She wandered through the halls of the empty manor, the portraits of the past gazing down at her, following her. They were beautiful and ghastly, the women in the portraits. And she avoided looking at them. At their paleness. It was not the soft paleness of life. It was the unsettling paleness of dying. She had never noticed it before. It was a paleness she shared. She dragged the burden of her longing and anticipation and dread and hope as if they were heavy chains on her back and shoulders. She was close to achieving what she wanted. At last, after an eon and an age. She was almost there. That was the cause of her hope and anticipation. But she was also filled with doubt. What if didn’t work? What if it did work? What if he didn’t believe her? What if he didn’t care? What if she had chosen the wrong one?
Was it really going to be over? At last?
And that was the cause of her dread. Her longing she had carried since she was made. Or since she came into existence. After an eon and an age, she still didn’t know the exact nature of her own origins.
For the first eighteen years of her life, she had thought she was human. She had lived in that empty manor on the cliff, far from the nearest village, thinking that was how all humans lived. She was made to think that, trained to think it. She was taught that she had to earn the right to go out amongst people. A rite of passage. It was part of her purpose to think she was human. The other part of her purpose, her very nature, was destruction. Decimation. Decay.
She never knew until the last few weeks before her release that humans did not live in isolation, not by nature. They sought each other out, needed each other, needed companionship and camaraderie…and contact.
She never knew until she had passed her rites of passage that all humans were not pale. Their skin, their eyes, their hair…were of so many colors. She had never imagined it. Blue eyes? Golden hair? Earthen skin? They were so vivid and vibrant. Their shapes varied. And until she came near to them, she had never realized how different they smelled from her own scent. She was sickly sweet and slightly sour. They smelled…electric. Sparkling. Liquid.
She had questioned why humans lived alone. She had always been curious. It was desired that she should be, for it made her want to wander amongst people and infect them. But she was sheltered and made to believe that her isolation was typical. Disembodied voices spoke to her to keep her company and to teach her. But she was kept contained. She had to be. For she was the child of Pestilence.
But that was not such a great honor. Pestilence had many children. All arrayed in a hierarchy of disease. Hosts upon hosts of plague. And she was on the lowest tier. She had learned of who and what she was because she fought. She fought against her nature. And she fought against the one who came for her, to snuff out her being after her purpose was served.
Illness was a part of nature, she was told, when she returned from the village and asked the disembodied voices. Everything that was must someday cease to be, she was taught. And the lesson had never seemed ominous to her, for she never knew it was meant to prepare her for her own end.
The village was far, far from the manor, but she walked there every day after earning the right. The first time she went out amongst people, she was relieved of some feeling, some burden that she could not name but that she felt she had been carrying all her life. She later learned that that burden was loneliness. The moment she saw them, saw people, she was filled with their life. She was filled with bliss. She had never felt such an emotion. She wanted nothing more than to fly towards them. She wanted to touch them. She wanted to embrace them. And yet, she felt timid and shy. She didn’t go amongst them. Not at first. But she came closer and closer, little by little. And she didn’t realize, not at first, that when they began to grow ill, to sicken, and to die, there was a connection with her presence.
After a few weeks of visiting, she grew ill. She had never been ill before in all her eighteen years of life. She had been told after the rites of passage what illness was, warned of its dangers. But she had hoped she would never know it. It sounded horrific.
And soon enough, she saw it for herself.
She felt tired at first. Her muscles ached even when she rested. Her skin changed, turned red, and then shiny, and it itched and then it hurt. Foul vapors rose from her breath, her skin. Her wounds dripped and oozed and crusted over and broke and oozed again. She could not lie down without pain. She could not rise without pain. But she did rise. She had already begun to suspect that she was the cause of the plague that had struck the village. She dragged herself to a mirror to see the truth of what she was.
That was the first time she wept. For she had never before felt such pain and despair. She had never before pitied herself. She forgot about humanity then. They could not comfort her. They who suffered as she suffered. She cried out to the voices in the manor. She cried out for help and comfort. For healing.
They spoke to her, whispering and soothing. They lulled her to sleep. They promised release from her anguish. And they spoke sweet words of praise to her for fulfilling her purpose. And even in the hot haze of fever, the words struck her as odd and wrong. Like a discordant note of music.
Music. She had never known it till she went out amongst humanity. It was wondrous. But even music could not soothe her now. She was sick. She feared she would die. Many people died from the illness she suffered. Their sparks vanished. Their colors faded. They paled. She had seen it happen. She had seen the lamentations around the death. The terrible grief. She had not understood. She had only known not to ask the people.
