By Das Stavrou
Tears crept down Aelfie’s face. All she could do was hold her friend, Juth, tightly to her chest. The wind blew, softly, and the only sound other than that of his choking and gargling, was the grass, whooshing with every breeze.
It was not the Lismer’s fault they had entered its lair. A creature so closely associated with the Goddess Lihanthe would invariably seek to protect itself. Soon his body would become a sack of fluid, food for the Lismer, an after effect of her poisonous bite.
She was torn by love for her friend and an obsession with Lihanthe. In the time she had worshipped the goddess, she had never known anything but devotion. Now she couldn’t help but feel betrayed. And yet feel guilt for questioning the goddess. Her feelings were jumbled.
She gazed down at Juth. White fluid poured from his mouth and he stared up helplessly, speechless. He had fallen into one of the Lismer’s invisible webs. They had no idea that the creature was capable of spinning them. She was upon him in a matter of seconds from nowhere and delivered a venomous bite that punctured his left shoulder. Just as quickly, she crawled into one of the many holes that lined the walls of the cave. Aelfie had thrown a small explosive concoction of Vas powder and tree sap into the cave. It was mostly harmless but left an odour that the creature detested. It gave her just enough time to drag him out of the cave as quickly as she could.
Aelfie looked around. Nothing. Just the two of them, the looming trees and the mouth of the cave. Juth moved his hand, though it was twitching fiercely, and placed it on her sickle, which sat on her belt. She looked him in the eyes. His sorry face buckled and boiled under the pressure of the poison. She understood.
How it came to this she could not understand. She had performed the rituals before they left. Chanted to Lihanthe and sacrificed a small predatory Buja from the wilds. She had killed two birds with one stone as the flightless Buja had been preying on the local livestock. She poisoned it, letting the poison spread entropy through its veins in the proper manner, just as Juth was now suffering. Lihanthe’s way. Entropy. All she had asked for was protection.
The cave webs were what they sought. Lismer web was blessed by Lihanthe, at least according to the scholars. They did not know why, but once melted down it had healing and protective properties. Aelfie would be rewarded if they found out more about it.
The goddess had not listened, despite Aelfie’s devotion. Perhaps Lihanthe protected her Lismer children more than the people who worshipped her, as small as her cult was.
She wiped her tears and reached for her sickle. It made a faint hum as she activated it, and a beautiful, thin, red beam curved from the tip. It was no bigger than a knife but she preferred it for herb gathering and preparation. Not so much killing her best friend.
The priests exposed her to death and loss while she was very young. Her relationship with it was quite advanced. She forged connections with older members of the cult only to see them be horrifically mutilated by the Criath during the trial of adulthood. The trial was a simple test to see if you were spared whilst crossing a web. The Criath had fascinated her as a child. It was nothing more than a simple Lismer that lived in the catacombs under the temple which had been blessed by the priests. She had been fortunate enough to be looked on favourably by the goddess and the Lismer did not wake when she crossed the web during her trial. The younger Aelfie believed what she was told, that the Criath helped the unworthy be recycled into a higher form. Maybe it just fed on them and was a stupid creature.
She looked away and dragged the beam across his neck. Blood sprayed out onto his chest. She held him tight.
“I’m so sorry, I love you so much Juth”. She wanted him to hear love before he passed.
“One more for the great web, one more rebirth”, she muttered.
She waited until he stopped moving before she released her hold, and her love. She kissed his head. His blood stained her arms. She was clad in the traditional black garments worn by a priestess of Lihanthe. As such it was considered a great honour to stain the robes in the blood of the recently deceased, to prove dedication to the entropic cycle.
She sat upright, and let his body gently lay on the ground. Still it was just the two of them. She gazed at the mouth of the cave once more. The web covering his legs would not be enough. It was also a different consistency to the usual Lismer webbing.
The goddess cared nothing for Juth. She visualised the tenets again. Devotion, Sacrifice, Pain and Suffering. This is what it meant to be close to Lihanthe. The dichotomy was excruciating. She would perform a proper mourning ritual for him as soon as she could. Juth was an outsider but he had accepted her for who she was, a welcome relief to the usual shunning by normal people.
She took a second glance at the webs covering his legs. Something felt wrong. She reached over and touched them, ran them through her fingers. She had felt Lismer webbing before and this was different. It disintegrated rapidly and was difficult to see. The only time she had seen it before was when she learned from Marha, her teacher. It should have been thick and gloopy, not transparent and wispy.
Despair gave way to curiosity. There was nothing that could be done for Juth. She didn’t want to dishonour him and leave. She didn’t want to fall prey to the Lismer either but if she left with no webbing his death would be for naught. The priests always told her the greatest honour to Lihanthe was to give your body to the Lismer as they served the cycle. She had disagreed, but privately. Her drive of self preservation was strong. She wondered what the goddess thought about that.
The smoke bomb.
