Back at it again with a new story! This year the prompt fates dealt me:
Fairy Tale / Cloning / A Nihilist
Here's what I came up with:
Long ago, before the world lost its magic, the ancient Ngwevans lived a life of terrible balance on the island of Ib-Halansi, in the far reaches of the Ngwevu Sea. The small isle, eight furlongs at its widest, was home to a single village surrounded by cliffs. As such, the island folk kept themselves to themselves, and preferred it that way.
Ib-Halansi was a grey place, perpetually covered in a dreadful mist. The only plants that grew on the grizzled island emerged a silvery sage color, stunted due to the dim quality of the light. Its people were bred to speak only loud enough to be heard, keeping their emotions pitched low and even. And no matter how many flavors were added to the stew pot the taste was always the same, and could best be described as tolerable.
It was not always so. Village elders spun yarns of the days when the island was not bedeviled by mist, when lush flowers flourished, when joys and sorrows and desires ruled the lives of the Ngwevans.
But that was before the Magess, and her curse, and the squall of anguish that ended it all.
The children of Ib-Halansi were told many tales of the Magess, though more in warning than for fireside amusement. The elders detailed the Magess’ tragedies: sold by her parents into indenture, and though her master turned lover, he spurned her for another on the eve of their marriage. He did grant her freedom, and with this small mercy she crafted her revenge. For years she studied magical texts, both ancient and forbidden, before conjuring a spell from deep within her anguished heart.
Love counters hate, after joy must come pain,
To save you from heartache, none can remain.
I curse you with balance—no matter the cost,
I forbid you all joy, though pain too will be lost.
The magic she conjured burned the Magess from within, her golden eyes flaming until all that remained was a pile of ash. A great wind kicked up, swirling the ash high into the air, where it hovered before descending upon the island in a silvery fog. Some villagers claimed the Magess' final scream transformed into the rusty squawk of a raven before echoing into silence across the sea.
Into this drab world young Griselle was born. She never knew a life without the routine of rigid symmetry that ruled the island. In Ib-Halansi, for every man there must be a woman. For every high there must be a low. For every cut of meat there must be a bone. All things adhered to this parity, without fault. Such was the curse of the Magess.
The Ngwevans discovered ways to keep the curse from forcing such symmetry upon them. They subdued all instincts, refrained from emotion. No occasions were celebrated, no sorrows mourned, no uniqueness tolerated. All existence was forced into a dull middle, where it was safe. In young children, the natural feistiness was bred out until they grew to learn the Grey Way of the Ngwevans.
But Griselle was not like the other children. Her mother never had to tell her to lower her voice. Her father never had to chase her down the lane as she scampered in search of imaginary creatures. Hers was not a temperament inclined toward laughter or tears. It was as if the dreariness of the island had produced her from its very core: emotionless and sturdy, with no desire to connect with others or seek meaning. In many ways she was the perfect Ngwevan, the evolutionary pinnacle of a people that prized being average above all else.
As she approached her eleventh year, known in Ib-Halansi as the Age of Balancing, Griselle had found little in life to care about. Her parents were present, but not affectionate. Her days were tolerable, but unexciting. She did not concern herself with curses and magics, as the other children did. Instead she drew deep within herself, speaking only when necessary. She found no use for words, when every day was the same and promised to go on that way in predictable balance, forever.
And it did, until the eve of her eleventh birthday. As tradition dictated, all of Ib-Halansi gathered at the wormswood tree before midnight. It grew in the center of the village, on the spot where the Magess uttered her curse. The tree’s branches grew in symmetry, and upon them the island’s population of ravens made their home.
The Ngwevans linked hands, save Griselle, who stood alone with her back against the twisted trunk, awaiting her fate as the Hour of Balancing approached.
Soon, the chant began.
If you witness Grey Raven high in the tree,
The curse of the Magess is coming for thee
The words did not frighten Griselle, nor did they excite her.
The curse could not possibly be invoked by the likes of me, she thought. For I am not exceptional, and could never throw the island out of balance.
If she was extraordinary in any way, it was in her lack of passion.
She let her head fall back, studying the conspiracy of ravens overhead, their feathers dully black and damp with mist. She waited for the chant to end, her calm gaze on the branches above, on the sea of teeming black.
And then she saw it. A single grey raven among them!
Its golden eyes fixed upon her, and her skin flushed with heat. Even at this, she could not rouse fear, nor fascination. The entire village went silent, holding its breath as the Grey One rose into the sky, disappearing into the fog. It returned holding a single pale berry in its beak, dropping it at Griselle’s feet. As tradition demanded, she ate it, squashing the fruit on her tongue but taking no pleasure nor disgust in its blandness.
As the Ngwevans watched, Griselle’s skin was leeched of color until she looked like a dead thing, a ghoul of a girl, an absence.
With the next day’s dawn would come The Balancing, and the villagers drifted back to their dwellings, careful not to anticipate lest they unsettle their humors.
Griselle’s sleep was dreamless, as always. She woke, newly eleven and back to healthful color, but could discern no difference from the many days that came before it. She sat at the breakfast table, eating her mother’s tasteless porridge as she did every day, when an itch began to form between her shoulder blades. By the time her spoon scraped the bottom of the wooden bowl, the niggling irritation had inflated to stinging fury.
Gasping, she stumbled to her pallet, where her mother discovered a large lump on Griselle’s upper back. Every hour it doubled in size, and by the time it began to take on human form, Griselle had fainted from the pain. When it stopped growing Griselle woke, the pain vanished, and a brief sense of well-being washed over her before the usual dullness returned.