She had instead fled to the manor and asked her guides. The voices that she imagined were the voices of those who were in the portraits. And when the voices explained what death was, she asked if the portraits were of those who had resided in the manor once. She asked if they were dead now, like the people she had seen in the village. To that question, she received no answer.
She spent a sleepless night in fever. The windows of her bedchamber were thrown open to a snowy sky, and drifts flew past the wispy curtains that fluttered and flailed and made strange shadows against the wall in the lantern light. One of those shadows crept toward her as she whimpered and shifted from side to side, finding no comfort no matter how she lay. The shadow came closer. And she closed her eyes. There was enough to worry her mind without adding the fear of shadows. But then she opened her eyes.
And she saw that something was upon her.
But it was not a thing. It was shapeless. It was void. She could only see where it was not. And beside it was the shadow. The shadow that crept toward her. Death.
Death was not the thing attacking her. Death was only waiting to take her.
The thing, what was it? As it came closer, she felt the breath leave her lungs. She felt what vitality she had left draining from her toward the thing. She struggled against it. But then she also felt her pain drain away. Her despair. She stopped struggling.
Then she remembered the lamentations of the people in the village. Who would lament her? She was not someone’s child or friend or even neighbor. Who would wail to the heavens? Who would beg death not to come? Who would curse Pestilence?
No one. There was only her. That was the first time she felt anger. She felt a surge of energy that overwhelmed her and she screamed out in a rage. She dropped from her bed and raked her fingers through the air at the thing that was trying to undo her. She felt her hand move through nothing. And yet something. She felt pain different from sickness. She struck out with her other hand. And she stumbled out of her room.
She knew there would be no place to hide from that thing that wanted her. But she fled anyway. Beyond the throbbing of her head and heart, she heard the disembodied voices. She could not make out what they were saying, but they sounded distressed.
Then one of them, just one, whispered, “This way.”
And she followed. Sweating, bleeding, dying. She tripped and rose and stumbled and bounced from wall to opposite wall in the empty corridors of the manor.
When she woke the next morning, she remembered everything.
She remembered how she had been guided down to a cellar that was painted with strange symbols she had never seen. She was free of fever. The sores of her skin had already scabbed and scarred over. She remembered feeling immediate relief when she entered the cellar. She remembered feeling invisible to the wicked forces that sought her outside the chamber. And she remembered how soothing it felt to gaze upon the symbols.
But now that it was morning and she was healed, looking at the symbols made her feel dizzy and weary. She heard that voice again, weak but insistent, telling her to quickly leave the chamber.
She was afraid, but she went outside.
Her enemy was gone. Death was gone. And as soon as she emerged from the cellar, she felt a surge of power. She knew, somehow, that the cellar room had cured her. The disembodied voices were so frenzied, she could not make out what they said, save that they urged her not to leave the manor. But that was exactly what she wanted to do. For she had the cure to the illness that plagued the village. A village full of people who might praise her and befriend her if she cured them.
She ignored the warnings of the voices. And she went down to the village. The first thing she noticed was that everyone seemed to be ignoring her. She spoke to people and they did not answer. No one answered. So she grew irritated and stood before them, but they passed around her, sometimes frowning as if they did not know why they moved aside as they had. As if they knew some obstruction was before them, but they couldn’t see it.
Only one person in the village seemed to see her. An old man who sat and begged at the village square. He pointed to her and proclaimed her a ghost. And she feared she had not been cured after all. She feared she had died and returned as a specter.
But then the old man pointed to her and cried, “Plague!” He cried the word over and over.
People began to collapse. Those who had come closest to her. They dropped to the ground and some grew pale and others red-faced and one began to shake and another to bleed.
She felt a terror grip her chest and in her need, tried to grasp the arm of a woman who stood watching nearby. Her hand gripped for a moment and passed through. And as it did, the woman grasped her arm and cried out in pain. And her arm became twisted and mangled and shriveled.
And all was revealed. As if a door was opened in her mind, in the mind of the child of Pestilence. She fled the village before she could do more harm.
I am plague, she thought.
She ran to a mirror. She had to know if she was a ghost or something else. The mirror reflected her form. A solid form, but also wispy. Her skin was pocked with the scars of the disease she had suffered. She was thin now. No, not thin. Shriveled. Over one night, she had shriveled. Death had not taken her. She had thwarted Death. She had thwarted the thing that came for her. But she had changed for it. She gazed at herself in the mirror.
I’ve always been ugly. I’ve always been this.
She placed a hand against the mirror.
I don’t want to be this.
But what was she? She turned away from the mirror and commanded the voices in the manor to come forth and to answer her questions.
