This week's suggestion is from Cathy. She actually made three suggestions and this time, I got to choose. Thanks, Cathy!
The fog was thick and low. Katya could feel it curling around her body, caressing her skin; a cold lover. She realized that the gondola door was open. She opened her eyes and raised a hand to find that, miraculously, her tinted glasses were still on her face. The scent of burning metal and heat from off to her left let her know a fire had taken up residence in her immediate perimeter. She opened her mouth and drew a ragged breath.
“Michael!” she tried to scream. She inhaled again. “Michael!”
There was no answer. She pressed her hands to the smooth, metal floor and cautiously crawled away from the fire, shouting for her son. More than once, she reached out and recoiled at the touch of dead, wet flesh. She struggled to recall the events.
She had been working the computers on an airship. That detail came easily to her as she had done it every year for the past five years. This was to be the year they started to publish their findings under the leadership of Johan Gutenberg. She had been honored to be a part of the research, though it meant losing the time with her son. This year, he had begged to come with her.
“Please? Mama, I’m almost eighteen. Papa is gone. I don’t want to stay with Grandma this year. I’m old enough to join you.”
She had been firmly against it, but he persisted until she finally turned to Johan for the final decision. She had been surprised by his reaction.
“Why not?” he said. “The boy has to have some adventure. Why not now?”
“It is dangerous,” Katya said. “I lost my husband to an ‘adventure.’ I will not lose my son.”
“Life is a dangerous adventure,” said Johan. “You can’t shut the boy up in a box. He will have adventures with you or without you. Better for you to teach him what you know.”
With Johan’s endorsement, Katya relented, but she issued a warning. “This is nothing like your fantasy games, Michael. This is a scientific mission. We are not researching vampires or demons or werewolves.”
“Aw, Mom, I know.”
“I will not have you treating this as any kind of your Dwarves and Dragons games.”
“Mom, it’s Dungeons and Dragons and I haven’t played that in years.”
“And you will do as I tell you?”
The boy rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
Katya felt a sharp pang strike through her chest. It had been her own orders that brought the airship down. If only she had been more clear about which button to press. If only he had not been so eager.
Lost in memory, she cried out as the floor dipped and she lost her balance, slicing her palm against jagged metal. She pulled back and huddled against a wall, holding her hand tight. Blood leaked onto her fingers.
“Katya, are you okay?”
Katya sighed with relief. “Johan!”
“Ja, I am here,” he said. His hand reached out and helped her to her feet. “We are lucky to be alive, are we not?”
“Michael” she begged. “Have you seen Michael?”
“The boy. All fine,” he told her.
“Where is he?” Her head swiveled and tilted up to find his face.
“Here in the gondola at the other end. Your hand,” he suddenly added.
“I’m sure it looks worse than it is.”
“I have a bandage.” Katya let out a small hiss of pain as he wrapped her hand. “We have landed in an abandoned building. I believe it may be the old home of the Detroni kingdom.”
“Who are the Detroni?” Katya blinked.
“A very old, proud family.” Johan sounded scandalized that she had never heard of them. “They ruled during the Golden Age.”
“So we’re in an old castle?”
“Not for definite,” Johan admitted, “but we were above the area when the trouble began and from the trajectory, it would be logical location. We appear to have landed in the catacomb.” He seemed pleased by the idea.
Katya heard her son’s voice coming from in front of her. “Michael? Michael, are you okay?”
“Mom, get away from him! He’s not who you think he is!”
“Quiet, boy!” Johan snarled. His grip tightened on Katya’s arm. She was surprised at the strength in the old man’s hands.
“What are you talking about? Let go, Johan! You’re hurting me!” Katya tried to pull away, but the man’s bony fingers were like a vise, his hold ever more painful.
“I’m sssorry, Kat, but I can’t let you go.” The voice was still Johan’s, but it had none of his warmth. It hissed with malevolence.
“Who are you?”
“I am the Lachryma,” was the response.
“It’s a demon!” Michael shrieked.
“Michael, this is no time for one of your games!” Katya’s fear and anger made her voice high and tight.
“I’m afraid thisss isss no game,” said the spirit. “The boy isss quite right. I am the ssspirit of sssorrow.”
“What have you done to my son?” Katya accused the spirit.
“It chained me up!” Michael shouted. The clink of metal supported his claim. “Let me go!”
“It isss no lessssss than I have sssuffered,” said the Lachryma, releasing Katya. Katya made no move to run. She had no idea where she was and there was no way she was about to leave her son with this creature.
“What are you going to do to us?” Katya asked.
“I will make you a deal,” said the spirit. “You will give me your body to inhabit and I will let your ssson walk free. If not, I will feassst on your sssadnessssss. It hasss been ssso long sssinccce I had a meal.”
“My body?” Katya repeated. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I will walk the earth onccce again! Alive! Free!” The spirit’s voice rang with fervor.
“You already have the old man’s body!” Michael hollered desperately. “Leave my mom alone!”