Her thoughts strayed to the cave situation. Theoretically the concoction she threw into the cave should last for a while. The problem was that Lismers were frightened of both the blast and the smoke, not just the smell. She could go back and make more bombs but that required time, a few ingredients and ran the risk of someone else harvesting the cave, assuming they could escape the wrath of an angry Lismer. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small vial of Perenal, a potion to focus the mind. She always carried it in case she needed extra awareness. It was the first thing she had learned to brew under the herbalists guidance. The recipe wasn’t difficult but the measures needed to be precise. Too much Sege, a simple herb, and it became rot. Too much fruit and the Sege wouldn’t work, becoming simple juice instead. She had no problem with precision however.
She pulled back her bloody sleeve and placed the tip of the vial to her skin. She activated it and felt the needle pass through her skin. The vial administered a dose of the Perenal. In a few seconds the sensory improvement washed over her. She could hear the bugs in the grass and smell the concoction she threw in the cave, even out here. She could sense the Lismer too, which waited and preened itself.
She stood up and walked over to the cave. The moment she heard the Lismer move she would retreat. As sharp as her mind was however, she could not detect the webs, other than the thicker ones she wanted which were already lining the cave. It would have to be the smoke that protected her. There were thicker webs that lined the front walls. She would not have to move much to reach and harvest them.
She walked, very slowly, through the mouth of the cave. The smell of tree sap and Vas was strong but fortunately it smelled pleasant to Humin beings. She looked up and scanned the wet, musty lining of the cave walls. The light from the mouth of the cave, coupled with her heightened sensory perception was enough to see. The Lismer was still in the same hole it had crawled into. She could hear its heart beat. It had a fast rhythmic pulse and an excitable energy. This was at odds with the temple teachings, painting the Lismer as cold blooded, ruthless killers with slow, steady hearts.
She moved very slowly and kneeled down. Taking out her sickle, she activated it and passed it through the web lining the wall closest to her. She took off her leathery Bujaskin sack from her back and began to store the web. The Bujaskin would ensure the nutrients did not deteriorate. She was careful only to extract from the wall lining as the web there would have lost most of its adhesive property some time ago. The older the web, the more she could smell it. It was an odd, dusty smell. This allowed her to identify where it was safe to cut.
She procured enough web to fill the Bujaskin. She slowly closed the sack and placed it firmly around her, so it strapped onto her back. She looked up again and scanned for the Lismer. It was not in its hole. She froze enough to feel her own heart race. She had been distracted by the extraction process and failed to keep an eye on it.
She turned to run. The mouth of the cave was a few feet away and she could escape in a few seconds. She heard thumping from above her, which was the sound of the Lismers feet bouncing off the walls as it ran. Her creeping fear had now given way to panic. She looked up just in time to see a shadow envelope her. She was pushed to the ground. The Lismer towered over her.
Her breathing escalated to the point where she was gulping as much air as she could. Involuntarily, she jerked and shuddered. The Lismers body enveloped her and its head was nothing but a foot away from hers. She heard herself screaming and had lost control. She had lost so much control, in fact, that her mind began to separate itself from the event. Here she was, about to become a meal for one her goddess’s children. She noticed her body spasm under the weight of fear. The goddess was cruel. What a waste of time all these years. The Lismer did nothing however. It preened its fangs and stared at her. Crimson brown all over, chitinous skin shimmering with every movement. Eight legs, all perfectly poised and contributing to exceptional balance. Many black eyes and needles for fangs. The same dusty smell she attributed to the web also emanated from its body.
Her mind had fully detatched, something she did a lot as a child when presented with something frightening. She accepted that she would die here, having achieved nothing and was betrayed by the goddess. Only the Lismer hadn’t struck yet. She then realised the Lismer should have struck her when it leapt on her, as it did with Juth. Everything she had been taught about them centred on their unflinching predatory instincts. So why did this one hesitate?
It glared at her. The creatures heart had slowed to a balanced rhythm. Cold and relentless. She felt herself stop screaming, though her breath remained quickened. This wasn’t hesitation at all. Hesitation was based on second guessing. The creature had simply stopped.
It then began to move, slowly. It had stopped marauding over her and backed away. The eyes were still fixated on her, as if it wanted to kill her but couldn’t.
She sat up slowly, staring in disbelief at the Lismer, which was still, save for the odd twitch of a leg and cocking of its head. Her breathing slowed a little. Looking at it now, during this bizarre armistice, she found it to be quite beautiful.
You must believe.
She remembered what the priests had told her before her trial, all those years ago. Belief in the goddess would be what stopped the Criath from eating her once she passed through its web. She didn’t believe it and thought she’d be just another meal. It appeared as though history had repeated itself. She grabbed the sack and scurried out of the cave before the Lismer got any other ideas.
The corpse of Juth lay outside in stillness, a contrast to the rapid liquefication taking place inside the body. Truth dawned on her and she realised the goddess had listened to her rituals, twice now in the course of her life. She ran into the forest, and decided she would meditate later, to process the fear and loss she had experienced. She would also have to perform an entropy ritual to Lihanthe, to apologise for doubting her love. To learn her secrets was an ordeal, for sure.