They would refuse, but she would keep harassing them until they told her what she wanted to know. What she needed to know. She knew she was not human. That was all she knew at the moment.
But when she summoned the voices, they answered as they had never answered before. They answered obediently and they answered completely.
She learned then what she was. A child of Pestilence. One of many. One of legion. She was not a soldier. Not even a weapon. She was a mere container. A package. A carrier. Her purpose and the purpose of all carriers was to infect mortal creatures with disease. That was the beginning and end of her purpose.
And the carriers themselves were meant to grow sick and die. Though many did not. And when they did not, an upper child of Pestilence would come and destroy them. And from what remained, a new disease would be born. That was how she came to be, from the refuse and remains of the plague-bringers before her.
By surviving the night, by escaping her fate, the container had risen to the higher tiers of Pestilence. She had become an upper child. She had been granted the powers of the one who had come to destroy her. She was now disease incarnate and could infect any number of mortal beings, humans, animals, even plants and trees with any number of illnesses. And she had unwittingly done just that when she rushed into the village in the hopes of healing and saving.
She lamented, for she did not want the powers of pestilence. She railed at the disembodied voices for lying to her and betraying her. She swore vengeance. She paced the halls of the manor thinking and plotting.
But her anger burned quickly. And when it was spent, she felt what lay beneath it. Pity, for herself and pity for those whom she had harmed. The plague that struck the village had spread beyond into neighboring villages and towns, leaving the dead, the dying, and the maimed behind.
She had caused all that damage and suffering, just by being what she was born to be, what she never knew she was.
How could she make amends?
She lingered near the village. She went close enough to watch those whom she had touched. A few destroyed themselves to escape the suffering she wrought, to escape her. When the constant pain overwhelmed them. When the suffering became unbearable. When all hope of healing was lost and nothing was left but to witness the weeping of the ones they loved.
She wanted to reach out and help, but she was not a healing force. Her touch, even just her nearness, was sickening to them. She could not tell them about the healing chamber in the manor. She tried. She wrote notes in the dirt, carved into the tree trunks. But the people of the village thought the messages were taunts and curses from whatever wicked spirits brought the plague. They began to forbid anyone from going to the manor. They even built a wall and set a watch.
She returned to the manor and asked the voices how she could change her nature. They answered obediently and completely. They told her that she could not.
She wandered the world then. She learned she could travel quickly and without tiring, for she was no longer mortal and did not need to take mortal pathways. From wherever she was, she could return to the manor in a matter of hours. And she often did with new questions for the voices, though they had few answers. She saw others of her kind, some were unwitting vessels and she tried to stop them but found she could not. They sickened from her touch and spread that sickness to others. She saw upper children of Pestilence, like herself, and every one took pride and pleasure in fulfilling their purpose.
Once or twice, she even saw the highest children of Pestilence, those not made of flesh and vapor like herself, but made of some foul energies that waited till the right age to sicken all mortal things at once. They had no form and yet they were uglier than any sickness she had ever seen. The more she wandered and the more she saw, the more she loathed what she was. She wanted desperately to change. Sometimes she thought she could. For hope too was infectious. And human beings were hopeful beings. Other times, she wondered if she should destroy herself. But she didn’t want to destroy herself. She wanted to be. She just wanted to be something she was not. She wanted to be something she could never be.
She could never be a healing force. She was destruction.
Illness was a part of nature. She was fulfilling a purpose according to her learning. But she could not see the reason for disease. Few diseases made mortals stronger. And even those that did took their toll. Death had a purpose. All mortal beings had to die for the mortal world was not unending. There would be no room for them if they all lived forever.
All that was must someday cease to be.
That meant Pestilence must someday cease to be.
She wondered what could bring an end to Pestilence. A great healing perhaps. She could not do it. For she was no healer. Only one mortal creature could manage such a feat. She had once tried to help the people of a village by guiding them to a place of healing. She had been healed there herself and then she had been hurt by it for she had transformed from being the diseased to being the disease. But that place of healing was locked within a palace of decay. And her guidance came in the form of hauntings to a people whose nerves were already frayed by disease and death.
She would find another way. She would find a great healing. And when she did, she would lead someone to it. She would not be a disembodied voice, whispering her ideas into the ears of an innocent child. She would go to someone who was fully grown, someone she judged to be of sound mind. She would show him or her the way to cure all disease, to vanquish Pestilence.
Age upon age, she wandered, finding wondrous cures and strong healers. But while the cures worked upon the lesser children, they would not work upon her. Nothing harmed her any longer. And she knew nothing could save for the highest children of Pestilence, or Pestilence itself.