“I cannot leave in thisss body,” the spirit hissed at him. “It will not lassst long. You will get your airssship working ssso I can essscape.”
“No! You deserve to be stuck here!” Michael shouted as her, straining against his bonds.
Katya was not so certain. “Who are you really?”
The spirit sighed. “My name hasss been lossst to time and conquessst. I was onccce the princessssss of the Detroni kingdom. We ruled the Golden Age. My parentsss were wissse and jussst, but alwaysss more concccerned with the well-being of their people than their only child. When the Marquiansss conquered the Detroni and made usss part of their empire, they demanded that I be handed over asss a ssshow of fealty. My parentsss handed me over without a sssecond thought,” said the Lachryma, heat in her voice. “I had but eighteen years to my life and I wasss wed to the Marquian heir, a boy five yearsss my junior, sssimple of mind and feeble of body. Ssstill, he gave me a child.”
“A child!” Katya was shocked. “He was only fourteen!”
“He wasss old enough,” said the Lachryma. “I promisssed myssself that my child would never sssuffer the cowardiccce of her parentsss the way that I had. I wasss forccced to defer to my husssband in all thingsss, but when he promisssed our nine-year-old daughter’sss hand in marriage to a loyal, but aged king, I knew it wasss time. I wanted more for my daughter, ssso within a fortnight, I took her and ran. We followed the mountain passssss, praying for the deep and heavy sssnowsss to cover our footssstepsss. My husssband and hisss sssoldiersss came after usss. The border of the Marquian empire wasss jussst beyond the mountainsss. Onccce there, we would be safe.” The Lachryma lapsed into silence.
“What happened?” Katya asked.
“My daughter couldn’t travel quickly. She wasss cold. She wasss ssstarving. She wasss crying,” said the spirit. “My husssband heard her. I tried to keep her quiet, but ssshe didn’t underssstand the danger.”
“He found you,” Katya guessed.
“He found usss,” confirmed the Lachryma. “He took our daughter from my armsss and he… he killed her in front of me. The marriage was dissssssolved and the Marquiansss massssssacred the Detroni. They imprisssoned me here in thisss cassstle. My own home where I grew up,” said the Lachryma. “I had no one to talk to excccept the ghossstsss in my mind. My name was erasssed from all of hissstory and forgotten. I couldn’t bear it. I took my own life.” The spirit paused. “I woke up asss a ssspirit, ssstill ssstarving. I couldn’t eat physssical food, but I sssoon found that I could feassst on sssadnesssss. My curssse for what I had done.”
“So you eat people’s sadness?” Katya asked. “That doesn’t sound like a bad thing.”
“Not exxxactly,” the Lachryma disagreed. “When I feassst on sssorrow, it forccces the person to relive their sssaddessst memoriesss. Many cannot handle it. They go mad. Yet, I can inhabit bodiesss without feeding, like with Johan. Any body I inhabit is revived by my spirit, its afflictionsss gone. I could inhabit yoursss and you could sssee your ssson,” the spirit told Katya.
“NO!” Michael yelled.
“Your ssson could leave,” the Lachryma continued.
“Why don’t you just take over my body like you did with Johan?” Katya wanted to know.
“The old man wasss near death,” said the spirit. “You are a healthy sssoul. I cannot inhabit your body unlesssss you consssent.”
“What happens to my soul if you take over?”
Katya could hear the smile in the spirit’s voice. “It would join my sssspirit. We would be as one.”
“Mom, don’t do it!” Michael yelled. She could hear his chains scraping against the rock as he struggled.
“What happens to Michael if I agree?” Katya asked, tears in her eyes.
“He goesss free, of courssse,” said the Lachryma, her voice soothing.
“And if I say no?”
A note of resignation. “Then I ssshall have to feed on you both. Your ssson firssst, ssso you can sssee the priccce of failure, just like I did.”
“Sssave your child. Let him live. Let me live,” the Lachryma urged her.
“No!” More clanking chains.
“Michael, quiet!” Katya addressed the Lachryma. “You promise me that he will be set free unharmed?”
“I ssswear it.”
Katya opened her arms as though welcoming a lover to her bed. “Then do it,” she said through gritted teeth.
“No, no, no, no!” She heard Michael sob as the Lachryma let out a hiss of satisfaction. Within moments, Katya’s body was under assault as the spirit entered from everywhere. It felt like cold fire burning just underneath the skin. She wanted to scratch it out. She wanted to run. She wanted to scream. All of her muscles were constricted, taut and pulled to the painful limit. Her unseeing eyes were open wide. She inhaled the musty smell of history and death mixed with a woman’s perfume. She felt herself pushed to the furthest corner of her mind while a stranger moved in to test the body. The Lachryma reached up with Katya’s hand and removed the dark glasses she wore.
