A Time To Burn

By Jeffrey Kane

     The rain cascaded down in a torrential fall as Nib trudged through the streets. More rain, he thought to himself, stopping dead in his tracks to look up at the greyed sky above. With so little light it was hard to see where the canopy of the lofty trees ended and the vast open air began. It all coalesced into one black, inky mass from which there was nothing but darkness and rain.

     Nib closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest–his home. From unknown spots behind the veil of grass and shrubs the cacophonous hum of insects roared into prominence, dampened only by the sound of raindrops buffeting the damp, soft earth below.

     Thud, thud, thud.

     Each droplet sounded out clearly and distinctly, beating a rhythmic, lonely soundtrack reserved exclusively for Nib’s attentive, pointy ears. In a distant age that seemed not so distant at all, the laughter of children could often be heard echoing through the very same trees. An honest, joyous laughter that could only be produced by the fragile innocence of youth–a youth unburdened with the tasks of maintaining a secure shelter or feeding a family.

     It was a laughter that hadn’t been heard in the forest in quite some time.

     Nib shivered, his skin caressed by a sudden, cool breeze. He brought one arm up to his eyes, dabbing at them gently with the tattered, worn cloth of his cloak. Opening his eyes, now dry, he stared intently at the fabric–once an alluring, beige colour that had long since become a deep, repulsive black. He exhaled deeply and surveyed his surroundings.

     To his left, the battered, muddy road stretched over the horizon. It was a path that Nib was quite familiar with. In better times, traders from across the world would take that very route through the woods with the intent of bringing their assorted wares to some of the largest, most lucrative markets in Altamira. In times of war or famine, empathetic farmers–driven either by goodwill or out fear of divine retribution–would take that same path to provide whatever assistance they could. Often, it was merely a few vegetables and grains, but on rare occasions at times of excess, some highly sought after pieces of meat could be claimed by those lucky enough to stake an early claim. It was a reliable, hardworking path, but it was also one that has become increasingly desolate. Nib couldn’t even remember the name of the last merchant that made his way through town. Marsof? Linz?

     It didn’t matter. He slouched his shoulders, bowed his head, and continued to walk his quiet, nostalgic walk. There were some things that were better now, of course. The community was tighter, bound together in a common solidarity in face of the ongoing turmoil. Still, the experiential incidents of Nib’s past chewed at the edges of his mind, lurching him back to a time where everyone was more distant, aloof, and objectively happy.

     He passed the old bakery, long since shut down from the absence of wheat or grain. The smithy, whose fires once cast out the darkness and whose hammers once sounded the coming of dawn was disheveled and abandoned once more, as armor, of all things, was no longer high on the list of the town’s priorities. The small daycare, once home to children too old to breastfeed yet too young to work was empty, and most likely would remain so from here until the inevitable demise of the doomed, apocalyptic town nestled deep in the woods.

     In a familiar direction, the wail of a newborn infant shattered the silence. It was a sound that brought Nib no joy. He stopped mid-step and shuffled in place, feeling the fabric of his wet clothing peel away from his skin.

     My mother… His eyes grew wide at the realization, and lurched his body forward in the direction of the sound as fast as his legs could carry him. His heart pounded in his chest, trying its hardest to pump enough blood to keep his weary body moving through the clearing. With each heavy step Nib felt like he might collapse, but he dug deeper as his breathing began to quicken.

     I hope its not… He purged the thought from his mind as he continued to run.

#

     Nestled around the small hearth of his home, Nib and his parents sat in an anxious silence. His father, Nesjin, rested his head in the palms of his hands and tapped his foot incessantly on the floor. His mother, Nog, lay comfortably on a meagre spread of straw and bedding that had been hastily thrown together in anticipation of the event. Her arm lay outstretched towards her husband, her trembling hand wrapped around his ankle.

     The fire flickered, the flames dancing erratically to the melody of an unheard lute. Every so often, a spark of life would escape the hearth, threatening to engulf the hovel in a purifying, sympathetic inferno.

     They could only be so lucky.

     Almost as soon as they appeared, the sparks would quickly burn themselves out, dying a quick, pointless death. The routine was entrancing, but could only capture Nib’s attention for so long. He peeled his eyes away from the light and adjusted to the darkness, staring at the dim figures of his parents.

     “Should I go-” he began. 

     “Give us some time,” Nesjin interrupted. He was a stern man, a trait that was well appreciated by his fellow members of the council when diplomatic envoys from abroad came to visit. No favor, big or small, would be completed by his people without due compensation. It brought the town unprecedented prosperity, but also a stoic reputation that was none too appreciated by outsiders.

     Nib leaned back in his chair and exhaled deeply. He wanted to get it over with, but he understood. After all, this moment didn’t come often. Best to let his parents enjoy the uncertainty. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Nesjin kneel down before his wife and rest his head against hers. He whispered a few inaudible, imperceptible words, as if they were merely abstract thoughts unable to take Gnomish form. The two shared a silent moment in each other’s company before Nesjin stood back up.

     “Go check on your brother,” he instructed.

