My mother warned me about desert people. She and my father took a particular glee in telling stories of children being bewitched by natives, following them into the sands to their ultimate demise. Stories of rough old women luring thirst-stricken people into timeworn buildings. Stories of men with stained teeth ripping children from their beds in the middle of the night.
As an adult, I believed that these were just tales told to keep children behaved. I had visited many desert towns, barren and wind-aged, and I had never laid eyes on a sinister old woman or any gristly men with stained teeth. I had, however, heard whispers of the weed. People were wary of the plant- some believed it could kill, and others that it could cure, and others yet believed it could turn you into demons with just a taste. The plant itself grew sparse and bloomed into brilliant red stalks, almost as a warning.
While travelling, I happened upon a town that had been covered with the weed. The thick of it blew in the breeze, lapping like a crimson ocean. The sun was just setting when I had arrived and the cold wind from the desert was slowly returning. No lights illuminated the few houses, and futile knocks on the doors produced no residents.
In the center of the small town stood a church; a dim and worn beacon of the town. Time had not been kind to the monolith, the windows had been cracked and the white paint was peeling from the aged boards. It could have been a magnificent building if people had kept up with it. Candlelight shone through the windows like a holy light, lighting the path for a weary traveller.
The wind was howling, ripping itself through the few rags I had for clothing. I approached the building and knocked. After a moment, the large wooden door creaked open.
I was greeted by a fair-faced woman. She had let her long dark hair down, and it curled around her form and penetrated the folds of her impossibly white night dress. She looked as if she had stepped out of the bathing halls at White Haven, not a church in such disrepair.
Even though she seemed misplaced, her smile was warm and welcoming. Without a word, the maiden took me by the hand, and led me to the pews. After I had sat, I was presented with a cool, crisp, glass of water.
After a few peaceful moments, I realized I was not alone. The pews heaved softly in unison and I could hear a quiet grinding.
The townsfolk had consumed the weed, and the weed had consumed them. Each one I approached seemed to be in a dream-like state. Dead to the world, but not dead. Each had been taken care of, men’s beards had been carefully shaved, women's hair had been braided, and despite their bibs being stained with the red pulp from the weed, their clothes seemed relatively new and washed.
When the maiden returned, I panicked. I sat and clutched the weed, turning my attention to the ceiling. I prayed that I did not catch her attention. I could feel the stalks crushing in my sweating palms.
Oblivious to my uneven breath, she grasped the hand of an elderly woman from a few pews ahead of where I had been sitting. The women stood up slowly and the maiden lead her into the back room. After heading through the door, I stood and followed.
I entered the chamber to find bodies writhing, covered and red. Their hungry mouths had filled with the flesh of their neighbors.
In the center of the growing crimson pool sat a dark haired child upon a throne, with a wicked smile and Skret in his eyes.