Amazed, Katya watched as, for the first time in her life, her the light coming through her pupils made a connection in her brain. She could see. Johan’s body was nearby, crumpled like a discarded sweater. He was taking ragged breaths and his dim eyes stared up at her with confusion and horror.
Then Katya saw her son in front of her and her soul began to cry. He was beautiful. Square nose. Unruly hair. Scraggly attempt at a beard. Spacers in each ear. He was even more beautiful than she had imagined.
The Lachryma moved to the sobbing boy and, as promised, released him from his chains. He fell to the ground, his hands over his head. By his side, a glowing form appeared: a little girl. The Lachryma began to weep.
“Katarina,” she said. “My little girl.”
Suddenly, Michael stood straight upright, stiff as a board. His countenance changed, a slimy smile creeping across his face. “Did you rrreally think it would be that easy, Marrrianna?”
The Lachryma’s heart skipped a beat and horror flooded through her. “Peter.”
“Did you everrr think about what yourrr rrrunning away did to me? Did you everrr think about how harrrd it was to have you locked up? What people thought of me afterrr that? What my life was like afterrr you died? Afterrr you came to me and took my sadness frrrom me? You took my daughterrr frrrom me twice, Marrrianna. Did you everrr stop to considerrr what might happen to someone whose sorrrrrrow you had consumed?”
“I… I didn’t…”
“You didn’t, did you? You took my sorrrrow, Marrrianna, and with it, you took my guilt!”
“You’re mad,” Marianna whispered.
“Only those with a conscience believe otherrr people are mad!” Peter declared. “I have no conscience! I have no rrreason to feel sorrrrrrow orrr guilt! You took that frrrom me and I just want to thank you forrr it! I’ve learrrned so many things since you feasted on me, Marrrianna. I’ve learrrned to be patient. I’ve learrrned the best rrrevenge rrrequirrres the rrright timing.” He held out his hand and the little girl went to him.
“Yes. You took my daughterrr frrrom me twice. Once, when you rrran from me. Once, when you took my sorrrrrrow of losing herrr.”
“You didn’t lossse her, Peter!” Marianna screamed. “You killed her!”
“Because of yourrr disobedience! Now, she will come with me for eterrrnity.”
“You don’t even care about her!”
Peter laughed. “No, of courrrse not. But you do. It must hurrrt you so much to know that she’s mine now to do with as I please.”
“Yes. Beg for yourrr daughterrr. It’s time you learrrned to obey me as you should have done all those yearrrs ago. Would you like to hearrr her crrry? You enjoyed that in the mountains.” Katya couldn’t see what he was doing, but the little girl started to whimper.
“You don’t give commands, Marrrianna. Haven’t you learrrned that yet?” The girl cried louder.
Marianna didn’t waste another moment. The burning returned. Every part of Katya’s body was screaming in agony and Katya was shoved back into control. The Lachryma was leaving, flowing out through her eyes, her nose, her mouth. The pain subsided and Katya collapsed, breathing heavily. She looked up to see Michael writhing as though in pain.
“Michael!” She was on her feet and embracing his twisting body. “I have you. Marianna, please! Don’t take my child from me. You promised!”
As if in answer, a diaphanous form emerged from the boy, amorphous and ever-changing. It coalesced into the shape of two figures struggling with each other. One pulled back toward Michael; the other toward Johan. Slowly, inch by inch, the pair moved away from Katya and her son. She could hear Peter’s voice shouting, “No! No!”
Marianna called out, “Katarina, my darling! I will alwaysss love you!” Then the pair disappeared into Johan’s body, which gave a small jolt, breathed its last breath, and then went still.
Michael was breathing heavily. Katya wrapped her arms around her son. Near her feet were the pair of dark glasses. Out of habit, she knelt to retrieve them. As she did, she caught sight of the ghostly child floating nearby but it disappeared when she placed the glasses back on her face. She removed the glasses and the child appeared once more.
“Mmmy father has been waiting for centuries to recapture mmme and punish my mmmother for disobeying himmm.”
“Why can’t I see you with my glasses on?”
Katarina shook her head. “I can only appear to sommmeone who sees with their heart instead of their eyes.”
“The blind have different ways of seeing,” Katya agreed.
“Thank you,” said Katarina. “Without you, my mmmother and I could never have been free.”
“Where is she now?” Katya asked her.
The spirit child dimmed in sadness. “She is gone. She was a spirit of sorrow, but any spirit, even a powerful one like mmmy father, cannot survive the death of the body it inhabits. Mmmy mmmother knew that.”
“She’s dead?” Michael croaked out, his eyes still a little wild.
“They both are,” said Katarina sadly. “She sacrificed herself.”
“For her child,” said Katya. “No mother would do less.”
“Will you show us the way out of here?” Michael asked Katarina.
“I will, but you mmmust do one mmmore thing for me. Mmmy mmmother was Princess Mmmarianna of the Detroni. History has long forgotten her.”
“We will remember her,” Katya promised. Michael agreed. Katarina nodded her gratitude and began leading them away from the dead.