Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Rachel and Bobby loved hiking. They were so good they had thought about opening a guide business. The pair didn’t end up jumping into the deep end of that pool to keep from turning their hobby into work. It seemed like nailing themselves to a wall. They didn’t want to be pinned in, and Rachel made enough money for both of them. She had an outstanding job working in a chemical lab in Virginia. The job came with perks too. The couple could essentially take off for a vacation or a hiking trip whenever they wanted, especially since Bobby worked from home as a handyman.
Bobby liked to think of himself as Rachel’s trophy husband and arm candy whenever they were in public together. The pair weren’t the fittest of their circle of friends, but they were the most adventurous. So, when Rachel read about some hiking trails around Mount Parnassus in Greece, Bobby got excited and they both got tickets.
Two days, two planes, two busses, and a rental car ride later, Rachel and Bobby stared up at their little bed-and-breakfast just outside Livadeia, Greece. The pair was thankful they had made it, especially since they had listened to the same four CDs looped for hours on end. Rachel made a mental note to pack more next time. It had almost gotten to where Bobby was ready to chuck the whole CD player out the bus’s window out of sheer monotony.
The small house in front of them looked out over a massive view of open sky facing away from Mount Parnassus’ foothills. The mountain loomed large and inviting behind it The house was nice, but Parnassus was why they had come. Bobby hauled the luggage out of the car while Rachel went inside to introduce herself.
A few minutes later Rachel came back out smiling, and her shoes crunched on the gravel driveway. “We are all checked in, and I called the guide company from the phone line in the front office.”
“Great,” Bobby replied. “Now where am I going with these bags?”
Rachel plowed right on through with her train of thought, completely ignoring Bobby’s question. “Now, the guide company has maps at the trailhead and because we’re hiking by ourselves, we can get on the mountain as early as tomorrow.”
The couple hefted their bags up the small stone steps and inside with only minimal grumbling from Bobby. The next morning, they ate as healthy a breakfast as they could while giving them the best chance to have the fuel they needed to tackle some lower trails on the mountain. They needed to acclimate and cure their jet-lag. Bobby figured the best way to get it done was to exercise themselves into exhaustion. It worked, and two days later, they geared up to head up the mountain outright.
* * *
Rachel’s third day on Parnassus’ trails had turned out to be a real challenge. She had acclimated quickly during the first two days and went for a more difficult trek on day three. Bobby was sure-footed during the climb behind her, but was becoming winded quicker than usual. They stopped next to some trees on the bank of one of Delphi’s small tributaries. The river was said to have given Pythia, the original oracle, her power. Both Rachel and Bobby hoped it would refresh them enough to finish out this trail with light left. They wanted time to take pictures before they had to head back. However, just in case, Bobby always packed out a small pop-up tent and extra water.
Usually, a brief stop helped lift their spirits. It gave them a chance to catch their breath and admire the views, and the view here stretched on for miles. It was all trees, thick and waving in the breeze, and broken only by Delphi’s streams winding their way downward like the backs of a hundred giant snakes. This time, however, they couldn’t shake the feeling something was watching them. There had been no other hikers on the trail for the last two hours, and the sky was clear. Bobby caught himself and Rachel looking around into the bushes, but there was nothing there.
Rachel shook off a sudden shiver and moved down to the water’s edge. The water rushed past at a consistent pace, and it was cold on her hands. She dipped her water bottle into the stream, filling it back up. Bobby groaned behind her. He would be fine, but was in a bit of a foul mood after the stitching on one of his pack’s shoulder straps had torn.
He sat down and leaned his back against one of the thicker trees. Pulling out his quick repair kit, Bobby set to work with a small needle and some thread. It wouldn’t take him too long to fix the pack. He had done it many times before. Rachel brought him a refilled water bottle of his own.
“Here. Get hydrating,” she said. He grumbled some more, but set the needle down and took the offered bottle. A few seconds later, he returned the water and looked around for his needle. Bobby didn’t see where he put it in the grass until its point forced itself an inch into the palm of his hand.
He cried out in sudden pain and pulled the thin metal out of his hand with a grimace. It was just bad luck, but bad luck has doomed more people in history than it had any right to. As the needle left Bobby’s palm, the tiniest bead of blood welled up. He walked over to the stream and dipped his hand in, hoping the cold water would both clean the pinprick, and get rid of the small sting. It didn’t do either.
Instead, a wave of power released from the spot where the blood touched the water. The wave erupted, swelling outward in the span of a single heartbeat. There wasn’t a physical effect, but Rachel and Bobby each felt the wave pass through them like it thrummed against their souls, pulling them taut. Birds fled from the wave once it slowed on its outward press. A deep basso tone filled the sudden empty space as though responding to the wave’s pressure. The tone grew to an instant deafening pitch and then as if was never there it was gone, and with it, Rachel and Bobby froze in place between the tick and the tock of their watches.