#

     The door creaked open, revealing more of the baby’s room inch by agonizing inch. Just a few moments ago, Nib wanted so desperately to be in this room. To finally know. Now, faced with the grim, hope-crushing prospect of reality, he wanted more than anything to be anywhere else. Mustering up all the courage he could manage, he pushed himself through the door.

     At the center of the chamber lay the baby, a formless, colorless vestige of nothing veiled by the darkness of the room. Its legs–or perhaps its arms–flailed aimlessly, swiping indiscriminately at the air. It babbled incoherent sounds, something that Nesjin so desperately wanted to take as a sign that everything was okay, but he had been deceived too many times already.

     He pushed one leg into the room, glancing back behind himself towards the relative safety of the hearth. It wasn’t too late to turn back. His parents would understand. After all, he was just a child, a child that had seen far too much suffering already and couldn’t bear the thought of witnessing yet another black mark on the proud history of his people. In just a few short seconds, he could turn back to his father and ask, no, plead with him to carry out The Witness instead of him. It would be so simple.

     But he couldn’t. Nib could never do that to his parents after all they had been through. He had lost his siblings before, but that paled in comparison with losing a child. He wondered if they even bothered to name this one yet. Nam? Neg? No, those were girls’ names. This is a male. A strong male that could help out on the farm, hunt big game, and defend the town when needed. Nug? That was a fine name. The name of a blade-wielding warrior–a champion of his people.

     One step closer, and now mere inches away from the newly named Nug. When he was old enough, would he perhaps be fascinated with machinery? Or would he be an artist? Perhaps he would join the militia full-time after all, and rise through the ranks to bring pride to his family? Nib smiled at the thought.

     The young gnome loomed over the makeshift bed of straw that supported his brother. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and balled his hands into tight little fists for a few seconds at a time before releasing the tension in a therapeutic, stress-relieving ritual. He stared down at the black figure below.

     “Whatever happens, you know I love you.” He reached down and grazed his brother’s arm, eliciting a giggle or two.

     Nib grasped the newborn baby firmly in his hands, and brought him closer to the light. Nug was a heavy baby, perhaps 3 or 4 pounds, something that would bid well for his future military career. His tanned skin matched that of his father, and the tufts of hair already sprouting at the crown of his head was a warming auburn reminiscent of the autumn trees, and his mother’s eyes.

     “Nib?” Nesjin called out from the other room. “How is he?”

     The boy wanted to lie, to say that his brother was fine and that everything was alright, but not even a few meek words could escape. Nib was shaken, unable to come up with any response at all, least of which the truth. Tears started to well at the corners of his eyes, pooling and streaking down his cheeks.

     “He…” he wavered and tailed off, unable to speak even the single word with confidence.

     “Nib,” his father calmly soothed from the doorway. “It’s okay. Tell me.”

     Nib could only shake his head. His brother was not alright, and never would be. Nug would never be a farmer or a fighter, a tinkerer or a painter. He would never amount to anything more than yet another broken promise that failed to bring hope back to the forest gnomes–another wasted effort that stole yet more energy and years from his mother’s life. Nug would never be more than a symbol of the plague that continued to blight his clan, his village, and his race. He would be all of these things and more because he, like all of the other children born in the past few years, was doomed to die.

     Nib placed his brother in the cradling arms of his father, bathing the baby in the gentle glow cast by embers of the hearth. He wiped the tears from his eyes and took his first, and potentially last, look at the fifth sibling that he would outlive. Nug’s eyes darted back and forth. His ears perked at every cackle of the flame, and his nose crinkled, smelling the smoke. It could have been a picture that lived happily in Nib’s mind had it not been the sight of the baby’s lower jaw dislocated from the rest of his mouth, leaving his face in a permanent image of a perpetual, horrifying scream.

     His father closed the baby’s mouth with one finger and smiled at the facade. He pulled away, watching it drop back into place with an unnatural, cringe-inducing crack. Nug screamed an open-faced, slack-jawed shriek, a sight–and sound–that would live forever with his brother.

     “Like all the others,” Nesjin muttered.

     “Are you sure?” Nog asked flatly, as if she didn’t even have the strength to inflect. “His is still holding.”

     “It won’t last,” her husband replied, holding and releasing his newborn son’s mouth as if it was a toy. With each release the baby wailed in pain, his parents too numbed by years of disappointment to care. “It’s the muscles and the tendons that are rotting. Whether it’s today or in a month, he won’t be able to sustain himself.”

     “It’s rotjaw?” She asked, already aware of the answer.

     Her husband silently nodded. Without a second thought, he dropped the baby, sacrificing it to the fires of the blazing hearth. They listened to the cries and watched it burn, a practice that would be considered unthinkably barbaric at any other time, and in any other scenario. Within seconds, the haunting cries for help gave way to an all-too-familiar, deafening silence. The family sat for the rest of the evening, numb, hollow husks void of emotion kept artificially warm by the comforting flames of the purifying fire.

     For the fifth time in as many years, they sat defeated, waiting for the sunrise.

#

     Nib pushed the grains to one side of his plate, massing them together in a single clump of barely edible food. His head rested against the palm of his left hand, his eyes watching lazily as his right played almost autonomously with his supper. Around the table, his parents chewed their portions, their jaws audibly cracking with each bite of the soft, flavorless morsels.