She ran to the looking glass—the going was hard, as if she were being tugged back to her pallet—to see a fully-formed copy of herself, attached to her between the shoulder blades by a thin ribbon of pinkish flesh. Griselle reached her hands behind to ensure that this cursed copy was real, and not a trick. The Griselle-like creature sobbed in distress.
The cries were so impassioned they drew neighbors to the windows. Soon the entire village knew that the Magess’ curse had caused Griselle to grow a second self—an overzealous, loud version to atone for the numb, silent original. New Griselle had no control over her roiling emotions: giggling hysterically at the rattle of the wind through the wormswood tree, gushing tears at the cry of a babe. These garish displays made Griselle pull deeper inside herself, and she refused to acknowledge her other half.
It was true that the two Griselles together achieved balance, thereby fulfilling the promise of the curse. But Ib-Halansi’s new resident also had a consequence that the curse did not intend. New Griselle, who became known as Vermille, was a sparkling example of all the village lacked. She beamed rosy-gold life into their grey world, and it became painful for others to look upon her.
As Vermille’s first year of existence drew to a close, the village gathered at the wormswood tree to discuss what was to be done. Vermille distressed all who beheld her; she roused feelings that the villagers had learned to quash. As a reflection of Vermille, Griselle was reduced to a cipher, becoming less of herself with each day.
The villagers decided that a violent action, like separation, would surely provoke the curse. They chose instead to banish Griselle and Vermille to the oubliette, a deep cavern at the edge of the island. There, Vermille would no longer tempt the village with visions of what they could not have, could not be. And balance would remain.
Griselle’s family was forbidden from joining the gathering, but the village elders came to deliver their decree. Griselle felt nothing; Vermille began to cry. Their parents wore carefully controlled expressions, and remained silent. After the elders left, Griselle tried to sleep, but Vermille would not stop whispering impassioned pleas and desperate strategies in her ear. For once, she did not ignore Vermille’s words. As soon as she gave them space in her head, they wormed their way downward, into her heart.
A terrible fear and anger kindled within Griselle. So foreign was this turmoil, she did not at first recognize the feelings for what they were. But she knew her other self would. She began to whisper back, to give in to the swelling tide of feeling. Deep in the wallow of the night, when their scheming was done, Vermille clutched her other half in an awkward sideways hug, the strip of flesh that bound them stretching painfully.
I love you, dear sister-self, she said.
Griselle was too choked with fresh, bright emotion to speak, but hugged back with all her might.
In the hour before sunrise, the girls crept to the wormswood tree, clutching a knife and bolas stolen from their father’s hunting chest. The ravens were asleep, the Grey visible where it perched above them all. Soundlessly, Vermille whipped the bolas into a frenzy, releasing them just as they threatened to careen from her control. Through the night fog they flew, wrapping around Grey Raven and knocking it earthward.
Griselle brandished the knife as they had planned, and despite Vermille’s screams of fear, reached behind herself to saw at the tether between them. Dazzling drops of crimson, shockingly colorful in the pre-dawn dim, fell to the ground near the unconscious raven.
Once the severing was complete, Griselle lurched forward and picked up Grey Raven, careful not to rouse it. They ran toward the cliffs, side by side—finally, each their own girl instead of two faces of a single coin.
With the raven tucked safely inside the bib of Griselle’s smock, the girls climbed down to the water’s edge, where the fishing vessels were kept. Griselle retrieved the smallest boat and waited for Vermille to climb in. If there was any chance of freeing Ib-Halansi from the curse, Grey Raven must be taken far away.
Quickly now, dear sister-self, into the boat! Griselle urged.
But Vermille was distracted, her smiling face glowing in the morning’s glorious golden light. She was so beautiful to look upon, Griselle’s heart nearly broke.
Griselle raised her eyes and saw the fog beginning to lift. She took a moment to allow happiness to wash over her, savoring every strange and brilliant shade of feeling. But there was no time to tarry.
Quickly now, dear sister-self, into the boat! Griselle urged.
The entire village appeared at the edge of the cliffs, and when the fog rose above their heads they let out a great cheer, as if the island’s greyness had been holding their voices hostage until that very moment.
Quickly now, dear sister-self...
Griselle was wasting her words. She climbed into the boat alone, laying Grey Raven on a woolen blanket at the prow. Vermille finally turned, but instead of coming aboard, she raised a hand in farewell. They both knew how it must be. They were two girls now, not one. And each had her own destiny.
Tell mother and father…
But thoughts of them only summoned ashen faces, and grey days. Vermille would be their inspiration, their guiding light. They needed her, as did the village. And someone needed to take Grey Raven far across the sea, farther than the curse’s magical tether could reach.
Be good to them. Show them the way.
Griselle began to paddle, the island at her back. She looked over her shoulder one last time, as a dark cloud of ravens alit from the wormswood, flying in her direction. They crossed overhead, leading her onward toward the rising sun, so bright and boldly blazing she could hardly look.
Grey Raven awoke and when Griselle held out her hand, the bird stepped onto it, climbing to rest on her shoulder. With one swift shake, its grey feathers fell away to reveal a lustrous blue-black, jewel-like in the morning light. Transformed, they headed for the horizon.
Griselle could not foresee what the future held, but she knew in her swiftly beating heart that it would be anything but dull.