Celeres Part 2
Nighttime meant playtime for hidden lights and exposed depths.
A thin line of rugged earth, flanked by torturous seas. The distant rumbling and turmoil, the prelude of a misty evening; bony rocky formations stretched upwards, darting through the fog, greedily wrapping around the beautiful bounty of the land. And what a beauty it was; daring eyes that pierced the blocks of bright moisture saw serene green fields, covered in inviting grass and peeking flower beds. Giants in the mists loomed tall and dark; proximity revealed them to be tall and enduring trees, standing on the threshold between wilderness and bucolic sights - the distant groves of olive and apple trees of a more tamed world.
It was a strange night for a journey; it would be a night without rest.
Sextus made camp, miserable with the ubiquitous dampness. The horse, for once, was content; the knight had been off its back the entire day and the greenery was delicious. Sextus struggled to find enough sticks and branches to start a fire; soon one was lit - a messy thing, fizzling, popping and smoking, - the wet wood resisting, giving up little heat or ash.
The man gave up, stumbling exhausted and surrendering to the floor; he laid fireside, acting only to keep it alive. Four times it went out; out into the night he went again, hoping some twigs had miraculously dried enough to burn. Sitting cross-legged, Sextus rummaged through his packs; he would not risk tainting the food by cooking on these compromised flames, so he resigned himself to eat from his bag of roasted nuts and seeds. Smoke dissipated and the horse’s interest on the human was reinstated; it lumped its beastly body closer, lured by the warmth and curious about what sort of treats Sextus was hiding on his bags.
The disgraced scion of gens Sergii did not restrain a chuckle. All and all, he had been lucky and he had been blessed.
But had he grown strong enough to face quietude?
The familiarity he had felt on the shrine of Dis Pater had never left him. He was attuned to divinity, divinity attuned to this land; made strong by it, given ideas and form by it, ever approaching and ever present. He could have avoided it, try to run away from it; the tangled covenants made that futile and impossible. So he would make himself as comfortable as he could, he would stand down and wait.
He laid a hand over the ground, eyes closed as his breath arrested. The blades of grass danced between his fingers, echoing a rippling presence that permeated the earth itself. It was disquieting how comfortable it was; a serene inevitability, an harmonious power that tolerated no discord and bore no defiance.
They would not find in Sextus a passive recipient. He patted the horse above the hind leg, guiding the animal away from his packs. Sextus reached for a large iron and bronze disk; a pull and a spin forced it to reveal other smaller metallic circles, as well as the frame that locked them into a constellation of telluric strength. A strange and ingenious Vestal contraption, it was revealed as a mask when Sextus put it over the horse’s face - the placid creature snorted and continued on its quest for tasty shoots, used to this strain of weirdness. Not beyond solidarity, Sextus covered his face with a second face; a stone youth of stark female innocence.
Just in time; for She was here.
Hooves broke the quietude, striking the ground with regal confidence. An eerie colored flame waddled back and forth, disturbing the mists and dispelling the arboreal giants that had hidden on them. Blue, green and purple; they wreathed a iron rod and bridle encased around the invisible head of the infernal mare.
As witnessed before; and once again as strong as he had never seen Her.
The campfire’s warmth paled when compared with with the mare’s hot harm breath; the flames seemed to twist into recognition. The equine body halted, letting the conflagration loose. Twisting and deforming, it took a more human mien - until it could pass as some sort of bisected fire centaur. The eruption of color and light blended and eased, allowing for the subtlety of features and expression.
The iron, scorching hot. The fiery female half, young and imposing, waving her arms across the empty air - part ecstasy, part reserved joy for being alive. Adjusting her skull jewelry, she stared around, sniffing for an awakened spark - in particular, the one to which she had bounded with.
The infernal divinity trotted, sneaking on the sitting knight and his mount. Turning his face towards them she was left speechless, as surprised as her awkward form allowed.
Weird, complicated emotions flared through her inexperienced face; she was unable to deal with what the still masked figures represented. Dark blue flames erupted, she galloped in a frenzy, she pulled ash from her hair; there was no end to the trouble she stirred, she was a vessel of change and change she would deliver! She made a move to strike Sextus, stopping only when he refused to even flinch.
Proserpina turned around the fire, sitting across her knight. Light darkened, until she became akin to a human shade. She was still confused; how could she not be, when she was staring at herself on the other side of the camp, accompanied by the most venerable Dis Pater? She frowned as her mouth twisted into a toothy grin, stained teeth and spilled juice exposed her as an eager, fresh, messy eater.
The mule scratched the ground with her hooves, out of frustration rather than a conscious effort. She stretched her lumpy hands into workable fingers, tearing her rigid mouth and swallowing half an arm. Having reworded fire into vocal cords, she spoke with a coarse and strained voice.
“I came looking for my spouse, only to find myself already here; clearly my powers are awesome - even to me.”
The violent temperature changes twisted the iron rod, making it crack on one side and melt on another. The bridle felt to the ground as the divine conflagration stood up, clumsy tentative steps towards knight and beast. She caressed the horse playing the role of Dis Pater, kissing its neck; the horse seemed pleased, enjoying her smell of pomegranate with a sloppy lick. Getting closer to the mirrored, stone Proserpine, she grabbed Sextus´ right hand - limp, as lifeless as he could will it.
“Now, are we not playing the virginal role too much? For whom is that? No, this will not do. I hate it.” A gentle cackle of her fingers; the melted iron detached from the rest of the rod, shaping itself. “We came here to renew vows; we should keep a memento of those close to us at all time. I am way past single life, and being made to confront the perspective is testing my patience.”
Sextus struggled, avoiding a scream as hot iron stabbed around his ring finger, shaping itself into a matrimonial seal. Proserpina gave him a curt nudge, enough to throw him to the ground. Distracted, she looked at her own hand as it coalesced into a similar wedding band.
“We still have a spouse to find, don’t we?” The divinity mentioned absent-minded. “Poor thing, as Underworld-bound as we are. But I do not worry. It will come to pass. We will find him - the grave always does. Nobody can resist our call, specially when one is thrice promised to us.”
The flame vanished into a meek ember; the bridle hugged an invisible head and the nightmarish mare eloped back into the mists.
Sextus laid there for the rest of the night, giving in to exhaustion. He woke up with tense muscles but unexpectedly well-rested. He collected the masks, relieved to find them intact; as he moved around the camp he instinctively flexed his fingers, expecting resistance that never came. Raising his right hand to the sky he saw no sign of the iron band - just a thin, intricate circle of ruptured capillaries and darkened skin.
He tried to put the previous night behind him; he packed his things, fed his horse and put out all the traces of the camp. Weirdness crept on him when he reached for his bundled spear; a jolt of power stirred it, his touch making the weapon come to live. His eyes sparkled gold as he could not avoid a grin; his wedding gift demanded attention and tribute. Someone had to feed the Manes.
Sextus shook his head, subduing blood-lust in favor of his peaceful duties.
Vowed to have two hearts beating as one, bound to disappoint two worlds.