     A loud snap shook the room, snapping the family to attention. They peered inquisitively towards the patriarch sitting at the head of the table, who averted their gaze and clutched at the sides of his mouth. “I’m fine,” he assured them.

     “I can make something softer if you’d prefer,” Nog offered, running her hand up and down the wrinkled, flabby bicep of her husband.

     “It wouldn’t matter.”

     “It might hurt less,” she coaxed, getting out of her seat.

     “Sit down,” her husband snapped. A brief moment of silence weighed heavily on the room.

     His temper’s getting worse, Nib silently assessed. His eyes met those of his father, who nodded across the table and towards the unfinished grains scattered haphazardly on his son’s plate.

     “Eat them,” he commanded. “We might not be getting any more for a long time.”

     “You mean…?” Nog prodded, trying to hide the quivering fear in her voice.

     Nesjin only nodded, wiping his mouth with the dirty rag nestled beside his plate. “We’re condemned.”

     “What about the agreement we had made? They can’t leave us here to die.”

     “They are,” he responded flatly, already having made peace with the news.

     “That’s unacceptable. There are still hundreds of us here, they can’t expect us to give up.” Nog was furious. She snuck a protective glance towards her son. “Did you even fight the decision?”

     “How? We have nothing to offer anyone anymore. When it was just the children there was hope, but now…” Nesjin’s hand instinctively rubbed at his jaw as he spoke. Nib wondered how badly it hurt.

     “Why does it matter how old they are?”

     “Because they didn’t believe they could catch it. They thought it was a gnomish disease caused by something in the forest.”

     “You mean?-”

     Nesjin nodded, interrupting his wife. “Four babies born with it, all born outside the forest. It’s spreading, and they can’t risk contracting it and taking this any further.”

     “But we’ve done such a good job with the bodies.” Nog slouched in her seat, defeated.

     “Not good enough. We’ve burned them, buried them…” Nesjin stopped, noticing his wife staring intently towards their son.

     “Nib, could you give us a minute?” She lilted, running her hand through his hair.

     He obliged, standing from his seat and exiting the room. The routine was well-worn, but pointless. He was young, yes, but he wasn’t stupid. Every time they would have one of these discussions, Nib would be excused and leave in silence until he was just out of sight. Then, the hushed, accusatory whispers would begin. Today was no exception. Nib shut the door behind him, took up a position behind the wall, and listened intently.

     “It’s a living organism, Nog,” the sound was muffled, but understandable. “It’s infecting everything, including us.

     “We were fine for a little while.”

     “Our bodies aren’t fighting it off. There’s nothing we can do. We either sit here and die with dignity or we infect the rest of the goddamn continent.”

     Nib could hear his mother begin to cry, a sound that was so frequent he could pick it out from any room in the house.

     “What about Nib? He’s still fine. They can take him,” she spoke between sobs.

     Nothing but silence. Nib could picture the scene in his mind–his father standing from his chair, gazing longingly out the window as his wife came to terms with their grim reality.

     “So, that’s it then. Our lives thrown away for nothing as we die a horrific, slow death.”

     “It doesn’t have to be that way for him,” Nesjin comforted. “There’s a way out.”

     “You can’t be serious.”

     “How much do you love him?”

     More silence. Nib pressed his ear firmly to the door, trying intently to discern any recognizable syllable or sound. He got his wish. The light thump of footsteps grew louder as they approached, leaving the young gnome with mere seconds to react. He pushed himself away from the door and scampered as silently as he could up the makeshift staircase, adeptly turning the corner to make it to his bedroom. Below, the door to the dining room creaked open, and the footsteps ceased.

     Made it, Nib thought to himself, panting heavy breaths. He could feel his lungs expand uncontrollably, trying their hardest to provide oxygen to the rest of his body. Between breaths, he could hear the kitchen door close once more. Nib tried his hardest to listen to the lingering remnants of whatever conversation it was that they were having, but it was of no use. There was nothing he could do but wait.

#

     Nib felt himself be gently roused from sleep. He couldn’t remember drifting off, and even as his eyes flickered open and adjusted to the dimly lit room, he couldn’t tell for how long he had been out. A few minutes, an hour? On that day and in that moment, time was an untraceable, uncountable blur. In his present state of mind there were only two moments–then, and now. Then, Nib had been an eavesdropping, tired little gnome trying his hardest to read between the lines of his parent’s conversation. Now, what was he? And, who could he become?

     “Nib!” His father called, a hidden sense of urgency rang forth from the word.

     “I’m coming, father.” Nib groggily responded. He lurched upwards into a sitting position and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His eyelids fluttered, shielding his sensitive pupils from whatever light managed to break through the overcast sky outside his window.

     “Nib! Come downstairs, now!”

     There was no more time to lose. Nib could only guess what his father wanted from him, but from the sounds of it, it couldn’t wait. He sprang forward and took quick steps out towards the door. Within seconds he had already reached the stairs, and took them two at a time until he had arrived at the landing. “Where are you?”

     “In here,” his dad quietly replied. The voice came from the would-be nursery. That ill-fated room where so many of Nib’s brothers and sisters had been assigned to their perilous fates. He hadn’t been to that room since, and wasn’t looking forward to going back.