She began to lose hope and her pity for herself and for humanity returned. She wept and she doubted and she longed to be free of her cursed nature.
Then one day, as she walked along in a wood, she was overcome by pain and so weakened that she collapsed where she stood. And beyond the shock of a feeling she had not felt for thousands upon thousands of years, she felt a smile upon her lips. The feeling passed and she gasped in relief.
Something had harmed her. Something had contained her. She looked down at her form and it wavered. She shivered still. She felt fear. Whatever had caused what she felt, she was certain it had the power to destroy her.
She rushed around, searching for whatever it might be. A rock, a nut fallen from a tree, a jewel hidden beneath the leaves. She wept for herself as she searched. No one else would weep for her. The creature that caused nothing but destruction yet never meant to. Intention was not enough. Longing was not enough. Hope was not enough. But this act, finding the object, safeguarding it for humanity, it might be enough.
Her thoughts ran rampant. She would find the right person. Someone who could see her as the old man in the village could see her, but who was of sound mind. She would show that person what the object could do by using it on herself.
She would be destroyed when she touched the object. And she did not know what came next. Would she suffer eternal torment? Or was she about to gain eternal freedom? She did not know. She only knew that what she did was right. It was just. And she stopped weeping. This was all she could do to help those to whom she had done so much harm. And to take vengeance on those who had done her so much harm.
All that is will one day cease to be. That is what they taught her. That is how they prepared her for the night some horror came to claim whatever meager life pulsed through her being. Soon enough, Pestilence would learn that lesson.
She searched for hours but she could not find it. But she was not deterred. With renewed hope, she resolved to carry on her search in the light of the next day. She started back to the manor when she heard the whistling.
And as the whistling grew louder, the feeling overcame her again, only slowly this time. She hid from the path, far enough away to protect herself but close enough to see the path. And she saw him pass by, a youth still in the second decade of his life. He whistled and he carried a brace hung with rabbits that he had hunted. That was likely why she never found him. He’d been hunting quietly nearby.
As the youth came closer, the child of Pestilence grew weaker. She followed him, keeping a fair distance. And she watched him. For days she watched to learn his secret. Was it the stone he wore on a cord around his neck? Was it his jacket? His cap? He changed his clothes and his shoes and the things that he carried. She saw that it was no object he carried that weakened her.
Whatever the secret was, it was inside him. Or perhaps it was him.
She watched and she watched. The young man lived alone in the woods. So she did a thing that she despised. She found a lesser child of Pestilence, a disease that most human beings could survive after a few weeks of rest, and she set it loose on the youth. Something strange happened. The child of Pestilence did not brush against the man or hover over him. It was sucked into him, against its will.
And then she saw a glow all around the youth, a glow that she could see because of what she was. But no mortal creature would have seen it. She had never seen the like. But she knew what was happening. The lesser child of Pestilence had infected the young man with its very being. The man was bedridden for half a day. But the sores that formed on his skin did not scar and scar, they healed and mended. The skin grew back as surely as the tail of a salamander grows back after breaking off. By evening of that day, he was completely healed. And the lesser child of Pestilence had been utterly destroyed.
A notion formed in her mind. A notion that became a plan.
She was no healer. Nor was she was a guardian. And a guardian was what the young man needed. The power he held in his being must be kept secret, protected, and passed on. She searched and found the ones whom she judged could guard the secret to destroying Pestilence. Their leader was a seer and he saw her. Right away, he threw up his wards. They had no effect on her, but remembering her failure with the villages, she respected his wishes and pretended to be warded off.
She had to convince this leader somehow. To him, she was an evil creature, a powerful spirit of disease and decay.
The only way to convince him would be to show him, to do what she never wanted to do. To be what she was. She would have to bring him to the young man or bring the young man to him. And let him watch as the young man healed himself in hours from the worst pestilence known to the present age, a disease from which few survived. A disease that she would knowingly and willingly give the youth as her last act.
Getting that close to the youth would destroy her. She would never learn if her plan failed or succeeded. She wouldn’t even know if the young man would truly heal himself. She might kill him as she had killed so many others before she learned what she was. But she was ready at last to take action.
At last after an eon and an age of fearing to destroy and trying to save, and wandering the halls of an empty manor, haunted by the disembodied voices of pestilence past, she would find her end. After an eon and an age of striving against her nature, trying to change it, she would use destruction to sow the seeds of healing.
And in not knowing what would come of her intentions and her last deed, she would meet her end like the being she thought she was for the first years of her life, like a human.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel