A note: This story was based off of a nightmare, so it may not be to your specific taste. Also, it was written in less than a day, but I hope you enjoy, reader!
“Shut up,” Hiram hissed, clamping a hand over Vincent’s mouth, “Shibboleth may hear us, even now.”
Vincent threw off Hiram’s hand. He ran to the nearest screen door, threw it open, and lay in the rain. The door swung closed behind him, but it muffled little of Vincent’s weeping as the rain kicked his bucket. Hiram stood transfixed, his chest heaving as his breaths grew shallower. The settlers watched him, uncertain now the moment was upon them.
“He’s ratting us out,” Hiram panted, “Shibboleth is going to find and bloody well kill us because of that idiot.”
He tilted back, hands covering his eyes, his throat bobbing with sobs and over-quick breath. Francis watched him, her upper lip curled in disgust. Did she fear this Shibboleth in the flesh? Oh, naturally, but did she permit it overrun her? No, by no means. A finger tapped on her shoulder until she turned to the tapper. Her husband, his expression aglow with mischief—of all things!—motioned to her. He held a long loop of thin rope in his free hand.
“I have an idea, go ahead and unwind this rope,” her husband said to her.
Francis smiled with false placidity and took the rope, watching as he wound its length about legs of tables, cupboards, in the undivided room. As he shuffled along, huddled over, his shirt drawn up such that one could see a generous portion of his lower back, she laughed fondly to herself.
Hiram’s panic party continued, the others watching him and Vincent’s body, which now twitched madly underneath the barrage of rain. A sudden scuffling sound snapped Francis’s attention back to the group, her fingers still unwinding the rope.
Hiram had a weapon—what kind, she couldn’t tell in the knot of people—but the others sought to wrest it from him.
“Off! Off!” he shrieked.
So much for hating Vincent’s wailing, Francis thought. He broke through Adri and Gertie’s barrier of arms, running through the screen door Vincent had use. The screen’s tearing preceded silence. Hiram’s twisted expression of fear disappeared, and he lay by Vincent on the tattered grass. He made little noise as the rain finished him off, too. Francis wondered if he felt peace to die that way.
The rope hung from Francis’s fingers as her eyes remained on the torn pair of brothers laying in a growing pool of water. A tug from her husband’s end of the rope drew her attention to where he knelt, still twisting rope about random objects. It seemed as if he hadn’t noticed a thing about Hiram and Vincent. She pulled back on the rope until he lifted his head and met her eyes. She glared, nodding her head towards the sight outside.
He clasped a hand to his mouth, his gasp audible even from across the room. Cymbeline held a finger to her chapped lips.
“Shibboleth?” Francis heard Adri whisper to Cymbeline.
She nodded, and then bent to whisper into his and Gertie’s ears. Their faces, sagged with the weariness from drawn-out fear, became sprightly and well-coloured. They muttered something to Cymbeline, who patted them on their heads. Francis furrowed her brow at the matter.
Adri and Gertie, their faces brimming with glee, burst apart like old wine skins, spilling out as clear water without a floating trace of skin or guts.
Cymbeline turned to Francis, her eyelids sunken with pride, a giggle gushing from between her flaking lips.
“What, how can you be surprised? I am that day of reckoning, the stream that purges, how else can I outlive all the rest?”
Francis motioned to her husband, who thankfully had not been enough of a dolt to not notice this turn of events.
“I had hoped,” Francis replied, “That Shibboleth in flesh was not true.”
Shibboleth reached down, cupped some of Adri and Gertie in her hand, and the water trickled up her arm, swathing her in a post-rain blue.
“Well, valley one, here stands the truth. And cease that mindless rope twisting, man, it’s not even random.”
“It is so!” Francis’ husband shouted, “Oh, never mind.”
“A snare of that sort can’t catch a force of universal import. You were always a jackanape, Niko, lay that down. Now, you have but to come to me, and I will allow you a painless death like these two. Besides, each who willingly dies for me becomes part of my power, what better glory is there than furthering an unstoppable force?”
“Becoming the immovable object would be better,” Francis called back.
Niko toppled over, the whites of his eyes showing, drifting in the water now pooling on the building’s floor. Francis bit back a smile at the sight. Shibboleth turned a single eye upon her.
“I have yet to meet one.”
Francis saw the broad bladed sword on the rack beside her, the figures engraved on the blade entwining, their eyes bulging as if pleading with her to withstand the draw of Shibboleth.
“I cannot guarantee to change that,” Francis said, gripping the hilt with both hands, “But I will try my damndest to.”
She heaved the sword from its place, the sinew in her shoulders straining beneath the ungainly weight of it. She thought perhaps a thread or two of her muscle snapped, but she tread through the foot-high water to Shibboleth, resting the flat of the blade against her shoulder, vaguely worried that the blade might shift too far left and nick her own neck. She swung it, her eyes tied to Shibboleth’s, who lifted a finger to meet the sword. The fingertip struck the edge of it, splitting the sword blade in half.
“The end need not be this way,” Shibboleth lilted, lifting the chin of the kneeling settler, Fyodor, who merely met her eyes and smiled.
“Yes,” he answered.
He dissolved into a formless heap of water as well, the smile the last remnant of him to dissipate.
“You could simply not do this,” Francis replied, clinging to the hilt still, the second half of the sword now laying beneath two inches of water.
She stood, watching as Shibboleth lulled and killed the remaining settlers. The futility of the situation enveloped her. She was a woman. Cymbeline, the Shibboleth. No weapon could strike Shibboleth, who merely tempted her with the illusion of an escape. There was not victory to be had, not here, and Francis realized, she never had known what winning felt like. Her childhood sank into a bog of tedium long ago, her adulthood a delightful tale of ennui, how Baudelaire of her!
“A bald-faced lie in the face of inevitability,” Shibboleth laughed back, “I have no choice in the matter, no more than you have in perpetual participation. It’s a dance someone set in motion, endless, even when you’ve worn your feet to your femurs.”
Francis tossed the sword away, running to the torn door, unsure what other course of action to take, besides resistance. She waded through the water, her first steps padded by Vincent and Hiram. A lone pine stood on a hillock nearby. She longed to reach it, struggling against the chest-high waters.
The rain had ceased, the water now tugging here, now tugging there, until she found herself spinning through the torn door back into the building, flung against a cabinet. Sweet rebellion grows savoury in the mouth of an invincible enemy, she thought.
The water ebbed from the building, spinning into Shibboleth’s skin. Francis sought to move her legs but found herself tied up by lingering ropes of water. Her eyes bulged, and she flicked water from her eyes. Shibboleth drifted to stand in front of her, extending a finger to brush down Francis’ hooked nose.
“Come now, the last step is ever so simple,” Shibboleth whispered.
“No,” she bellowed, “No, and damn you!”
Shibboleth smiled pityingly, eyeing the water encasing Francis.
“One more time, you really aren’t getting the words right,” she cooed.
Francis pointed a finger at Shibboleth, her chattering teeth grinding against each other, wishing she could speak through her noncompliant muscles. She shook her head as the water entwined itself about her accusatory arm, her trembling jaw flicking water droplets from her chin.
Shibboleth glowered, but her disapproving silence was snatched up by her roar of multiple tones, the water falling away from Francis. Freed, and unsure how it came to be, Francis bolted past Shibboleth to reach the wall of water outside. She could hardly care if she drowned in the water of her former companions. Death in freedom appealed more than strengthening a malicious force.
The water outside had subsided to leave drenched earth and flattened grass, the clouds withdrawing from the battlefield. She stumbled over the sodden ground toward the hillock, her feet gaining momentum as she used the slickness to ease her way.
“You forgot something,” Shibboleth’s voice carried to her ears, even though the voice seemed as if it came from right beside her.
Francis turned to glance behind, seeing Niko bobbing in a bundle of water at Shibboleth’s feet. She groaned, the jackanape, the shackle, the dead weight! But a foreign compassion swept over her, and she suddenly found herself standing near the Shibboleth, Niko laying between them. She and Shibboleth locked eyes, one grim-faced, the other beaming.
“Take him, no further games on my part.”
Francis eyed her, and she scratched her chin. As the Shibboleth’s smile rippled on its shifting face, features grown more inconsistent in placement, Francis drew Niko from the water. She threw him over her shoulders and turned to run.