     His head swivelled on his shoulders as he entered, scanning the room for any anomalies. Aside from his dad leaning against the far wall next to the window, nothing seemed amiss. Nib swallowed his anxiety and approached. “Hey dad, what’s going on?”

     “Were you sleeping?”

     “Yes, but-”

     “I apologize for waking you.”

     “It’s not a problem dad, but why-”

     “Nib, I want you to listen carefully to me.” Nesjin paused and leered at his child, assessing his reaction and gauging his attentiveness. Once Nib nodded in agreement, he continued. “Your mother and I have been talking about you, us, and this whole situation we’re in.”

     “You mean the plague?”

     “If that’s the word you’d prefer to use. You’re not a dumb boy, and we know that you’re quite aware of what’s going on in our village.” Nesjin approached his son as he spoke, circling him like a shark. “We’re dying, Nib.”

     The bluntness of the statement caught Nib by surprise, causing him to take a nervous step backwards towards the door.

     “The disease is spreading, and it’s going to kill us. There’s no stopping it. But that doesn’t mean we all have to suffer.”

     “What are you talking about dad?” Nib questioned, urgently.

     “I don’t want your mom to have to see it happening to you, too.” Nesjin took a large step towards his son, who responded in turn with an instinctive move away. Nesjin continued to circle, blocking access to the door and forcing his soon deeper into the inescapable prison of a room.

     A glimmer of light caught Nib’s eye. A polished, silver dagger gleamed, neatly tucked into the waistband of his father’s pants.

     “Don’t panic, Nib,” his father spoke softly as he brandished the blade.

     “Dad, what are you doing?!” Nib’s mind raced as he thought of anything at all that could be used to defend himself. It was too late.

     In a burst of speed that belied the age of the sick, weary gnome, Nesjin lunged forward at his son, the dagger clutched firmly in his left hand. Within just a second or two, it was all over. Stricken by panic, Nib couldn’t even react fast enough to move out of the way of the attack, and felt a damp stickiness saturate his shirt and cling to his body. He looked down to see the knife embedded firmly in the right-hand side of his gut.

     At first he felt nothing, but as the shock subsided a dull, throbbing pain emanated from the wound and reverberated through his body. An impossible amount of blood gushed outwards, spilling to the floor and lubricating the surface.

     Nib fell to one knee and clutched at the gaping hole in his torso, trying desperately to hold it closed to prevent his body from bleeding any more than it already had. The room started to spin as his mind began to fog up. His eyes began to shut, but reopened at the sound of his dad’s voice.

     “I’m sorry, son, but this is for the best.”

     Nib lost his balance and slumped down to the floor, his face now lying in his own blood–his senses overwhelmed by the metallic tang in his mouth, the scent of copper wafting through the air, and damp wetness coating his skin. His vision blurred, but he could still clearly make out the image of his father approaching once more, knife firmly in hand.

     “Dad?” He half-heartedly pleaded, already knowing the pain that was to come. He closed his eyes and waited for the end.

     Thwack.

     Instinctively, Nib winced at the sound, but felt no pain. It came again.

     Thwack.

     This time, it was accompanied by slurred, gurgling syllables attempting to speak an unspoken word. Nib opened his eyes to the sight of his father shielding his face from the blows of his unknown assailant.

     Blood poured from Nesjin’s mouth. With no hesitation and no remorse, the axe hammered down one more time, hacking through much of the sinews and bones holding his father’s arm together. His father’s wrist dangled limply, held in place by the last, weakened ligaments in his forearm. He fell to the ground, wailing in agony. He tried to speak, but only managed to hack out wet, heavy coughs.

     Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

     Four more heavy strikes of the axe and Nib’s father lay dead on the floor. The axe fell to the ground, clattering to the earth through the pools of blood.

     “Nib!” Nog cried out, “are you okay?” She ran to her son, lifting his head in her arms and examining the wound. Nib tried to talk, but couldn’t through the pain. “Everything’s fine. Don’t worry,” she soothed him, as she helped him to his feet. “Easy, easy. Come. We’ll get you patched up.”

     Nib limped forward, fighting through the searing pain in his stomach. Before leaving the room, he took one last look at his father, his corpse riddled with gashes, fragments of bone and hunks of internal organs strewn throughout the room.

#

     For the first time in days, the rain had subsided, giving way to a clear, sunny day that almost eased the worries of the townspeople. Nib was no exception.

     It had been a few short months since his father was murdered–the smell, the sounds, and the images all lived in the nightmares conjured each time Nib closed his eyes, and yet in the warmth of the sun’s rays, it seemed like an eternity ago. It was amazing what nature could do.

     “So?” The singsong voice chimed beside him.

     Nib opened his eyes, acknowledging the presence of his longtime friend. Her eyes probed, longing for an answer to a question that he didn’t listen to.

     “Did you drift off again?” Mub asked, a touch of impatience in her words.

     “Yeah, sorry. What was the question?”

     “Getting out of here,” she frustratingly exhaled. “Come with me or I’m leaving without you.”

     Nib sighed. The ultimatum carried less weight than the first time it had been brought up a few weeks prior. “That’s not a question,” he teased.

