that Velry could not see. She felt two strong hands grab her shoulders. Velry supposed it was supposed to be a comforting gesture, but they were shaking too much to provide any sort of comfort. She turned around to see Mathias looking out the same window, rage and anger churning like a trapped storm.
"Who would do this," he spat, staring out into the darkness. Velry imagined he was daring the perpetrators to show themselves. As if answering the call, a dark hood flashed by the window and disappeared from her sight as it circled the building. She could hear whoever it was cackling as they moved with unnatural speed. The villagers in the building screamed as they saw the man go by, all of them grouping as closely as they could in the center of the room. Velry stayed where she was, too dumbfounded to move and not keen on getting killed by suffocation.
She heard several shouted words, a few screams, all saying something about the "Blood Court". One voice rang out familiar and she saw her father on the other side of the room shouting at another man. He was on edge, and Velry saw that he was just as scared as the rest of them.
"Father!" She grabbed Mathias and ran to him, nearly knocking him down with the fierceness of her worried embrace. "What's going on!" Now that she was locked around him, she could feel his ragged breaths. She pulled back and looked at his face and was shocked by the tears in his eyes.
"Thank the falling stars you're alive," he said, pulling her back into her arms, squeezing her tightly. "I couldn't find you, and- and after seeing her, I thought you were gone too!" He choked and sniffled, shaking as he held her. She had never seen her father in such a state. He was always a strong man, the one she had always used for strength. He was a fighter, a brave man. She was scared to see him like this.
"Father, listen to me," she said prying herself out of his arms. She stared him down, holding his gaze with iron stare. "What did you mean, after seeing her?"
"The Blood Court got her, Velry. They- They took my baby girl." He raised a trembling hand and motioned towards the window. Both Velry and Mathias ran towards it, anxious and terrified to see what was out there. From this side of the building, she could see even more bodies. Right out outside, she saw a small pile of tattered skirts soaked with blood, blonde hair turning red as she lay face down in the crimson grass.
"No!" she sobbed, falling to the floor as if she never even knew how to stand. Mathias sank to the floor with her, not out of his own grief, but to comfort her in any way he could. He went to put his arms around her, but Velry struck out at him with irrational fury. She hit his arms, smacked his hands away and screamed, finally joining the chorus the villagers had begun a long time ago. Mathias sat there on the balls of his feet, not moving as he took the full force of her beating, watching helplessly as Velry fell apart. After a few seconds, she expended all the energy she had and she sat there, leaned against the rough wooden walls of the temple, and cried. Her father slowly slumped to the floor and leaned his head against hers, both of them seeing nothing through their rivulets of tears.
From outside, at the front door from the sound of it, a voice shrieked out in the night. "Hello, Deems. It's been a long time, has it not?" He cackled and the villagers instantly quieted with fear. Velry looked at the door, her eyes wide as if she'd never seen a thing like it.
"We are tired. We've come a long way, and all we want is to take one of you with us. We'll kill you all if we have to. You see your friends and neighbors out here? That's proof enough for you." Wails erupted across the room, but the door shook as if the intruder had just kicked it to silence them all. It worked. "You've been kind enough to corral yourselves into these buildings like livestock. It makes our jobs easier should we decide you're being uncooperative. There are so many of these pretty candles outside. We can just light the building on fire and watch all of you burn."
Mathias stood up and walked to the door, rage building. His nostrils flared and he put his face right up against the crack in the door and with all the anger he had, screamed, "I hope Saryle takes your rotten ass to the farthest plane of death she can find, you piece of shit bastard!" Velry thought the door would buckle when he pulled back and punched it with such raw force, but it held fast and Mathias just smacked it again in anger with his open palm.
Velry staggered to her feet, and pushed her way through the villagers that were pacing around in panic. Just as Mathias was about to hit the door again, she grabbed his hand and he looked around at her. His eyes were red from holding back tears. He was scared too, but a different kind. "Mathias, don't," she said, not wanting any more bloodshed tonight.
