A Halloween Season Treat (or Maybe a Trick?): Tales of Aerth: Night in the Garden

Themosne's heart fluttered as she tripped down the overgrown garden's path, her sandals catching on unsettled cobblestones that hid beneath the moon-shadowed heaps of fallen leaves.

She'd been warned not to go into the garden at night. The path alone is treacherous in the dark, the adults had warned her, and to stray from it would be unthinkably more dangerous.

But she had fallen asleep and woken in the garden after sunset. She now found herself, heedless of these warnings, moving down the uneven stone path, farther into the garden, toward the hollow that lay at its heart. Something there called to her, compelled her to delve ever more deeply in spite of the fear she'd been conditioned to feel for the place.

Thick, briar-choked woods encroached on the ancient path. Despite having lost much of their foliage, the branches of the trees formed a thick canopy above. It blotted out all but the most determined of the moon's rays. Here and there, a shaft of wan yellow light shone through and hinted at the contours of the sloping, snaking garden path. Themosne stumbled from one small puddle of light to the next. Her heart began to race as she drew closer to the deepest point of the hollow.

Ahead, the way suddenly opened and the canopy receded to allow the moonlight to settle into a pool at the bottom of the hollow. Themosne cautiously but excitedly stepped into the clearing and looked around. Seven other narrow paths climbed away from the central point, back into the darkness. These uneven cobblestone lanes spilled into a courtyard of tightly knit flagstones, like rocky streams tumbling into a placid gray lake. At the center of this flagstone lake rose an island of white marble - a raised platform upon which sat eight, semicircular marble benches.

In the pale light of the autumn moon, the whole thing could have been made of bone.

Carefully, but feeling an unexpected sense of anitcipation, Themosne crept across the cold stones toward the bone-like dais. Her heart felt as if it would beat out of her chest. As she drew closer, she realized that it was higher than she'd expected, so she quickly began to move around it to find a way to the top. On the far side, she found a staircase carved out of the marble, winding up its side. She cautiously, expectantly, made her way to its top.

A woman sat there, on one of the benches. Themosne hadn't seen her from the courtyard below - she assumed it must have been a trick of the light. The woman was sitting with her back to the girl, facing toward the inside of the broken circle created by the benches. A recessed fire pit lay at the circle's center, and the woman appeared to be warming her hands over its darkened, long-dead coals. The woman's black-and-gray hair fell to the bottom of her back and was held together by a single, faded, blue ribbon tied into a simple bow. Instantly, Themosne was reminded of her own mother. But her mother's hair was raven black, and the ribbon in it was of the brightest blue, bright like the sparkling sea on a summer's day.

"Mother?" Themosne whispered, though she knew it could not be. The gods had willed that her mother be taken from her many seasons ago. It seemed to the young girl as if a lifetime had passed since she'd last seen her.

The woman turned. Her face was sallow, her skin wrinkled and aged. Her eyes were sunken and their color faded. Regardless, Themosne recognized in those changed features her mother's loving expression.

"My beautiful girl," the old woman said as she rose from the bench. Her movements were stiff and unsteady as she reached out for Themosne.

"Mother, you've come back!" Themosne cried as she rushed into the woman's waiting arms. She felt thin and frail beneath her simple white dress. Themosne could feel her bones and hear her breath rattle within her as she laid her head on her chest. The cold embrace was nothing like the warm, full ones Themosne remembered. But it filled her with indescribable joy, just the same. "I've missed you, mother!"

"And I, you, sweet daughter," her mother said, her voice cracking and hollow. "I'm sorry it's been so long. I've been trying to reach you but the gods have seen fit to keep us apart."

Themosne stood with her arms wrapped around her mother's waist, as she had done so often, so many seasons ago. With her eyes tightly closed, she could almost feel the warm summer sun on their skin, the salty sea air kissing their cheeks. She was almost able to forget the pale, shadow-cloaked garden that now surrounded them.

"I don't care," Themosne said, "We're together again, and that's all that matters."

She stepped back from her mother, beaming with joy. Her gaze fell to her mother's white dress. The front of it was stained with a broad splash of wet scarlet that glistened in the weak moonlight. Her smile faltered and faded as she saw her mother's hands, drenched in the same. From her right hand, a thin-bladed dagger dripped blood into a spatter on the bone-like marble. It formed a trail behind her toward the dead fire pit. Themosne's eyes involuntarily followed the bloody path to its source. In the marble bowl at the center of the dais - and at the very center of the hollow itself - lay a small figure, its soft, pink flesh spilling warm blood into the basin.

Themosne looked at her mother in horror.

"Mother! What have you done?"

Her mother looked down at her blood-soaked hands, then back at the girl. She dropped the knife and reached for her.

"I did what I had to, Thea," she said, "So we could be together! A life for a life!"

Themosne looked around the garden - the Garden of the Ancestors - suddenly overcome with a desire to flee into the darkness. Dark gray slabs jutted up amidst the undergrowth, monuments placed there in remembrance of the dead interred beneath them. She suddenly realized that she didn't know the way out of the garden. She couldn't remember entering it, or creeping off the path and falling asleep in the briars where she'd awoken. Nor could she remember waking and walking to the path - but she had a vague sense of a struggle, of forcing her way out of choking blackness.

She backed away from the old woman, her heels hanging over the edge of the dais.

The look in her mother's eyes frightened her. Not because she'd never seen it before, but because she had - once. It was a look of utter desperation. She recalled her mother looking down upon her with that same expression, cradling her in her arms. She recalled tears streaking down her mother's cheeks and falling into Themosne's eyes. She recalled her own desperate panic at that moment, as she fought to draw a breath.

She recalled the moment that she died in her mother's arms, as the gods laid over her eyes the veil that would separate them for a lifetime.

In dawning horror, Themosne looked down at herself. A rotted shift, smeared with grave dirt and torn from the briars, hung awkwardly over her emaciated, mummified flesh. Her fingers were little more than bare bone, covered in clumped, black dirt and draped with sheaves of torn, dead skin. She raised those fingers in an effort to feel her own face, and though there was no sensation in them, she could tell that they moved over uneven dead flesh and exposed bone. And when they should have covered her eyes, which she somehow knew to be only empty sockets, she could still see clearly through them, as if they weren't there at all.

She began to tremble with terror.

"After all of these years, all of my prayers and sacrifices, the gods have finally returned you to me," her mother said as she moved forward, arms still outstretched.

Mortified, Themosne recoiled. Her foot slipped off the edge of the platform and she teetered there for the span of a heartbeat. Her mother's expression became one of horror as she rushed forward and tried to grab the girl, but instead helplessly watched her fall to the stones below. She landed head first with a "crack!" that echoed through the clearing.

A woman's wail filled the darkening sky above Themosne as the gods once again draped a veil over her eyes. This time, it would last not for a lifetime, but for an eternity.