     “I’m running out of ways to ask it.” She brushed her hair over her shoulder and took her eyes off of her friend, leaning back and resting her head against the grass. “If we don’t leave soon…” her jaw cracked with every word. It seemed like the disease was starting to affect everyone Nib cared about.

     He rose to a seating position and looked down at Mub, a solemn face framed by her wiry, jet black hair. She wore tattered clothes that once fit snugly, but now were a few sizes too big, doing a decent job masking her shrinking frame. Nib wondered when was the last time that she had eaten. “You think we have that little time?”

     “My dad says they’re running out of places to bury the bodies. It’s too dangerous to go further out into the woods, and we can’t keep burning them. How long do you think it will take before we run out of room to grow the crops?”

     “Not long, I guess.”

     “We need to leave.”

     “And just leave everyone here to die?” Nib thought of his mother as he spoke. Mub kept quiet, refusing to acknowledge the question. “They’d never let us out, anyway.” Her ears perked up.

     “What do you mean?”

     “We’re sick. We have the symptoms. The second that they see that, the guards will send us back or kill us themselves. We’re quarantined here. They’re just waiting for a life without us, and without this fucking disease.”

     Mub brought one hand up to her face, running a few fingers down her jawline. “It’s worth a shot,” she spoke, herself unconvinced.

     Nib stood up, stretching his arms. “It’s not, Mub. It will all be over soon, anyway.”

     His friend stared—-inquisitive, but silent.

     “It looks like you’re about as hungry as I am,” he smiled weakly as he stood. The sentiment was unreturned.

     “Are you leaving?”

     “Yeah,” Nib responded. “ I should be getting back soon.”

     “Nib,” Mub spoke, sternly. “I can’t wait anymore. Meet me at the gate tonight or I’m going to leave without you.”

     “Mub,” Nib started, rolling his eyes. “Don’t do this-”

     “Tonight.”

     A brief moment of silence passed between the two friends as they met each other’s gaze, their eyes speaking more than their words ever could. She had made this request in the past, but never with this resolve.

     “We’ll see,” he reasoned, turning away. He took a few, tentative steps down the hill, anticipating resistance from the girl at any moment, but it never came.

     She simply watched the distance between them grow as Nib walked further and further away from the hill.

#

     “Are you hungry?” Nog asked as her son entered their dank, musty home, fully aware of the answer. She didn’t get out much since she had killed her husband. At first, Nib assumed it was the guilt or the stress combined with her worsening condition that kept her indoors, but recently, she had actually taken a turn for the better. Given the circumstances it seemed far more likely that she simply preferred to stay indoors.

     “Starving.” Nib replied, sitting at the table. He glanced up at his mother and saw a rare smile painted on her face. A sincere, genuine smile. He had almost forgotten what that looked like.

     “I’m glad to hear that,” she responded, striding to the kitchen. Within seconds, she re-emerged, delivering a full, hearty plate down in front of her son. While there was some standard fare–a few vegetables, some fruit, and small heaps of grain–there was something new taking center stage before him. Hunks of meat glistened in sunlight, seared at the edges by the flames of the fire. The smell wafted up to Nib’s nose, and within seconds, he started to salivate.

     “Mom, what is this?”

     “It’s meat, Nib.” She responded proudly.

     “But where did you get this? It’s been ages since we had a delivery.”

     “I went out into the woods today.”

     “You went out?!” Nib exclaimed. “You know how dangerous it is out there, mom, you could have been killed.”

     “What’s the difference?” She asked calmly, not a hint of regret or concern in her voice.

     Nib stared down at the appetizing plate of food set before him. He felt his stomach tremble, eager for his teeth to rip through the tantalizing flesh. He brought his nose closer and took a deep breath, savouring the lingering aroma.

     It had been far too long.

     From the corner of his eye, he could see his mother eagerly watching the display. Never for a second forgetting his manners despite his ravenous appetite, he pushed the plate towards her. “Thanks mom. Are you going to have some?”

     Nog shook her head. “I ate before you arrived.”

     As the words passed through her lips, Nib began to ferociously devour the food before him, the tenderness of the flesh and its juices helping to soothe the aching pain in his jaw. For the first time in what felt like forever, he felt a sense of pure, primal, unadulterated relief.

     “Well?” His mother probed. “Are you feeling a bit better?”

     “Much,” Nib replied, his mouth full. He leaned back in his chair, enjoying every bite.

     “Would you like more?”

     His eyes widened, incredulous at the question. “There’s more?”

     Nog nodded, another smile creeping up the corners of her mouth.

     “Yes, please.”

     “It will take a few minutes,” his mother spoke, standing from her seat. “Enjoy the rest in the meantime.”

     Nib obliged. With each bite, he could feel the sinewy ligaments work their way through his mouth and around his teeth. It was tough, but a welcome change from what he had long-since grown accustomed to. He savoured each morsel, feeling whatever juices the flesh still had left bathe his tongue, stimulating his senses.

     Thwack.

     The sound of a blade forcefully smacking against a hard surface rang out from the other room.

     Thwack.

     A little louder this time, Nib’s mother seemingly putting all of her weight behind each strike of the cleaver.

     “Everything okay, mom?” Nib called out, his voice muffled from the last of his supper.