“Take the sword, too. You may have need of it.”
Shibboleth dropped the sword’s hilt and remaining blade on the water heap. Francis’s eyes flicked from Shibboleth to the sword, Niko’s weight bearing down upon her spine. Her pulse, despite the moment, seemed to still. She bent to lift the sword. She glanced up at Shibboleth, whose smile widened to her ears.
“A little closer, a little closer,” Shibboleth whispered, so softly it hardly brushed Francis’s ears.
“Damn you,” Francis spat, kicking the sword at Shibboleth.
The blade broke as it struck Shibboleth’s shins, but Francis had already spun on her heels, running as fast as her feet would bear her. Where to now? Cymbeline had not known of the cellar, or had she? Shibboleth lasted a whole day, and only most of one had passed. Where could Francis and Niko shelter until then? Niko’s people had survived Shibboleth before, if barely. But none of the settlers she knew had witnessed the previous one, it now appeared. She caught sight of where the cellar door sat, concealed beneath turf.
Francis stomped down on the cellar door, dropping down, Niko’s body flailing about her. The cellar door snapped shut above her, and her feet struck the floor. A soft light hummed as Francis crouched, panting, Niko’s body laying splayed out on the floor beside her. The shock of the fall caused her knees to tremble, but she took Niko’s wrist and dragged him down the hallway. Blood dribbled from his lips, but she hoped he had merely broken a tooth. If he had bitten off his tongue while unconscious, then this effort would be for nothing.
As she rounded a corner of the passage, the cellar door snapped open and shut once more, echoing throughout the cellar maze. Francis choked on the air. ‘Twas all for nothing, they would be caught. She could not even hear the question Shibboleth posed the others, but she would follow them.
The jackanape once again bogged her down, not in a pointless life, but a pointless pursuit of survival. She had hunted a purpose for most of her life, and now a purpose proved her uselessness, no? Whatever strength of will against Shibboleth she maintained, it was futile in the face of inevitability.
She saw a little latched door to a cupboard in the wall, a potential place of salvation. She shoved Niko into it as quietly as she could and huddled next to him. Her neck curled most uncomfortably, but she daren’t move. The soft, sourceless light hummed on in the cupboard, by which she saw his relaxed features, his hair streaked and plastered to his forehead. He couldn’t conceal the receding hairline, or strong widow’s peak, but she hardly noticed him.
“Even becoming a bog body would surpass this nightmare of an end,” she whispered, “But I ended up here. What a dowry this is.”
The humming without the cupboard hushed, the Shibboleth silence falling upon the cellar. Francis poked at Niko’s side, his company, sorry as it was, preferable to dying alone. He grew limper beneath her touch, water spilling from the corners of his mouth and eyes, tracing down his jaw and temple. His body shrunk as the water increased in flow. Francis wriggled away from him, eyes darting to identify where the water streamed towards.
The light in the cupboard sputtered, and Francis felt for the water’s flow. Her finger traced it from Niko to underneath her side, leading towards the door of the cupboard. ‘He’s dead, and I shall face Shibboleth alone. Might as well not hesitate any longer.’
She pushed the cupboard door open, sliding herself out of it, and dragging Niko out as well. Where she touched him, his skin dimpled and would not bounce back. His eyes shuttered open as Francis crouched in the unlit passage.
"Yes," he met her eyes as she held a shushing finger to his lips, and he smiled.
“Oh,” she whispered as he, too, burst into water.
She rose to her feet, former Niko lapping at her ankles.
“Shibboleth, kill me now, I know there’s no resistance. But I will not,” her voice crescendoed, “I will not become another aspect of you. You may take my jackanape man, and those people I called companions, but understand that I shall never join you, natural force or deity you may be.”
“No need to worry about that,” Shibboleth’s voice swam about her.
Francis glanced at her finger, and in the light from the cupboard, saw Niko’s water arcing from the floor into her fingertip.
“I shall begin it anew,” Shibboleth spoke through Francis, her voice melting into the force’s.
Shibboleth smiled, her eyes shut, tears of elation spilling onto her cheeks.