"Listen to your little lady friend, boy. You don't want something bad to happen to her because of your impertinence." It was a new voice this time, a dark and heavy tone. Now we know there's at least two of them. How many more are there?"
The older boy backed away from the door, scanning the edges as if there were some answer there, some hidden weakness. He took another step back, and then turned to face the crowd. "Are you cowards just going to stand there? Where are your wives? Your children? Your husbands? Are they safe in one of those other buildings, or are they lying dead out there at the hands of these monsters?" The crying renewed in areas of the crowd, but for the most part, Mathias held their attention. From Velry's place still beside the door, she heard a quiet chuckle, then silence.
"We are not toys for them! Tonight is Starfall. The goddesses and their lords are with us tonight! I say we fight them because we have the numbers, we have the conviction, and we have the grief to power us through the fight." A couple of the menfolk nodded. Velry heard a few people agreeing, but only silence outside. Were they at the door listening?
Mathias pushed his way through the crowd, which had loosened to the sides of the room now, and went to the opposite side of the Temple of Lords. Images of the six lords hung on the wall in frames and Mathias grabbed the portrait of Ignon, Lord of Misfortune, and Aros, Lord of Strength and War. He held both images high above his head and scanned the crowd. "Let us fight! With the strength of Aros, let us rain disasters down upon their damned heads that Ignon would be proud of! Who's with me?" Mathias threw the frame onto the ground, breaking it apart. Many in the crowd gasped at such a blasphemous act, but they cheered when Mathias bent down and grabbed a broken piece of the wood frame, holding it high above his head as if it were a mighty weapon.
Four others stepped forward and did the same, smashing the frames of Gahdur, Lord of the Lost, Jopha, Lord of Beasts, and Kachbalth, Lord of Travel. Velry winced every time one was slammed down the ground, and watched as Mathias and the others went to stand bravely at the door with their holy weapons of broken frames.
"Mathias, don't do this," she whispered to him as she went to stand in front of the door. "Please, they'll kill you."
His face softened when he looked at her, and he ran a finger across her cheek. "Velry, you never did give me an answer." She furrowed her brow, lost as to what he was meaning. "Will you be my bride?"
Tears sprang anew and she nodded her head fervently. "Of course, but I can't do that if you go and get yourself killed out there."
Mathias grabbed her hand and led her away from the other fighters. "I'll hold you to that promise, then." He bent down and kissed her forehead, lingering there as he held her in a soft embrace. "I'll be back," he said and then turned and sprinted towards the door. He kicked away the chair that held it closed and screamed, "Deems will not fall tonight!" With a fearsome battle cry, he and the other ragtag warriors marched through the door before Velry, or anyone else, could stop them.
There was a small porch attached to the temple, with steps leading to the dirt path that circled around the main portion of the village. The warriors ran off the steps, but paused when they could not see their foe. During Mathias's powerful speech, the Blood Court, whoever they were, had extinguished all the prayer candles. The stars were no longer falling, leaving nothing but the few stranglers for illumination, the new moon was little use tonight.
"Come out and show yourselves!" The other warriors looked nervously around, and as Velry stood in the open doorway, watching them from the light spilling from the temple, she saw their bravado fading. They looked nervously around, rocking back and forth on their feet as if they were ready to run at any moment. Velry's father came up beside her, watching with a firm hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Are you scared now that we've got you outnumbered?" Mathias laughed, holding his wood shard high in the air. His triumphant demeanor vanished as screams erupted from one of the other buildings. Through the windows of the meeting hall, the biggest building in the village, Velry could see an orange glow from inside. The screams continued, and Velry watched in horror as windows started breaking as people starting climbing out. Something was keeping the door closed apparently, and tears sprang up as black smoke started pouring out faster than the people could. The growing flames lit up the grounds with a horrific glow, and she could see three hooded figures in long black cloaks standing on the altar. Mathias's men stumbled and fell over themselves as they ran back into the temple. Velry had to jump out of the way as the men shoved past as quickly as they could.
The boy turned to see the leave and yelled, "What are you doing? We need to fight! And you, the rest of you! We need to put those flames out!" No one in the temple moved. He dropped his arms, disbelief evident on his face.