     “Perfect,” came the reply from another room, followed immediately by the now-rhythmic smack of the knife.

     Standing and carrying his plate, Nib approached the kitchen and made his way through the door.  “Here, I’m finished. Let me help-”

     Crash.

     The plate shattered against the floor, splintering into what seemed like a hundred pieces. The sound drew the gaze of Nog, who gave the sight a quick, cursory glance before moving her eyes upwards, meeting the eyes of her son who stood, wide-eyed and mouth agape, horrified at the scene before him.

     Placed on his mother’s cutting board, feeling the stinging cut of each smack of the cleaver sat a tiny, seemingly infantile gnomish torso. It had begun to be portioned out into two or three smaller hunks of flesh, with the remainder sitting on the cutting board, poised to be trimmed down even further.

     At each corner, the arms and legs had already been removed as if torn apart by an animal, leaving behind nothing but bones and connective tissue that longed desperately to be whole. Other assorted body parts–feet, hands, and genitals, mostly–were tossed haphazardly aside. Blood was splattered throughout the room, already having stained the wooden walls and floors with its sickly, reddish hue. Finally, the heads were relegated to the corner of the room, stacked atop one another in a ghoulish pyramid. The eyes had been surgically removed, leaving tiny, empty, jawless skulls staring in perpetuity and in horror towards all those who entered the room. At the center of it all was Nog, cleaver still in hand, her apron coated in the blood of countless infants.

     “Nib, clean that mess up,” Nog commanded.

     “Mom, what the fuck is all of this,” Nib exhaled breathlessly as the metallic stench of the fluids finally creeped through his nose, stifling his breath.

     Nog surveyed the room. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” she began, taking one step towards her son. Nib backed away in turn, an action that took his mother by surprise. “Nib, what’s wrong? Don’t you trust me?” She put the knife down and continued walking, each step slow, deliberate, and ominous.

     “I thought I did,” Nib’s breathing began to steady as he adapted to the overwhelming scent of the room. The overpowering bouquet of the bodies led to a lingering, familiar taste creeping into the back of his mouth, and his mind immediately raced to the meal that he had just eaten. “Did you feed-” he gagged, feeling an acidic warmth rise up through the middle of his chest. Despite his best efforts to suppress the feeling rising inside of him, he vomited. The half-digested food and bile met with the pools of blood, coalescing into one thick, viscous liquid that took on a pus-like hue.

     Nog dropped to her knees and placed a hand on the back of her son. He waved it away as he continued to vomit. “I did, Nib.”

     “Babies?” He managed to cry out, now unburdened by the taste of gnomish flesh.

     Nib let himself fall backwards. He pushed himself away from his mother until his back met the far wall, his body now resting flush against the cold, hard surface. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

     He could feel drool and vomit drip from his lower lip as he spoke. He took a few deep breaths and swallowed heavily, put off by the bitterness of whatever bile remained lodged in his throat.

     “Nib, you need to calm down. And you have to stop throwing up.”

     “I thought you were getting better!”

     “I am, Nib! I’m much better than I have been in years!” His mother exclaimed.

     “How could you say that? You’re insane! Did killing dad give you a taste-?”

     “No!” she shouted, interrupting her son. A thunderous moment of silence sat heavily between them as her word echoed. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brow, rubbing at her temples as she struggled to find the words to properly express her thoughts. “Your dad was a part of this, yes, but not in the way that you think he is.”

     “Did you eat him too?”

     “Nib!” she roared once more. When she was sure that he wouldn’t interrupt once more, she continued. “He was the first one to suggest any of this.”

     Nib winced at the thought.

     “Before people started dying en masse, there were more mouths to feed. Shipments were becoming more scarce, the animals were dying, and we were losing land to all of the graves. Food was rare, and finding it was becoming more important than preserving our morals. Your father knew that, and brought it up in council. Do you know what they did?”

     Nib silently shook his head, nervously anticipating her response.

     “They ostracized him. They labeled him a monster, a freak–a cannibal. But he wouldn’t let it keep him from trying to provide for us. You included, Nib. He didn’t have the acceptance of the town, so he broke out in secret, and started retrieving the corpses.”

     Nib gagged once more, almost feeling another surge of vomit pour from him, but he managed to keep it contained.

     Nog gazed longingly past her son and out the door, towards the table for a brief moment, collecting her thoughts. “He did it with good intentions, Nib. He thought that if we wasted nothing and ate the bodies, then maybe we could buy ourselves enough time to maybe find a cure. Trust me, I was as horrified as you are now, but we didn’t have a choice. We soon realized that it was more than just the newborns, everyone was afflicted, and many of us started to display the symptoms.”

     Nib thought back to all of those silent meals punctuated frequently by the cracking sounds of weakening bone. “But then why did he try to kill me?”

     “Your father didn’t plan on it, but he enjoyed eating the flesh. Being a monster, he could live with, but he didn’t want the same to happen to you. He couldn’t let you live your entire life as a cannibal, doomed to either being outcast from any society or living your life struggling to avoid the temptation of just another bite. He decided that killing you was the right course of action, but I couldn’t let him go through with it.”

     They sat alone, together, in silence, both of them processing everything that had just been said.

     Nib was the first to speak. “So, all this time… You’ve been eating babies?”

     Nog nodded. “I was feeling very ill. I knew I didn’t have much time left, so I kept eating them in secret and leaving the real food for you.”

     “Then why feed me this shit now?”

     “Because Nib, I think it’s the reason that I’ve been feeling better.”

     Nib failed to reply, stunned at his mother’s response.

     “I know it sounds crazy, so I tested it myself. I went one week on, one week off, and it was a night and day difference, Nib. I wanted to give it to you to see if it would have the same effect.”

     Nib glanced incredulously towards the pile of heads in the corner.

     “If I’m right, and they really do help, we could save the town,” tears began to well up in the corner of her eyes. Nib couldn’t help but feel a shred of compassion for all that she had gone through.

     “Why me?” He asked, meekly.

     “If the others knew what I had been doing…” She hesitated to finish her sentence. “I’m sure they’d kill me.”

     Nib knew that she was right. He slowly stood to his feet and wiped the dust, blood, and vomit from his clothes, taking comfort in the mechanical, mindless nature of the act.

     “You could tell them if you’d prefer. I’d understand why you might want to, but you need to know that I don’t want to do this anymore than you do. Think of all the kids I’ve lost. I just think this might be the only way to save us.”

     Nib thought back to all of his brothers and sisters that had been lost to the all-consuming fires of the hearth. The despair on his mother’s face and the desperation on his father’s eyes all came screaming back to him in a flash, each tragic image being re-lived over and over again in his mind.

     His mother wasn’t a bad person. She couldn’t be. She just cared so much about the wellbeing of others that she would push past the arbitrary limits set by age-old traditions and custom, and find a way through the darkness. She had given him life, sustained it, and even saved it–he owed her his trust, at least until she abused it.

     He paced slowly over to his mother and gave her a warm, sincere hug. Nog brought a hand up her eyes, wiping the tears from her smiling face. After sharing a nod of acknowledgement, Nib broke free from the embrace and moved hesitantly–but with purpose–towards the mounds of flesh resting comfortably on the counter. He picked up one of the smaller morsels and brought it to his nose, sniffing it.

     “Don’t think about what it is,” she reassured. “Think about what it can do for the town.”

     Nib nodded to himself. He knew he would never be the same once he knowingly took a bite of the flesh of his people. It had changed his father. It had changed his mother. It would undoubtedly change him, as well. But that was life. People, circumstances, and beliefs all must change to respond to what the gods had in mind. This was but another of their cruel tests. He had to rise to the occasion.

     Shutting his eyes and trying not to think about the smell, he tore into the raw, juicy flesh, feeling the blood pour down his throat and washing away everything that he ever thought he had known about the world. 

#

     The moon sat high in the sky, beaming its light down into the clearing below. Shadows were cast ominously down onto the earth, intermittently veiling both Nib and his mother as they skulked through the foliage. Occasionally, Nog would cast a hesitant, cautious glance back towards the village, trying to ensure that they remained undetected.

     Nib wasn’t worried. Far from it. In the beginning, he had his doubts, just like she still did, but now, he knew that there was no reason to be afraid. He knew that the babies worked. It wasn’t an immediate improvement, of course. He still had to get past the numerous mental obstacles that faced him each time he sat before his meal. While he tried not to question it–to clear his mind, as his mother so often repeated–it was easier said than done. With each bite, he couldn’t help but try to discern who he was eating.

     Now? Now he didn’t think twice. Hell, he often prepared the meals alongside his mother. It was difficult when the heads were still attached, eyeing the duo with an accusatory gaze, but with just a few quick cuts of the knife, it ceased to be a problem. Out of sight, out of mind. 

     It truly was a remarkable difference. In just a few short weeks Nib had gone from a fragile and frail husk of a gnome to one that was much more healthy and vigorous. He had more energy, he slept better, and, most importantly, he was entirely pain free. His mother described the cannibalistic act as giving the body the tools to fight the disease, and it worked. There was one caveat, though. The flesh had to be infected. They learned that harsh lesson when they dug up the remnants of the Fragglefrug infants. Dead, yes, but nutritionally worthless.

     That’s when Nog refined her theory. It made sense to Nesjin. The fresher the better. That’s why they travelled out to the mass graves. New corpses were constantly being tossed in the pile. Nib gripped his shovel more firmly as they continued to skulk.

     The cool, fresh winds gusted up around them, enveloping the pair in an invigorating breeze. Nib closed his eyes and felt his hair whip erratically around his face. It had been a long time since he was so at ease with the world around him. They were this close to spreading that joy around Snakepass, but they needed one more test to be sure.

     Nog dropped her bag to the floor and cinched her cloaked tightly around her neck, sheltering herself from the wind. “Here,” she said, tapping at the ground with her foot.

     Even the uninitiated couldn’t miss it. For hundreds of feet the grass stretched undisturbed until it hit this godforsaken clearing. Here, the earth was scarred by the constant intrusions of the outside world, mushrooms grew from the soil, profiting on the boundless corpses of the children. The scent of death and decay permeated the air.

