The moon emitted a pale blue glow and a mild scent of sulfur wafted in the air. The villagers of Alden, all 50 of them, exited their wood-furnished huts like clockwork and gathered around the central bonfire. Not one person dared to speak or cozy themselves in the ground, at least, not until a well-statured man adorned with tattoos all over him arrived at the center of the raised plank platform, a few feet away from the bonfire.
“Sit.”, his voice resounded, deep and mature.
The townsfolk obeyed. The men and women were dressed in woven material foraged and sewn from the materials and plants of the earth. A few were decorated with tattoos, others were not. The scent of sulfur started to become more pungent, so much so that a light mist started to emerge around the bonfire. It was coming out of a black cauldron on top of the fire supported by a circular metal beam. The people hushed and murmured among each other, a look of worry visible in their faces.
“Everyone.”, he continued, raising his forefinger and middle finger, “The time has come. And…we have failed. I have talked with the Witcher of East End, and despite my best efforts, they were much too displeased with our failure to reach the quota for harvest.”
Silence befell the people, the only sound was the slow crackling of the fire and the constant murmur of cicadas.
“What do witchers do, mum?”, a little boy whispered.
Seeing how no one glanced in her direction, she whispered. “They’re mindbenders, the lot of ’em! They slither their dirty magic inside our minds and distort all we see. They already got the village down under, so best we–” The woman glanced at the village leader on the platform, who was gazing back at her silently. She quieted herself, not out of fear but reverence.
The man cleared his throat and bowed deeply, his gray hair falling over as well. “I, Ballavka, am sincerely sorry for the actions following after. But this ritual is the only way to save our village, our ancestors have approved it so.”
Behind him was a soup cauldron, boiled and filled to the brim with a mysterious liquid. Removing the lid, the sulfuric smell became unbearably intense and the gray fumes fanned out like clouds from a chimney.
“Our time is limited, so-”, Ballavka reached into a small pocket in his attire, bringing out a small box that glittered with shiny minerals. The box radiated with the light from the moonlight and the bonfire, conducting the people to stop and stare intently. Ballavka felt the weight and surface of the box in the palm of his hands for one last time.
“Inside this box is our ancestors’ brooch – The Shining Crescent – a mineral sealed for centuries past.” He paused a bit, “and in it, the essence to ward away the curse that will befall our village from the witcher’s curse.”
“What’s the curse?”, the boy blurted out, his innocent question causing many of the adults to clench awaiting the answer to follow. The mother looked up from her downcast glance, hushing him tenderly.
Ballavka minced no words. “Raja, my nephew, the witchers are a kind that will cause terrible forms of mental discomfort. They get inside your brain and leave you with hallucinations and visions of nightmares. They find joy in others suffering.”
The man looked at the half-empty offering pile that was meant for the witchers. “But the brooch is said to ward off a great evil. It can release a mist of protection, thanks to our ancestors.”
The boy fell silent. He twiddled his thumbs and slowly averted the gaze away from the man and everyone else. His sight planted firmly on the dark patch of soil in front of him.
The chieftain opened the box. “It’s gone, the mineral – it’s missing!”
Everyone gasped, tension rose in the air.
“Who would have taken the Crescent?” the man cried out, walking side to side from his platform while at the same time observing everyone else.
Several men and women rose from their place. The world that these people knew was on a timer. They scrambled frantically around the bonfire and some towards their huts, their faces filled with panic.
“Look inside your houses. No stone, absolutely nothing, left unturned. The mineral essence is our only shot of keeping ourselves safe from the witchers.” He gritted his teeth, knowing his actions and words will determine fate.
The village was not big, the only lodging around were seven main huts spaced apart in a semicircle. Everyone returned to their quarters and searched everywhere. From the mats to the bowls and pans to the makeshift tools. All were frantically searching except for the boy Raja, who was still sitting in place. His mother had left him there.
The chieftain was an observant one, walked off the platform, and approached him.
“Raja, how are you holding up?”
Silence followed. Not even a peek, Raja remained curled up sitting on the ground.
“You’re hiding something, aren’t you?”
Raja looked up at the village chief, his face worried with regret.
“…I took it, chief. I just wanted to look at the shiny thing… and now I lost it.”
The chieftain did not falter in tone. He had a million questions but he settled for the calmest one.
“Do you recall where you placed it?”
Raja shakes his head. “It should be around my quarters, that’s where I have last seen it.”
After a moment, Ballkava sighed. “Let’s move.” He made his way to their house, with Raja following close behind.
The inside of the hut was damp and dark, lit up by the faintest orange glow of lamplight.
“It’s shiny, like a diamond, right?” Raja recalled, flipping over his bedstraw covers.
Ballkava nodded and skimmed around the enclosed area. It didn’t seem like this place would hide much of anything, considering the lack of things there are to begin with aside from the essentials.
“Wait, I found it. Here!”, Raja said, holding out a shiny mineral from underneath some pan. Upon inspection, it was it. The shiny, familiar jeweled brooch of Alden ancestors.
“Thank goodness, Raja. The village will be saved after all.” His face was stoic and hard to read, but he smiled when his eyes met the boy’s.
The chieftain made his way back to the platform with the news. Everyone quickly returned to their places, a look of relief and exhaustion painted on their faces. All including Raja, and for a moment all that persisted was silence and the constant scent of sulfur.
The moon had almost crossed the midway point. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the chieftain standing still on the platform. Words would waste precious time, so he began working the ritual.
Ballkava dropped the mineral into the boiling sulfuric liquid, and the gray smoke began to transform into a deep shade of violet. He began chanting a strange, guttural spell from the voice of ancients. The scent of sulfur diluted and taking its place was a more pleasant smell, like dewdrops or mossy rocks. All the townsfolk of Alden were subject to this new scent – and the ritual began to work its magic. The purplish smoke was slowly starting to engulf the entirety of the village. In smoke, many coughed and closed their eyes. It stung. Despite the outpouring of smoke, the chanting by Ballkava persisted, louder than ever. It was unclear whether the words were coming from the chieftain or the ancestors controlling him, but he kept at it. He went on until the entire town abruptly fell silent. The moon hung straight in the center of the sky; it was now midnight.
The early morning, jovial chatter of townsfolk outside woke Ballkava up from the slumber at his hut. He stepped out and took a good look at the village: the semi-circle formation of the huts and the pile of ashes where the bonfire used to be.
“Hey, you’re up now!” Raja ran up to him, grinning.
“Morning – I’m glad the people are safe.”
Then Ballkava saw it.
Raja’s eyes glowed purple. Looking around was the same, everyone’s eyes was the same bright purple of the smoke from the night before. Suddenly, it dawned on him.
“What’s wrong?” Raja asked worried.
Ballkava’s vision started to blur, and the sounds of horrible laughter filled the air. “The curse can’t be removed, only transferred.” a deep voice inside his head said. “We have said this when we last talked. Did we not? You’ve spared your people, Ballkava, but at what cost?”
His vision began to spin and Ballkava couldn’t help but fall to the ground.
“Wait, chief?” Raja said turning around, realizing the paralyzed state of Ballkava and leaning towards him. Ballkava wanted to say anything but he couldn’t utter a sound.
“Someone! Help!”, Raja ran to the others.
But it was too late. The boy Raja found what everyone was looking for. What Ballkava, unknown to others, tried desperately to hide. And that sealed his fate for the rest of his life; a mind now under the wicked grasp of the Witcher of East End.
Image credit: Nele-Diel on Devianart