Women slithered out of the bushes, quiet and ominous, each holding a delicate chain in one hand. One, taller than the rest, began ordering the others around in a thick Grecian accent. A small raft floated down to the water’s edge and the women laid Bobby and Rachel onto its planks. Then, as if they had never come, the women left, dematerializing back into the bushes heading down the hill.
* * *
The smell was sharp and metallic. Rachel blinked her eyes, trying to focus in the sudden darkness. One second she was standing by the bank of the Delphi in the middle of the day, and now she was somewhere else. Her eyes slowly became accustomed to the gloom until small pinpricks of candlelight appeared at the edges of her peripherals. She couldn’t move, but she was standing. Rachel realized her wrists were bound above her head in heavy manacles.
Looking around for Bobby, Rachel spotted figures moving around behind old stone pillars pock-marked with age. They were women singing quietly in haunting voices. Rachel twisted against her chains trying to look behind her, but the chains were too strong and pinned to a stone overhang with a twisted metal spike.
“Who are you?” She called. “Where’s my husband?” The singing continued unabated in raspy discordant notes. “Where’s Bobby?” Rachel asked, a frantic nausea twisting knots in her stomach.
The smell hit her stronger then, and she heard someone moving behind her. “The Sisterhood welcomes you,” said a woman’s voice. It was cold, alien, and familiar. There was no emotion in the voice. The voice’s owner stepped around Rachel and into her view.
“You?” Rachel asked. The woman was the owner of her and Bobby’s hotel. “What is going on?”
“We need not explain. You will understand soon,” the woman replied. She stepped further to stand in front of Rachel fully, and Rachel realized where the smell was coming from. A small gold censer dangled from one hand, swinging freely at the end of a chain. The smoke it emitted didn’t smell like incense.
Suddenly, Rachel heard the rattle of chains from behind her, and Bobby’s voice cried out. “Wh- What’s happening. Rachel, where are you?” She wanted more than anything to call out, to tell Bobby she was there, something, or anything at all… The smoke from the censer had rendered her mute and unable to move. She couldn’t even rattle her own chains to tell Bobby she heard him.
“The Sisterhood welcomes you in your time of greatest mourning,” The woman said, and swung her censer across the space between them. “The Sisterhood welcomes you and thanks you for your sacrifice,” she continued. The smoke would have made Rachel cough and choke if she could move, but even her lungs held her fast. “The Sisterhood welcomes you to venom and spite, loss and pestilence.”
“What are you doing with that?” Bobby called out just out of sight. “No. Get that away from me!” He called out louder and more frenetic. One of the other women, face hidden under a shroud, stepped up from between the pillars carrying a large, wide-mouthed ceramic pot. She walked forward and placed it down to Rachel’s right side. She could see inside it. There was water there, clear and still enough to make out the reflection of her horrified eyes and the silhouette of the chains holding Bobby behind her.
She heard a tearing sound, and Bobby’s cries cut off into gurgles. She heard the sound of weight falling against the chains behind her. If Rachel could have moved, screamed, or done anything she would have. A single tear fell down her cheek bearing witness to her sole reaction that overcame the ensorcelled smoke. The veiled woman stepped up to her, put one finger to her face, and drew the tear back, gingerly placing it in the water.
A third woman appeared then, holding her own ceramic pot. This one she poured out into the water. Thick, deep red blood streamed out of the ceramic in her hands and spun in swirls mixing with the water. The first woman reached down and cupped some of the mixture in her hands. She lifted it and brought it to Rachel’s paralyzed lips.
Horrified as she was, she was equally unable to stop it as the bloody water ran down her throat. Then, as if the magic wasn’t hanging in the smoke around them at all, she could move again. She could speak if she wanted too, but she didn’t know what she would say. Her world spun and fizzed. Someone removed her manacles, and Rachel turned to look at Bobby’s limp form, with a gash across his throat and blood still seeping into the ancient stone at his dangling feet. She felt the sadness well up in her, but then one of the shrouded women forced a new censer into her hands, the small door open on its side.
Rachel knew then what she needed to do. She walked forward and with a resigned snap, she ripped off Bobby’s left ring finger, and placed it and the ring into the censer. Closing the door, a spark flickered out from the inside of its own accord.
The eldest woman from the hotel came up to her, and handing her a new shroud said, “Welcome to the Sisterhood of the plague maidens. Sister Rachel, speak your words of prophecy and join us.”
Then, finally Rachel knew what to say. The words were not her, and she did not know where in the ether they had originated. All she knew was she needed to utter them into the world and make them real. “The storms of flaying wind are coming. The words lost and minds gained are here. The bastion has gone, and the malicious come to gather their strength.”
And thus the story is ended, the tale told, the chapter closed.
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"Valiant, Locate the dried ink of languages lost and futures known only to this sisterhood within the web and weave of the author’s hand. Pass through the gate with the gold in the censor."