One of the figures on the altar descended from the platform and walked slowly toward the temple. Velry pointed and yelled, and Mathias jerked around to see the stranger approaching. "Are you our volunteer boy?" It said once it was close enough. "We only want one of you to come with us." The thing cackled. Velry understood why. It could just take someone and be done with this. The monsters could steal someone away and avoid the dramatics. But no, they wanted a show. They enjoyed seeing the pain and horror. Velry understood that now. They were playing a game. A sick, horrific, and messed up game.
Mathias stood tall as he looked at the robed visitor. It was close enough now that Mathias could spit at its feet, and he dead. "I'd sooner die than volunteer." He looked over the meeting hall, now fully ablaze. The smell of burning flesh was starting waft. "No," he said, still looking at the flames. "You can kill me now because I will never cooperate." The two still on the platform laughed, and Velry screamed as she saw a clawed hand shoot out of the robe with speed and grab Mathias by the neck. The boy was hefted into the air as if he weighed nothing more than baby, and his feet kicked wildly in the air.
She was moving. Jerking away from her father, Velry jumped out onto the porch and as if she was possessed by an unknown spark of courage, she looked directly into the dark hood of the creature, she knew now to not be human. "I will be your volunteer." That was it; that was the key to making this all stop. They just wanted a volunteer from their captive audience. She heard a struggle behind her and assumed her father was trying to pull her back in. By the sound of it, the other villagers were holding him back.
The creature dropped Mathias to the ground and he held his neck, struggling to breathe, but alive. Velry took another step forward, fueled more by adrenaline than common sense. "Stop this madness and leave everyone alone," she said. She looked over to glance at Sarry's lifeless body and felt a bold anger spread out to every inch of her body. "No more deaths, no more dramatics. You take me, and you leave everyone here alone."
"Come to me, Child." The creature forgetting Mathias altogether, walk closer and Velry obeyed, coming to meet her in the center. She stared into the darkness of the hood. She could almost see a face, but she could certainly smell the stench of decay coming from his breath.
"Velry, no," Mathias said, staggering to his feet. He still held his throat and she could see that blood was trickling from underneath his hand. A small cut from the creature's talon, Velry was sure, or else he wouldn't be speaking so plainly. He tried to stumble towards her, but the creature threw out its arm and knocked him to the ground again.
"Oh, you are fun, Little One," it said, laughing. "Scrawny, but entertaining."
"Will you leave this village?"
"Mmm, yesss," he hissed. It raised a hand and stroked Velry's cheek, and she knew that she could trust this creature. She nodded as it pointed to the altar. Yes, everything was going to be fine. She turned around and smiled at her father, still being restrained at the door. She scanned the village and saw the other building that villagers had fled to, the House of the Goddesses. She saw her mother standing there, gripping a picture of Erelel in her hands and crying. At least she was okay. But why wouldn't she be? Velry smiled, a calmness washing over her. Everything was going to be fine. She climbed the altar and of the strangers that had been on the platform the entire time, raked his claws through her hair, pulling all the pins out she'd spent so much time working on earlier.
"She'll do," it said. This was the raspy voiced one. With a quick strike, he grabbed both of her wrists, suddenly jerking her out of the sudden daze she'd fallen into. She had no idea what that was, but fear came back to her and she realized she was probably about to die. She struggled and flailed, but she could not escape from his iron grip.
"Come, child," the second demon whispered as it came to her, tracing a claw up her stomach, slicing open the green velvet of the dress she wore. "We have much traveling to do." Velry fought wildly, trying to get away from the thing that whispered in her ear, but she could not. A fierce, ripping pain tore through her abdomen as if claws had just raked away her flesh and she screamed. The pain was unbearable and as the scream left her mouth, so did her consciousness. The hazy lull was returning, easing the pain. She welcomed it and faded into black.
Author's Note: Hello and welcome to my lovely little novel. For those of you who are new, I hope you enjoy it. For returners, note that I"ve rearranged and broken down some chapters. So if some numbering is off, that's why.