     Silently, Nib began to dig. The topsoil, thankfully, was soft, and the heavy steel of the shovel head had no trouble displacing the dirt. Being an inexperienced graverobber, it took Nib a few minutes to perfect the motion, but once he did, things progressed altogether quite smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that it didn’t take long at all for the shovel to meet resistance. Nib looked up at his mother and smiled. “Not too bad.”

     Dropping to their hands and knees, they began to clear the dig site. Their short, stubby fingers soon met the rotting flesh of the corpses. As they began to pull the babies from the hole, a sense of relief washed over Nib. While some of them had been scarred or picked at by the local wildlife, the top layer of gnomish infants remained relatively undisturbed. With each of their four limbs, the bodies could feed three of four gnomes for a day, easily. More if they were rationed more closely.

     That was another thing that he and his mother had tested–portion control. While delicious, it wouldn’t be practical for the town to gorge themselves on as much of the meat as possible. It was far more efficient to each just a hundred or so grams of the flesh each day. It was less satisfying, but it still delivered incredible health benefits, and each baby could be stretched much farther as a result.

     Unfortunately, their luck was, evidently, not destined to hold out forever. Many of the babies were unusable. Some of the older residents of the mass grave had long since begun to decompose and rot. Maggots and flies had already taken up residence in the pale, almost translucent skin of the corpses, beginning to break the body down into a gooey, unappetizing, and inedible substance. Nib reeled at the stench.

     “Be strong,” his mother commanded, filling her sac with the bodies “there’s still some usable ones.”

     As if compelled by Nog’s words, something began to stir among the pile. Both gnomes froze, silently observing the movements. In the darkness it was difficult to make out exactly what it was. A snake? Maybe a mouse. It could easily have been more maggots, but no. It was the sounds that gave it away. Breaking the stillness of the night were the shrieking wails of an infected gnomish baby that was not quite dead.

     Nib turned to his mother for support, who stared into the pit sympathetically. “How…?”

     She stayed silent for a moment, bending down to reach through the bodies down towards the infant that defied the odds. She cradled it in her arms, soothing its cries. “It’s not easy to let them go. The parents must not have been strong enough to kill it.”

     “So they just left it here?”

     “To let nature take its course.” She exhaled deeply, and closed her eyes for a brief moment, gently bobbing the baby up and down.

     Nib averted his eyes, instead looking back down into the mass grave, eyes peeled for any more improbable survivors. “What do we do?”

     Almost as soon as the words left his mouth, a loud crack snapped from his mother’s direction. Quickly turning to look, Nib watched his mother, still holding the body of the baby’s neck that she had just broken. He watched in horror as its head dangled limply. “Mom!” He cried out.

     “We’re here for fresh bodies. We got lucky.”  She set the corpse down on the ground, and brandished a large dagger from her cloak.

     With the poise and precision of a butcher, she began to saw through the fleshy, veiny neck of the child, spilling its blood down to the ground. Within less than a minute, the head had been completely removed and cast aside. Nib winced and looked away, trying to no avail to purge the image from his mind.

     Thinking the worst was over, he glanced back only to see his mother surgically extracting the eyeballs from the head, being careful not to lose even a single, viscous drop. Stabbing one through with her blade, she brought it up to her nose, taking a few lengthy sniffs before placing it gently in her mouth. With a subtle schlip, her teeth pushed through the organ as she began to chew.

     Nib dropped to his knees in disgust, trying to retain his composure. Noticing the distress of her son, Nog spoke up.

     “Nib?” She spoke, swallowing the eye.

     He didn’t respond.

     “You’re going to have to be stronger than this, Nib. Remember, we’re doing this for everyone.”

     Cold and hollow inside, Nib managed wordlessly to stand back up.

     “Here,” she alerted, tossing the corpse over to her son, who instinctively caught it. “We were right about the freshness. Drink the blood. You’ll feel better.”

     Nib stared down at the headless baby in his hands, thinking about his mother’s words. She was right, they were doing this for the town. For the survival of the entire species. This was bigger than either of them, and successfully finding a cure meant that people had to suffer. Unfortunately, that had to be him.

     Trying to put everything he just witnessed past him, he brought the neck of the baby up to his lips. Like water from a glass, the blood poured from the jagged, open wound down into Nib’s mouth. He swirled it around in his mouth, making sure that every inch benefitted from the healing properties of the liquid–he didn’t know how the cure worked, and he wasn’t taking any chances.

     It took just a few seconds after swallowing the blood to realize that his mom was right about this, too. Nib did feel better, and while he was excited about what that meant for the town, his people, and their future, he wondered what it meant for him, personally.

     His mother had told him the stories of his father, but Nib didn’t listen. Now, he had no choice, because for the first time since this whole thing started, he had to accept the fact that, as horrific as the process was, he was beginning to enjoy the subtle, nuanced, and complex flavour profile of flesh, and that fact terrified him more than any other. 

Jeffrey Kane is a freelance writer passionate about all things horror, from television shows to novels. A fan of the bloody, the macabre, and the terrifying, his stories blur the lines between fantasy, science fiction and horror in order to tell engaging stories in fresh, entertaining ways.

Jim Phoenix

El Jefe

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Real skull. Don't ask. You wouldn't believe it if I told you.

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